Title: Paranormal Activity 4
Directed By: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Brady Allen, Katie Featherston
The sun goes down, everyone goes to bed, that low rumble kicks in and the demon comes out to play. The first “Paranormal Activity” was entirely new territory. In the second, the plot thickened and scares still felt fresh. By the time we hit the third, we were well aware of what was coming, but quality character development kept us firmly invested. While “Paranormal Activity 4” does achieve a degree of success, franchise quality is clearly starting to crack and give way to the gimmick.
New town, new family. In round four, the “Paranormal Activity” franchise ditches California for Nevada and puts the focus on Alex (Kathryn Newton), her parents, little brother Wyatt and boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively). They’re a loving family, living in a beautiful home in a quaint suburban neighborhood – minus the weird little boy that lives across the street, Robbie (Brady Allen). When Robbie’s mother is rushed to the hospital, Alex’s parents are kind enough to take him in for a few nights. Cue the traditional “Paranormal Activity” “Night #” labels.
Initially, the idea of having another “Paranormal Activity” without Katie and Kristi at the core was a little disconcerting, but Alex is sweet, charming and believable enough to win you over in minutes, and the same goes for Ben and her family. After quickly reminding viewers of the horrors of 2006 and that Katie is still at large, the film cuts to Alex’s point of view, offering a look at the new family dynamic. Thanks to a well-established norm, Robbie’s arrival is as jarring for the audience as it is for Alex. The concept of the creepy kid next door letting the demon in is both eerie and, thanks to Ben’s commentary, quite amusing, but it does slowly fizzle out.
There’s enough innovation to keep the traditional franchise format entertaining for a bit, but when the urge comes to check your watch and you realize only an hour’s gone by, you can’t help but to realize that maybe enough is enough. The scares aren’t bad, but unlike the previous three films, they’re far less memorable, making the film feel more like a big blob of bumps in the night rather than a carefully calculated piece, with each scare upping the stakes. No need to spoil the bigger, better scares, but otherwise, it’s mainly the usual middle of the night banging, cat induced jump scares, Robbie popping up out of nowhere and the overuse of a new element, Kinect tracking dots, an Xbox technology that tracks your body’s movements, letting someone interact with the game console sans control. Or, in the case of “Paranormal Activity 4,” it lets someone catch paranormal entities in the act, when they rustle the dots projected throughout the room.
In addition to a looser plot structure, “Paranormal Activity 4” also has a tougher time establishing the geography of the house and an impossible time validating the found footage aspect. Alex really has no reason to be recording her life. Filming her brother’s soccer game is one thing, but why continue recording at home? Ben rigging all the laptops in the house to record 24/7 is ridiculous but believable enough, but even that loses its footing. There’s more than enough evidence of Robbie’s antics on those computers yet after all the trouble of setting it up, they’re only using it to recall the most harmless events. Wow, there’s a triangle symbol drawn in the sandbox! Forget the fact that Alex has footage of herself hovering in her sleep. There’s also quite a few instances where it’s tough to tell whether a little boy is Robbie or Wyatt as well as times when you’re not sure of the room you’re in.
But even with all of it’s shortcomings, it’s hard to dismiss “Paranormal Activity 4” as a franchise fan. It isn’t as clever when it comes to weaving past narratives into the new one, but for someone who’s been into the films since day one, there’s more than enough of the “Paranormal Activity” universe left intact to make you want to be there. Now the question is whether or not you want more. Fears are sky high that an additional installment will lead to inevitable franchise deterioration, but “Paranormal Activity 4” has such a horrifying and enthralling, albeit manically assembled, grand finale, it’ll at least leave fans curious about what happens next.