Written by: Christopher Landon (screenplay), Chad Feehan (story)
Directed by: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Starring: Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton and Matt Shively
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
All the activity has led to this.
For the past couple of years, the Paranormal Activity sequels have arrived like clockwork, and with part four, you might expect it to start feeling like it. Itís at this point the point that the franchise can settle in and maybe go through the motions a bit, particularly since itís fair to say itís mostly built on basic haunted house and parlor tricks. Paranormal Activity 4 manages to stop short of that; while it canít claim to be anything but more of the same, itís still careful to respect the mythology thatís budded over the past two installments. However, if thereís an overarching complaint about this one, itís that it doesnít quite allow this mythology to blossom just yet. Even though itís the first full-on sequel in the franchise and finally sets out to follow up on the cliffhanger ending of the second film, it hardly advances the story.
Picking up five years later (in 2011), the film reveals that Katie (Katie Featherston) and her nephew, Hunter, have disappeared without a trace until they re-emerge in Nevada and move across the street from a family with two kids. One of them is teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton), who has a convenient fondness for recording just about everything; one day, Katie is mysteriously carried away in an ambulance, leaving Hunter (Brady Allen)--now going by the name Robbie--alone until Alexís parents take him in. Shortly after Robbieís arrival, weird stuff begins to happen, and Alex especially begins to notice that her little brother, Wyatt, begins to display erratic behavior.
In short, this is arguably the most Paranormal Activity movie so far, as just about everything from the previous entries makes it in: creepy kids, loud noises, witchcraft, demons, people being dragged from beds, sinister imaginary friends, and even a plot twist or two. You might expect that the latter to illuminate a few things about the overall mythology, but, if anything, it only muddies the water by raising more questions, thus necessitating the need for another sequel. Despite the marketingís insistence that ďall the activity has led to this,Ē I think we all know that itís led to this and however many more sequels the market will bear. If itís answers you seek, youíll likely be turned away disappointed, as the film stays a bit mystifying right up until its last shot*.
But if youíre here for Paranormal Activity 4, youíre likely also sticking around because these movies have given you the willies and you expect it do so again, and it should. Paranormal Activity 3 directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schuman also stuck around for this one and once again show their expertise in meticulously crafting scares. While I canít confirm without revisiting the first three, it seems like part four is initially the slowest burn in terms of fake-outs and false scares, but even those are startling (though I had to chuckle that it took four movies for this series to finally succumb to the obligatory cat jump).
When the proper paranormal scares arrive, they do so in full force, and this one might have some of the best quick jumpers yet, while other sequences are intricately plotted, with one of the filmís best gags being set up a good while before it pays off with its big jolt. This filmís centerpiece wrinkle (besides the Skype setup that feels perfunctory in the wake of V/H/S) is employing an X-Box Kinect, which sounds ridiculous but works out far better than perhaps it should; apparently, the device casts an invisible web of sensors that can only be seen via infrared, so this camera angle provides a unique visual that allows for some inventively creepy stuff. Part 4 also makes a successful leap to the IMAX format; while itís easy to assume the film's aesthetic doesnít lend itself to being blown up to such a scale, the directorsí ability to scatter subtle, spooky stuff all throughout the frame unexpectedly benefits from it.
Even though the various scares--some of which are plotted with a Rube Goldberg, Final Destination sense of elaboration--feel like more of a centerpiece now than ever before, they donít completely come at the expense of the stories and the characters. At times, you can sort of see the cracks beginning to show in the foundation since certain elements (such as the method used to obtain multiple camera angles) are more contrived and convoluted than ever before, but the film does its best to address these concerns. Sometimes, it feels like the most teen-friendly installment; while none of these films would be considered a ďhard R,Ē theyíve veered towards adult protagonists. Paranormal Activity 4 is what part 2 would have felt like had it completely pushed the parents into the background in favor of the teenage daughter.
Alexís parents are vaguely around and going through marital friction, which would be a neat detail if the script did anything with it. Instead, itís just window dressing for a film that mostly follows Alex, and Newton fantastically carries the film despite her young age. Continuing the franchiseís tendency to depict vulnerable but tough females, Alex is a great character and not just a tour guide who leads us through a cinematic haunted house. Instead, the filmís most nail-biting and harrowing moment comes when she finds herself in peril because sheís earned a necessary amount of empathy. Also in typical Paranormal Activity fashion, sheís saddled with a dipshit boyfriend (Matt Shively), who is kind of like Micah but more dipshitty in his insistence that all the scary stuff happening to his girlfriend seems to be pretty cool. The real revelation of the film is Allen as Robbie; if the reference point for part 3 was Poltergeist, then itís The Omen for part 4. Robbie isnít as overtly sinister as Damien; instead, heís just naturally odd and eerily prescient. Not only does this kid look creepy--he acts it too and absolutely crushes his more ominous dialogue without being too obvious about it. Itís almost easy to chuckle at some of the stuff he says until you realize how sinister it is.
Katieís back, too, and she receives much more screen-time here than in the previous film (which goes without saying). Sheís still mostly operating in the background though, which is kind of fascinating; itís not too often that you see a horror franchise keep its lead actress around, period, much less sort of play havoc with her role. Whereas she was once the protagonist, sheís been subsequently pushed aside to the point of becoming an antagonist now that sheís possessed and doing the bidding of a still-mysterious force. You donít really need to look much further than its treatment of this character to see how unique and inventive this franchise has been. Sure, part 4 is kind of taking the page out of some of the later Saw sequelsí playbook by acting as a bit of a stopgap, but itís still an entertaining procession of frights that doles out just enough in the way of mythology building without giving up the ghost. Itíll eventually have to do that, of course, but Iím perfectly fine with being strung along if the franchise can continue to churn out films that are suspenseful, intense, and intriguing like this one. Buy it!
*A post-credits sequence all but confirms that more is on the way, and it might even give an idea of the literal direction the franchise is headed.
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