Film Review: Paranormal Activity 4

Directed By Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost
Starring Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Stephen Dunham, Brady Allen and Katie Featherston

By all odds, the Paranormal Activity movies really shouldn’t work, especially as a franchise. Rushed through production to hit that all-important annual Halloween release date, they rely on a found footage gimmick that should’ve grown old long ago, and with each new installment, there’s more and more mystical backstory unveiled to explain the origins of that pesky demonic poltergeist, threatening to steadily dilute the impact of something that was much more frightening when left to the imagination.

Yet, somehow, creator/writer/producer Oren Peli has managed to turn his found footage spookfest into modern horror’s most consistently scary franchise. Paranormal Activity 4 shows the series’ first major signs of decline, but there’s still just enough laughs and scares to make for a fun night out at the cinema, even if it’s painfully short of the creative moments of nail-biting terror that the last three excelled at.

Four years after Katie Featherston was tormented and possessed by a volatile ghostly presence, subsequently murdering her family and kidnapping her nephew Hunter, a new family becomes the target of spooky shenanigans. When a young mother and her strange young son Robbie (Brady Allen) move in across the street, fifteen year old Alex (Kathryn Newton) starts to notice paranormal weirdness start to occur around her house. With her parents brushing it off and increasingly creepy Robbie spending more time around her younger brother Wyatt, Alex and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) rig up the house’s various computers to capture webcam evidence of the ghostly goings on.

After Catfish directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost did such a wonderful job keeping the scares fresh and effective in Paranormal Activity 3, having them at the helm of another sequel seemed like great news. Sadly, the two seem to have exhausted all their great ideas in the last movie as Paranormal Activity 4 is not just light on inventive set-pieces, but strangely light on scares in general.

In the third movie, Schulman and Joost had fun pulling out all the stops and playing with the limitations of their set-in-the-’80s prequel. In an age before high-tech webcams and HD security cameras, having their main character rig a camcorder to an oscillating fan to get panning shots of a spacious living room was a fantastic idea and one that set up some amazingly effective, tense frights, and the filmmakers sprinkled in plenty of visually creative moments of shock and terror throughout. Unfortunately, there’s not really any of that ingenuity to be found here.

There’s a neat use of a Kinect as a tool to engineer scares – shut off the lights and turn on a night vision camera and you can see all the motion-detecting tracking dots that the Kinect projects, meaning plenty of opportunity to spot unseen ghostly forms wandering about. But while it’ll get a major jump or two out of you, the film overuses the idea to the point where it feels stale 30 minutes in. A haunted garage scene escalates the destructive scale of the usually low-key set-pieces, a kitchen knife zips off towards the ceiling as a character turns her back, leaving you dreading when it might drop again, and along with the usual bumps, bangs and moving furniture, there’s a fun fake-out or two that toy with your expectations and take playful jabs at the found footage genre’s more familiar shots and scares. There’s still just enough scares to ratchet up the tension and nudge things along, but the attempts to freak you out seem much fewer and farther between than the last few movies.

Paranormal Activity 4 does handily boast the series’ most likable leads so far, though, which helps keep things enjoyable. Teen actors Kathryn Newton and Matt Shively make for an endearing couple, handling that found footage brand of improvised “we’re acting like real people” acting surprisingly well. The two have a natural chemistry, leading to plenty of effective jokey banter and some genuine laughs. With the younger leads, there’s a clear attempt to latch onto the Nickelodeon/CW crowd, but the cast are likable and talented enough that it’s not likely to alienate adults and Brady Allen manages to be one of the creepiest movie kids in recent memory.

The Paranormal movie series’ greatest strengths are its cinema verité realism and the way it relies on suggestive scares, leaving pretty much everything (including what its demonic, ghostly monster actually looks like) to the imagination. It wonderfully taps into those primal fears of being home alone, hearing bumps in the night, your imagination suddenly reeling in fright, wondering what might be lurking in the dark. With that in mind, the franchise’s insistence on weaving in a convoluted mythology is probably the biggest mistake possible.

We really don’t need to know every last detail of where the ghost came from. A simple, pissed-off ghost is scary enough already, and with every new helping of backstory, the demonic poltergeist at the cold, dark heart of each movie becomes that much less frightening. The more you can understand and put a familiar label on something, the less scary it becomes, and as the series tosses in witches’ covens, pacts with the devil and possessed suburban women breaking necks like John Rambo, it strides further from the kind of spooky terror you could imagine happening in your own home and closer to the kind of stock B-movie silliness you’d laugh at on late night TV.

That’s unfortunately felt again here as the focus in Paranormal Activity 4 is predominantly on the not-so-surprising return of habitual neck-snapper Katie – the series’ least scary element. With a third act that revolves around her overworn possessed hijinks and that coven cult, the scares taper off and become repetitive (though the series’ patented jump-inspiring final shot is certainly effective). Even if you’ve been a fan of watching the mythology unfold, there’s not enough info given here to really move things along, and the twists surrounding creepy kid Robbie are nonsensical and needlessly convoluted, raising far more questions and plot holes than they should. With plenty of threads left dangling for the inevitable Halloween 2013 sequel, the plot threatens to get even deeper and sillier, and it’s hard not to wish Paramount had just ditched the mythology idea and simply stuck with a simple, unrelated ‘new family gets tormented by ghosts’ formula for its annual scarefest.

The misguided insistence on expanding on its increasingly convoluted mythology and making Katie the series’ focus loses sight of everything that made the series scary to begin with. As a result, it’s the least frightening entry in the series, but thanks to likable leads and an effective sprinkling of scares, there’s still just enough life in the Paranormal Activity franchise to make the fourth entry a fun, spooky outing for fans.

The Film:

Paranormal Activity 4 is out in cinemas now.