Back in 2009, Screen Rant’s Kofi Outlaw caught a preview showing of the indie-produced found-footage film Paranormal Activity – during director Oren Peli’s campaign to have viewers “demand” film screenings in their area. Positive word of mouth eventually carried the film into a wide release and on to $193 million dollars (from a $15,000 budget). Since that time, the Paranormal Activity sequels have become standard Halloween season programming at the box office and with low-cost productions and massive ticket revenue, the films now rank as some of the most profitable movies ever made.
Now the producers are back with Paranormal Activity 4, re-teaming with their Paranormal Activity 3 directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish). Despite some memorable scares, Paranormal Activity 3 was criticized for the way it handled the larger (albeit thin) franchise “story.” Can Joost and Schulman find a better balance this round – a film that delivers both creative scares and advances the Paranormal Activity mythos?
There’s no doubt that the filmmakers faced a tough challenge, given the series’ thin premise but nearly every element of the franchise has been watered down in part 4. The movie delivers a number of tense moments but only a few of them pay off with memorable scares. Additionally, the story, which takes place years after the events of Paranormal Activity 1 and 2, further muddles the larger franchise mythos (creating significantly more questions than answers) and, like plenty of found footage films before it, fails to deliver a fulfilling conclusion. Some viewers will defend the film for being satisfyingly spooky but, compared to the prior entries, Paranormal Activity 4 is by far the least compelling.
Ever since the original Paranormal Activity, the overarching series storyline has primarily been exploring events that led-up to the first film, jumping around in time, but number 4 finally moves the larger plot forward. Five years after Katie ruthlessly killed her boyfriend, sister, and brother-in-law as well as kidnapped her nephew, the demon-possessed woman has stopped running from the law and settled in suburban, Henderson, NV. However, despite headlining the cast, Katie is little more than a supporting character and the story once again centers on a clueless victim, Alex (Kathryn Newton), who attempts to make sense of spooky incidents in her home. Alex is a typical teenage girl, Skyping with her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) and playing table tennis on Xbox 360 Kinect – ignorant to the fact her new neighbors are a demon-possessed murderer and a troubled child. As the unexplained and dangerous happenings escalate, Alex comes face to face with the horrors of Paranormal Activity.
As a production concept, Paranormal Activity 4 has a lot of smart components: Alex is a welcome change of pace from the camera-obsessed young adult husbands/boyfriends in prior entries and the dynamic between the character and her “boyfriend” offer a good mix of lighthearted scenes to offset all the creepy ones. In addition, an explanation for all the cameras is smart enough; though, for viewers who have trouble suspending disbelief, the film still presents plenty of “why would you film that?” moments.
Each camera, like in parts 1-3, is built with specific production “tricks” in mind (ex. the living room is enhanced by Microsoft Kinect’s infrared laser grid). Unfortunately, none of them are nearly as entertaining as the setups that came before. For the most part, the Kinect sequences (which are essentially this installment’s “fan cam”) are a missed opportunity and, looking at the way the gimmick is used throughout the film, offers little payoff for the amount of time spent squinting through night vision shots. It’s a problem that leaks into the larger film experience – as Paranormal Activty 4 is the most meandering entry in the franchise. The pacing is stunted, especially in the final act, and the ratio of time spent in tense setups versus onscreen paranormal hijinks has noticeably lessened – resulting in scenes that are less rewarding and ultimately deliver fewer memorable payoffs.
Mythology buffs who have been hoping for a competent extension of the Paranormal Activity series story will be equally underwhelmed. As mentioned, the film finally advances the larger narrative five years into the future but, surprisingly, creates more franchise plot holes than it addresses as well as significantly convolutes the “Toby” demon lore all while riffing on Paranormal Activity 3 plot points – without adding anything fresh to the mix. Avoiding specific spoilers, it’s fair to say that Paranormal Activity 4 entirely side-steps primary questions that audiences have been asking for years, following the events of Paranormal Activity 1, 2, and 3, in service of predictable twists and a bungled ”bigger is scarier” approach in the last act.
In addition to normal screenings, Paranormal Activity 4 is playing in IMAX certified theaters but there’s absolutely no benefit in paying the premium charge. The confined in-house found footage format isn’t improved by a larger screen or louder sound and it’s hard to find any reason for Paramount’s choice to release in IMAX - aside from inflating ticket prices for a high profile film.
Whether you attend the Paranormal Activity movies for the scares or the story, part 4 is a step down for both audiences. The plot raises plenty of questions that fans will debate in the coming weeks but only because the film is extremely vague on what audiences are actually seeing minute to minute – not because Joost and Schulman create fresh directions or interesting mysteries in this installment (they don’t). That said, creative setups have long-been the franchise linchpin; unfortunately, the spooky setups aren’t particularly original this round either, rehashing familiar found footage ideas with minor twists that rarely deliver big scares. There’s little doubt we’ll see a Paranormal Activity 5 but, given the measly $14.15 million that has been spent to produce four entries in the $576 million (and counting) global franchise, it’s time for Paramount to reinvest some of that money in filmmakers who can deliver a better return on audience investment – i.e. a more satisfying set of scary movie experiences.
Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.