In the interest of full disclosure, it was explained to us prior to this screening of Paranormal Activity 4 that the sound mix and visual effects were not final, but that the film was essentially 99% finished. We do not expect the final product to deviate editorially at all from what we saw.
Paranormal Activity was a diverting, unique found footage film that served as an injection of adrenaline for a sub-genre often derided for its lack of originality and reliance on gimmickry. While the two sequels to date weren’t terrible films, they were disappointing in different respects; the second film was crassly marketed as a sequel but was, in fact, largely a prequel, and the third film simply girded along the prescribed formula without giving us the answers we so desperately wanted. Number four, however, appears to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back; a distressingly cynical entry which sees talented filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) undoing much of their well-earned favour with a piecemeal sequel lacking not only ingenuity, but even basic scares.
The very first scene in Paranormal Activity 4 is a flashback of sorts, showing series “villain” Katie (Katie Featherston) playing with young baby Hunter, who she would of course later abduct in the second film. This framing context suggests that the series’ overarching mystery will finally be moved forward in some fashion, but this thinking just lets us in for another colossal disappointment. After a title card explains that Hunter and Katie’s current whereabouts is unknown, the fourth Activity quickly becomes another tangential horror sequel, introducing us to one more forgettable family of demon fodder we just know aren’t going to fare too well against what is to come.
What’s clear from the outset is a greater reliance on exterior technology this time; Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing equipment is employed significantly throughout, with its tracking dots showing up every time the night-vision perspective shifts to the living room (because apparently these people never turn their Kinect off), and later on outlining the shape of a certain malevolent entity. However, it’s difficult to let go of the crass feeling this set-up creates; every time we see the living room at night, our immediate thought is likely “Kinect!” rather than focusing on what might be lurking around, and as such, it can’t help but feel more than a tad crass.
Alongside this, laptops are employed by various characters for their video-chat/webcam-recording applications, and while the filmmakers clearly try to lampshade the inherent contrivance of this idea by facetiously noting that some laptops might record all web-chats automatically, it becomes unconvincing when the protagonist’s mother is chopping vegetables while her laptop apparently records it, all for the sake of a relatively limp bit of foreshadowing. Similarly, there are countless moments where characters carry the camera or laptop around long beyond the point any reasonable person would; when your sibling or, moreover, yourself is in danger, you drop the camera, and you get the Hell out of dodge. It’s an easy complaint to make, but the inane use of the format here – even when compared to the last two films – does the already flaky narrative no favours.
On a basic, visceral level, though, Paranormal Activity 4 just isn’t very scary. It’s a sign something’s wrong when your film evokes more laughs than shrieks, and though like the previous films, Activity 4 is heavy on build-up, the jump scare quotient reaches an all-time high, having long since become predictable and obvious. When someone is dragged from their bed for the fourth time, the format simply feels exhausted. By this point, all there’s left to glean from what we’re given is a few chuckles; if you can’t see the telegraphed jumps coming a mile away, you simply aren’t paying enough attention. Some horror references later on do admittedly raise the odd smirk – chiefly The Shining and The Exorcist – but the former is especially dragged out past any reasonable degree of tact and feels too overt.
Only in the concluding minutes of act three is any attempt made to return to the iconography of the series, derivative as the shadowy, black-haired girl has become. There’s a lot of Katie standing around and some occasionally brutal stunt-work yet the horrendously lazy final moments mostly provoke the feeling that this tired series has more than had its day, as even its filmmakers are getting bored. So dull has Paranormal Activity become by this point that an infusion of even garden variety gore might have actually elevated the terror somewhat.
With lame product placement, predictable jump scares, and an abject failure to provide answers to any of the series’ nagging questions, it’s clear that the Activity has become too normal for all but the die-hards.
This article was first posted on October 5, 2012