When you live in a time where it seems no Hollywood film receives a green light and release unless its based on an existing property, a comic book, or is a remake of an existing film, the fact that Paranormal Activity has gone on to be one of the most attended series in horror movie history is pretty amazing. Paramount has found a way to squeeze four films out of one story shot for what it costs to buy a used Yaris, making millions and creating a Halloween season tradition that's run since 2009. When the first film hit, Oren Peli crafted something that stood out against the grim and gritty horror fare at the time, all of which drew tremendous influence from the Saw films. The basic scares derived from pounding footsteps and objects moving on their own accord along with the build up of suspense whenever the date and time stamp appeared on screen felt like both a nod to classic horror and a breath of fresh air.
Problem is that it's never been more apparent that the thin premise has been stretched out as far as it can go and has run its course. Each installment has taken the “if it's not broke, don't fix it approach”, and the series is now as every bit as formulaic as the Saw series it drove the nail in the coffin over, or any slasher series that dragged on for too many installments. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman step behind the camera again, and their follow up feels like a “Greatest Hits” that cribs the best bits of each that came before it.
This time around the story focuses on fifteen year old Alex (Kathryn Newton) who lives with her younger brother Wyatt and her parents who struggle to keep their marriage together at the seams while keeping up the appearance of normalcy. As bad luck would have it, Katie from the first three films move into the house next door with her little boy “Robbie” in tow. When Katie is rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night, Alex's family take Robbie in for a few days. Of course, as soon as the boy arrives, weird things begin to happen, odd noises wake Alex up at odd hours of the night and the little boy begins to give Alex the willies with his deadpan, cryptic messages about eminent doom he keeps delivering.
In the third installment Joost and Schulman incorporated tactics such as an oscillating fan or odd placement of certain cameras in order to liven up the proceedings. The former was used to great affect as it shifted the action on the audience, building tension as it rotated away from onscreen events. The latter worked because it gave you a character's reaction to offscreen events without revealing the source of terror. This time around, the filmmakers rely heavily on web chats to tell their story. They also combine night vision with the XBOX Kinect for a nice visual look with thousands of infrared dots blanketing the living room and offering the occasional reveal. While it's nice that they've found use for these technologies, the additions don't mask their continued murky attempt at adding to the mythology or their failure at delivering a satisfying climax. The third film fell apart when the big bad shifted from the demonic force to the reveal of an AARP Wiccan meeting, and things don't get much better here.
On the positive side, PA4 features the most likeable protagonist of any of the films. For the first half she spends much of the time with her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) as they try to suss out why Robbie's so weird and what might be behind all the freaky occurrences. Newton and Shively have a fantastic rapport together, and while Ben might be a bit of a clown, he never comes off as dickish. For unfathomable reasons, Joost and Schulman write Ben's character out of the film around the midway point,bringing him back for the final few minutes, thus killing the momentum of the film and asking Newton to carry the load by herself for too long a stretch.
Bad CGI elements come into play with the return of the maligned “demon face” from part one. The coven from part three makes a return appearance. Chandeliers crash on their own accord, and objects “disappear” into the ceiling only to crash down again. Even in doing this, everything feels smaller in scale than it had in the past, with the team spinning their wheels rather than pushing forward. It's like watching a very good bar band cover your favorite songs-competent but no substitute for the original.
Making matters worse, the last act mirrors that of the second installment, by far the weakest of the series when Katie turns up again and things devolve into pseudo slasher territory. The last five minutes also borrow so heavily from the ending of The Blair Witch Project that it feels like you could superimpose the two films on top of one another for one clear image.
In the closing seconds of the film there's the briefest of glimmers that a bigger, more encompassing story is there to tell. It offers hope that the scope will expand past Katie and her family's history with the demon. One can only hope that this film marks closure for the story so far and part five (and let's not kid ourselves, despite the critical drubbing the film will receive, there will be another installment. At a six million dollar budget, this movie recouped three quarters of its cost during midnight screenings alone) will pick up a new thread. Truth be told, I don't have high hopes of that tact being taken, and may have to tap out on the series here.