In Paranormal Activity 3, we learned that Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi’s (Sprague Grayden) grandmother was to blame for the troublesome demon that had been hounding the young women off and on for two prior films. A prequel set in the 1980s that followed the protagonists as little girls, the film revealed their grandmother to be part of a witches’ coven intent on doing something that will forever link them with the malevolent force often referred to as Toby. And this revelation precisely marked the point at which the Paranormal Activity series effectively jumped the shark. The first film was an elegantly simple horror exercise that exploited its micro-budget to convincingly present the illusion of a haunting as it might actually happen to a perfectly normal young suburban couple. Paranormal Activity 2 was essentially a remake, but it compensated for its lack of novelty by cleverly obscuring until the end how exactly it related to the original. And then Paranormal Activity 3, with its witches’ coven, desperately explained away a mystery that needn’t be explained, as audiences will never need an explicit reason to fear the dark.
Paranormal Activity 4 sadly continues the series’s downslide, most drearily with a mid-film twist that enables the filmmakers to go about essentially remaking the second entry. Katie, last seen (chronologically speaking) spiriting her nephew, Hunter, off in the darkness to subject him to God knows what, materializes in a new neighborhood with an odd young boy named Robbie (Brady Allen). Katie soon disappears again, temporarily leaving Robbie in the care of the family living across the street. Robbie, strangely composed and monosyllabic for his age, becomes fast friends with the similarly aged Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), thus setting the stage for a new and tediously familiar wave of supernatural terror that’s characterized by subtly moving household objects and static images that might, just might, contain something vaguely interesting.
The film is generally more enjoyable than its immediate predecessor, but the unmistakable routine that this series has settled into moots any potential for legitimate scares. There are too many fake scares, too many lapses in character judgment (this film may have one of the most obtuse mother figures in the history of the horror genre, which is saying a lot), and far too much ugliness in place of evocative suggestion. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, returning from the last installment, don’t even bother to consistently maintain the conceit of the films as found footage: A number of images are composed in well-lit medium shots, and a number of cuts are motivated by nothing other than a need to convey narrative information. Tedium inevitably settles in, allowing one to see just how nasty this series, which almost entirely depends on the emotional torture of children, has become.
And that’s a shame, as there are some promising ideas introduced in Paranormal Activity 4. Alex (Kathryn Newton), Wyatt’s teenage sister and the hero of the film, insists on investigating the unexplained phenomena in her house by filming the rooms with a series of laptops her boyfriend rigs to function as 24-7 surveillance cameras. Besides allowing Schulman and Joost to stage their most effective scares with a series of tracking shots that cannily exploit our limited vision outside of a close-up of a character’s face, this gimmick, perhaps by accident, also taps subtextually into parents’ understandable, unmistakably contemporary, fear of losing their children to the numerous prevailing media conduits that are endlessly available to them. But this suggestion, which could complement the implication of domestic discontent that enriched the first film, isn’t allowed to function as anything more than a gloss on a familiar trick.
Paranormal Activity 4 ends, as it must, on a cliffhanger that promises yet another sequel—one that could, it’s hinted, represent a legitimately significant change for the series. If the last few minutes of this film are any indication, Paranormal Activity 5 will finally fulfill the series’s evolution from an eerie collection of inventive bumps in the night to just another over-produced monster shoot-’em-up with fashionably ugly camera work that’s been ushered into the Halloween season to court your horror-movie dollars. Not scary, but sad.