Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
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Ever since I saw the original film at its very first public screening, I’ve been an unabashed Paranormal Activity fan. So have the majority of the Dread Central staff. We haven’t hid the fact that our love of this franchise runs deep and have even been accused of being shills for Paramount by narrow-minded internet trolls (who hate the series yet religiously watch each installment just for the sake of trashing it). But the continued popularity of Oren Peli’s brainchild exists for a damn good reason: These movies just work.
I’ve been skeptical about each sequel; yet, somehow the makers keep winning me over. I love the atmosphere and sound design. I love obsessively scanning the frame for signs of movement. I love how they’ve built a spooky mythology involving demons and witch covens. And I love how this series has popularized slow-burn horror among mainstream audiences. But there’s no denying its limited formula, and despite constantly throwing in new and clever gags, there’s an inescapable sense that this vehicle will eventually run out of gas. And while Paranormal Activity 4 is still a perfectly enjoyable romp through the never-ending found footage craze, it is perhaps no surprise that it shows the series’ first signs of wear.
After two successive prequels, Paranormal Activity 4 is the first film to shift the action entirely forward. The ending of the second film saw demon-possessed Katie massacre her entire family before disappearing with baby nephew Hunter, and we pick up several years later with unrelated teenager Alex and her all-American family in small town Nevada. Not long after the new neighbors arrive in the house across the street, the family member become targets of supernatural forces that appear to revolve around the new creepy little boy on the block. Wanna take a wild guess who lives across the street?
It’s great to have director Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who hit a home run with PA3) back behind the camera, and they remain great stalwarts of the series. The pacing is lean, the performances are natural, and there are some classic spine-tingling moments peppered in. Despite this installment being largely teen-centric, the banter between Alex and her boyfriend as they play junior detectives is consistently funny and entertaining throughout. That fact that these characters are so camera-happy is a bit of a stretch (in the same way we’re asked to believe every member of Katie’s family happened to film all this chaos), but it’s easy to kick back and go with the flow.
But while it all works just fine, nothing feels particularly fresh this time around. Once again, we’re in another suburban house with multiple cameras on a new family as things go bump in the night. Our protagonists tape themselves (this time with the aid of laptop cams) and review the footage the next morning. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. There are some fun gags involving an Xbox Kinect and disappearing implements (along with a not-very-subtle nod to The Shining) that do a good job screwing with the audience’s expectations, but nothing comes remotely close to the inventiveness of the first three – particularly the oscillating fan camera from the last film.
The slogan “All the activity has led to this” is a bit misleading since there are no major revelations and even more questions remain when the credits roll. As it stands, Paranormal Activity 4 doesn’t feel like a culmination of anything and exists more as a bridge to the next film. It’s still a fun and well-made spook fest with a suitably freaky finale, and the audience was with it every step of the way. It just would’ve been nice to have more forward momentum after everything we’ve been through.
By now the series has reached Friday the 13th levels in that you know exactly what you’re gonna get, and in that respect it delivers. But the impact has been lessened by sticking this close to formula. When Paranormal Activity 5 hits this time next year (which is practically a given), the producers would be wise to break out of their comfort zone and send this thing out strong, rather than continually drag it out like every other disgraced horror franchise. Part of winning is knowing when to quit.
3 out of 5