We’ve hit the fourth chapter in the Paranormal Activity franchise, and by now no one should have any illusions about what it’s selling. These aren’t movies so much as glorified haunted house rides, armed with raw stimulus response and setting each new creep-fest in a comfy home that we ourselves might return to after the screening. How well it works this time depends on whether you still get a kick out of that basic formula. Paranormal Activity 4 doesn’t advance the story much – one of its flaws – and falls into the trap of false alarms too early and too often. But the foundations of the series remain intact, and if you just want a few sharp jolts in a darkened theater, it definitely doesn’t wear out its welcome.
When we last left things in Part 2, the demon-possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) killed her boyfriend, sister and brother-in-law, then made off with her infant nephew. Part 3 went back to her childhood, thus delaying the inevitable question of where the hell she went with him. Apparently, it’s a high-end suburb in Nevada, where the freakiness starts up again in late 2011. Alex, the teenage girl across the street (Kathryn Newton) picks up on it first , noting the weird little kid who seems to be alone all the time. When his mother suffers a mysterious trip to the hospital, he comes over for an extended stay with the girl’s little brother… and we’re off on another round of spot-the-floater.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who helmed Part 3) establish a plausible dynamic for the threatened family, which puts them on firm footing for what follows. The parents are fighting and their marriage may be in trouble… which means they’re too distracted to notice what’s going on. Alex displays brains and guts, making her a suitably plucky protagonist, and her dippy would-be boyfriend (Matt Shively ) knows enough about computers to help her set up the ubiquitous remote cameras around the house. We buy their dynamic and we care about their safety… the only things needed to make the jolts work.
Paranormal Activity 4 also finds new and clever technical tools to lend itself some distinction. Joost and Schulman hit upon some brilliant visual conceits that we haven’t seen before: notably an Xbox Kinect that floods the living room with IR dots and video chats between the two teens that conveniently obscures anything sneaking up behind them. That canvas lets them hit us with a steady stream of boo-gotchas, building up to another shocking finale and another promise of more to come.
On that level, the film works just fine. We jump at the right points, we snicker at the clever presentation and we leave with our hearts pumping just a little bit faster. As a story, it’s much less successful. We don’t learn much new about the overall mythology, and the script leaves some wide-open questions that I fear won’t be answered when Part Five rolls around next Halloween. The climax also hinges on some questionable motivations from our heroine; some might buy it, but I couldn’t and it soured the otherwise agreeable shrieks produced in the last two or three minutes.
That’s par for the course for this franchise, however, and complaining about it really misses the point. The novelty of the first film left us a long time ago, but the cash cow in its place remains far more respectable than it has any right to. Unlike the Saw series (or Friday the 13th or any other quickie horror franchise you could name), the prospect of nine or ten of these films doesn’t fill us with despair, and the story actually might be moving towards an interesting end game. We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but Paranormal Activity 4 provides its share of scares in the interim. It can’t rank among the best in the series, but those who know what to expect won’t mind that one bit.