The Paranormal Activity series has been highly divisive since the beginning. Singlehandedly responsible for the rise and recent death of the found footage genre, it has been praised by critics for its suspenseful sensory assault, and decried by audiences for its lack of scares. Since these films were so easy to make on such a small budget and proved they had an audience, Hollywood latched and started producing yearly sequels like their wallets depended on it.
Neither of the two sequels thus far have lived up to the original in terms of pure suspense and terror, and neither left audiences in as large of a fervor as the first did. The plot stringing the series along has also been progressing at a snail’s pace, making sure to only reveal new information right as all of the demon murder happens so that suckers will keep coming back for more. It’s a shameless shtick that works beautifully.
But this is the fourth film, and even though a dead horse tells no tales, the newest entry in the series finds its footing on a bigger focus on the plot than genuine chills. Despite bringing a minimal amount of freshness to the series, Paranormal Activity 4 benefits from a tighter focus on story and a few genuinely bone-tingling scenes.
Since pretty much everybody involved with Katie and Micah are dead at the hands of a vengeful demon, the fourth film focuses on a family living in suburban Nevada instead. Teenage Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) are busy worrying about their parents’ feuding when they meet their new neighbor Robbie (Brady Allen), a young boy whose mother has been taken to the hospital for an extended time. Alex’s family decide to take him in as a favor, but strange things begin happening as soon as Robbie moves in, and the whole family is at risk of being flung about like ragdolls.
Alex takes on protagonist duties, and Kathryn Newton carries her role pretty well for someone so young. Her curiosity at finding out more about Robbie is easy to understand, and she doesn’t make quite as many bad decisions as past (and now deceased) characters have. She still acts plenty stupid at parts (perhaps this closet needs to be investigated slowly and on my own?), but just a tad less so.
She is assisted in her search for the truth by her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), who brings much of the comic relief. He’s also the tech expert who helps her set up every laptop in the house to be continuously recording, ensuring that cameras on tripods will never be used again. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost should be commended for being able to stick with the time periods pretty accurately. Just as they used VHS cameras in Paranormal Activity 3, they make fantastic use of laptop cameras, cell phones and even a Kinect gaming device to bring the scares.
Although new mediums are used to good effect at times, this installment has the cheapest scares yet in the series. Schulman and Joost dumb down the terror factor immensely and leave the audience feeling cheated. The theater shrieked and howled as Alex jumped onto her bed to Skype Ben, but it was an insult to those of us who remembered just how clever the original was. In some ways, Paranormal Activity 4 pays homage to the less worthy imitators its predecessors helped create.
However, whenever it tries to rise above its peers, the results can be quite successful. For every worthless jump scare, there is at least one genuinely frightening moment that helps make up for it. The use of the Kinect is particularly clever, and quite effective most of the time, especially when there are ghosts and demons afoot. Some of the scarier moments are provided by the children involved. Both Robbie and Wyatt are extremely creepy, and they don’t have to do much to ratchet up the scare factor.
What’s most commendable about Paranormal Activity 4 is that it moves the story along at a brisker pace than previous iterations have. Hunter, who has been missing since Paranormal Activity 2, plays a huge part in the films, but it would spoil the fun to say anything else. Fans who remember the final scenes from the last film will also have plenty to look forward to here, as those behind the hauntings make a few more creepy appearances.
One of the most rewarding experiences derived from the first outing of the series was the unified audience experience. To this day, the midnight showing for Paranormal Activity has been the best theater viewing I’ve ever had. Fans of the series help to make each film fun enough to live through their flaws, and that’s no exception here. These films always provide uniquely fun times in the theaters, something that not many other horror series have been able to accomplish.
With that being said, it goes without saying that Paranormal Activity 4 is strictly for die hard fans of the series. If you’ve never experienced a previous installment or weren’t terrified before, then this will not change your opinion. If anything, everyone but the most devoted fans will be disillusioned by this sequel.
To be blunt, this isn’t a perfect film. It’s definitely not a perfect sequel either, but it hints at something better to come. Directors Schulman and Joost have managed to evolve the series with the times, while also insulting the audience like never before. It’s a contradictory experience, being hit in the face with dumbed down scares while also being terrified by the excellent climax.
Paranormal Activity 4 adds just enough to the franchise to keep fans from completely dismissing it, hinting at a bigger and better sequel to (hopefully) wrap things up before the series overstays its generous welcome.