Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Disclaimer: This review is based solely upon on a work-in-progress print of the film shown at Fantastic Fest. As a result a number of things could change in time for its October 19th theatrical release.
Paranormal Activity 3 was a triumph after the severely disjointed second installment with newcomers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman deviating from a standard setup with sight gags in favor of moving cameras, ghostly figures, and plenty of instances of creepy kids talking to someone (or something) off camera. Add in a clever backstory involving a mysterious cult, and you have a huge leap forward for a series that was never intended to go past one film. After taking the events back to the Eighties and focusing on the childhood of Katie and her sister, Kristi, in what direction can Joost and Schulman take the franchise?
Taking place five years after the events surrounding Katie (as an adult) and Micah, Paranormal Activity 4 sees the series uprooted and moved to Henderson, Nevada. A new family comprised of a two parents, their teenage daughter, Alex, and her younger brother, Wyatt, take in their young and seemingly weird next-door neighbor Robbie after his mother has an accident. Robbie is an odd kid with a tendency to appear at their house at random times and say sinister-sounding things. Slowly but surely the “activity” begins, and Robbie appears to be at the center of it.
Like its immediate predecessor, Paranormal Activity 4 seeks to distinguish itself from the first two films by employing a variety of different methods of showing the titular activity in ways that break the traditional found footage mold. Strategically placed webcams, Skype chats, and even Xbox Kinect infrared projection laser dots all factor into a number of incredibly clever, albeit erratically spaced, scares that utilize multiple perspectives to convey the activity. By this point in the series, however, found footage has become little more than a unique way of presenting the action unfold. It’s no longer “found” footage; it’s simply a narrative device. This allows Joost and Schulman to forget about logic and have fun with the scares, something that can, ostensibly, please both the die-hard fans and newcomers to the series.
Unfortunately, in the version screened at Fantastic Fest, they don’t. This cut of Paranormal Activity 4 is exceptionally slow with very little happening beyond Robbie frightening the family as he makes cryptic threats and sneaks around the house late at night. This part of the film is relegated to the contrived shadows, moving doors, and ominous footsteps that move about the house; it works in some instances, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before from this series. Joost and Schulman do deserve credit for their use of a Kinect and its laser technology as a scare, but after the first few times it just becomes played out as another static camera filled with green dots. Nothing is fully realized with numerous opportunities for good scares being wasted.
Instead, the film focuses on the “creepy kid” motif and does so with great success. Robbie clearly has a sinister agenda, hinting at horrifying things to come in an almost deadpan manner that’s exceedingly creepy. It’s here we see the significant differences between Paranormal Activity 3 and 4 as Joost and Schulman opt for less frequent scares in favor of building a slowly creeping sense of dread throughout. By this point in the franchise, and with their second attempt at continuing the series, Joost and Schulman have managed to make it so nearly every scene will have you sitting on the edge of your seat, scanning the screen as you wait for the inevitable paranormal activity.
The story is thin and unpolished and opts not to delve deeper into the cult and its need for Hunter that was developed in Paranormal Activity 3. More questions are raised than answered, and while they can be dismissed as unimportant, those with an invested interest in the series will find themselves wondering, “Why?” By the fourth film the audience clearly wants more development in terms of Toby and what happened to Katie since Hunter’s abduction, and while it’s hinted at, it’s all so incredibly thin and vague that it’s unsatisfying.
It’s frustrating to think that Joost and Schulman are the same filmmakers responsible for developing a genuinely interesting story out of a concept that doesn’t leave much room for creativity. It’s admirable that they sought to take it in a slightly different direction, and while it worked for some of the film, there was simply too much that didn’t work. As it stands, this cut signifies that it may be time to shut the series down with a fifth and final film to wrap up all the loose ends and questions created by a weak and plot-hole-ridden fourth installment.
2 out of 5