Directed By: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Paranormal Activity 4 had a lot of instant hurdles it had to overcome. For one when you are a part of a horror franchise you always run the risk of becoming stale. Add to it the fact that it is a found footage horror franchise and the inherit difficulty is even greater. Personally I have been able to find a lot of enjoyment with the Paranormal Activity films, except for the second installment which was rather lacking. I had low expectations for the third, but it won me over as it brought a lot of new and interesting ideas to the found footage genre. Paranormal Activity 4 does attempt to build upon its predecessors with some clever techniques to wretched up the scares. However, those techniques falter in their execution as much of the film relies too heavily on what came before.
The premise for this franchise has been simple and it remains so here. The story centers around a stereotypical suburban family that is dealing with the normal difficulties you would expect. Mom and dad are fighting and in their attempt to hide it they just end up making it worse for the kids. The center of the story is Alex (Kathryn Newton), who is the spitting image of an everyday American teenager. Much of her day is spent Skyping with her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) about the normal trials and tribulations of teenage life. In found footage films there is always that lingering fundamental question that must be answered, “Why are you filming?”. The use of Skype actually seemed like a smart way to answer that question. For one it is based in reality and not all the farfetched, but when they attempt to further the overall scope it’s not handled all that gracefully. The story follows the normal formula. Strange things start happening and order to better understand the strange occurrences video cameras are setup to capture what is going on. There is a little bit of a different wrinkle this time around as the strange occurrences appear to be tied to the bizarre family next door, and their young child Robbie who is especially creepy.
On a positive note they handled the Robbie character fairly well. What could have been an overblown Omen knock off was something a lot more subtle. His sinister ambiance was established mostly through mystery and silence. In a way he felt like the only real character in the movie. This franchise has never been known for creating quality characters, and that continues here. It’s basically a stringing together of events with a thin plotline that ends with a sloppy conclusion. Most of the time you are hoping the characters will get out of the way and not ruin the fun. The formula works when the events are legitimately scary and interesting, but when they aren’t you end up just being bored. To this films credit it is fantastic at establishing an atmosphere that has you waiting to jump. They are patient with their scares causing you to simmer in anticipation to what could possibly happen. When something finally did occur it was rather lackluster. Sure we had some tremendous set ups. We just weren’t given suitable punch lines. For example their use of the Xbox Connect is without a doubt the most unnerving form of product placement in film, but it was a lot of potential that was not completely ceased. I applaud the film for requiring us to have patience and not being constantly in our face, but when you require patience you must reward it. Otherwise you will disenfranchise your audience. There were a few shining moments, like a sequence in a car garage that should go down as one of the best in the franchise, that were too few and far between. It is rather disheartening that it had so much unused opportunity. Many of the scares felt recycled and derivative. If more effort was put in this could have been one of the better films of the franchise.
To a large extent the issues start with the films attempt to build upon its own mythos. The trouble is this franchise doesn’t really have any type of mythos to build on. Each film has been about the individual scares, not about an over arching story. Sure there have been remnants of cohesive plot throughout the films, but they have always been inconsequential to your actual enjoyment. There is no Freddie or Jason here, just random happenings. Perhaps they assumed recognition alone was enough to create a bloodcurdling character. If they were willing to allow this film to remain separate it could have dedicated more time to creating better scares. For those who are hardcore fans of the franchise those moments may pay dividends as you get to see the legend grow, but for the majority they will seem pointless and unnecessary. Obviously with Halloween just around the corner many of us are in the mood for scares. You can easily do far worse than Paranormal Activity 4, but you can also do a lot better. By now most have decided if they are on board with franchise or not. This won’t sway you in either direction, but it could be a negative sign for things to come.