Paranormal Activity 4 Review
Byon Oct 1, 2012
After Paranormal Activity 3, I was convinced that the runaway found-footage series had reached a mostly satisfying conclusion as a trilogy and should probably quit while it was ahead.
Admittedly, part of my insistence that the filmmakers stop is because these movies work incredibly well on me, and I wasn’t sure if I could survive another one and still be able to sleep through the night without leaving all of the lights on in my apartment. But after seeing a work print of Paranormal Activity 4 at the 2012 Fantastic Fest I’m even firmer in my resolve that the series stop, because as visceral a triumph as the latest installment is, it’s a logical disaster, which seemed inevitable for franchise that is trying to create a continuous mythology while making things up as it goes along.
Finally taking place after the events in all of the other films, Paranormal 4 opens in 2011, with the demonically-possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) and her nephew Hunter’s whereabouts “unknown.” In a Nevada suburb, teenager Alice (Kathryn Newton) spends her days filming, well, everything for no discernible reason, while her parents neglect her and her younger brother Wyatt in lieu of bickering with one another. But after her mom inexplicably agrees to take care of Robbie (Brady Allen), the weird kid across the street, when his mother falls ill, Alice enlists her boyfriend Alex (Matt Shively) to set up webcams to monitor the weird things that start happening around the house.
Given the cobbled-together content of previous Paranormal films – much of what was in the trailers didn’t make the final film, and vice versa – it seems natural to armchair quarterback what Paramount Pictures freely admit was a work in progress. And the things that need the most help structurally, or perhaps logically, are details that keep its featherweight conceit afloat: why the hell is Alice filming literally all of the time, even before weird stuff starts happening? And why after it actually starts does neither she nor Alex literally ever bother to check the footage that would vindicate her increasing fear and paranoia?
The larger issue with the film – and in fact the one that really hamstrings its effectiveness – is the general laziness or incoherence with which the filmmakers have created Alice’s family. There’s a certain kind of conspicuous brilliance to trotting out dusty horror metaphors like families ripped apart by dysfunction – a goofy Shining reference ranks among the film’s best gags – but dad’s a distracted workaholic, mom’s fights with dad seem largely driven by her complete inability to listen to anyone else, and Alice and Wyatt are consistently lacking supervision or guidance that might even remotely make their behavior more dramatically interesting. And as her would-be tech nerd and confidante, Alex is evidently incapable of asking smart or sensitive questions, before disappearing for the vast majority of the film.
Worse is Paranormal 4’s willful ignorance of peripheral vision, which is not just a cheap way to get jump scares but one of the worst and laziest creative decisions horror filmmakers can use. At one point Alice is running across the street, and she literally doesn’t see a car because the camera doesn’t film it; it’s possible in the VHS era that people were so keyed into a viewfinder that they didn’t notice the world around them, but by all accounts she’s recording her experiences on an iPhone.
That said, the escalation of the scares is pretty terrific, and all other things being equal, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Paranormal 3, Catfish) create some truly inventive scenarios that, remarkably, don’t just rely on the same stillness-bang payoff that has become the series boilerplate formula. Additionally, there’s something happening almost all of the time, so there are no repetitive, slow-burn sequences such as in Part 2; instead, even when they’re occasionally underwhelming, the scares create a consistent momentum that builds to a pretty satisfying climax rather than getting scared piecemeal or sporadically before the shit hits the fan.
Unfortunately, there are no great, knockout set pieces like there were in Part 3 (think the virtuoso furniture drop, etc.), and collectively, the logic of this film feel stitched together without much consideration for a deeper mythology, much less common sense. If Katie made off with Hunter at the end of the second film, why would she be searching for him in the fourth? And if her own “son” isn’t Hunter in disguise, then who the hell is Robbie, her companion/ accomplice/ protege?
It feels necessary to reiterate how well the Paranormal movies work on me, if only to underscore the point that, for the most part, this fourth film is as creepy and intense as its predecessors – even in supposedly unfinished form. But for the sake of the series’ other long-term fans, let’s hope that between now and when it gets released nationally, the filmmakers find a way to answer a few of the questions that this cut poses, and more importantly, resolves some of the issues it leaves open-ended. Because the series isn’t just a cash-cow but in a real way the top-of-the-line brand for found-footage horror in Hollywood, and for it to stay that way the makers need to make sure Paranormal Activity 4 isn’t the cinematic equivalent of New Coke but the same classic formula that’s been satisfying audiences for years.