The “Paranormal Activity” franchise has had incredible success with its first three films. But with Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman’s latest “Paranormal Activity 4,” the series has finally reached a point of irrelevance.
The original “Paranormal Activity,” directed by Oren Peli, succeeded by reintroducing the use of tension in horror, rather than using tricks like jump scares or excessive gore. Peli abided by the idea that less can be more. He introduced an invisible, unknown threat where suspense was gradually increased throughout the movie. The tension in the film raised enough that even the creak of a door or the swinging of a chandelier would scare people in ways they forgot horror movies could accomplish.
The film’s scares were combined with a brilliant ad campaign asking audiences to go on the Internet to “demand” the movie to be played in a theater near them. The viral hype eventually spread so that the small movie was released nationally to record-breaking numbers.
Naturally, studios jumped all over the idea of an effective horror film franchise that cost almost nothing to produce. Like most horror series, studios expected the popularity to decline after the first film, as the sequels were mostly being made for financial reasons instead of creative ones. However, “Paranormal Activity 2” and “3” managed to up the ante with each film, delivering more exciting thrills without losing the mystery that established the franchise.
“Paranormal Activity 4” fails to do this.
The movie takes place several years after the events of the first two films. While the other movies focused on the haunted sisters Katie and Kristi, the fourth stars a seemingly unrelated family living in Nevada. When their neighbor is taken to the hospital, the family is asked to take care of her creepy son Robbie. Strange things start happening in the house once Robbie moves in, and teenage daughter Alex starts investigating Robbie’s possibly supernatural influences.
The worst offense committed by “Paranormal Activity 4” is that it simply isn’t scary. Joost and Schulman rely on the franchise’s old tricks to induce scares, but after seeing three movies of the same thing, we know exactly what to expect. The other sequels worked due to introducing new gimmicks and using them in unique and terrifying ways. 4 tries to incorporate similar techniques, but fails to utilize them in any satisfying way. The Kinect in the movie, a motion-sensing device for the Xbox, is able to occasionally detect when paranormal entities are in the room. While the effect is initially scary, it’s overused and becomes boring and predictable. The gimmick never turns meaningful, and the blatant product placement is too distracting to overlook.
The characters, while more likeable than the previous films due to good chemistry between the actors, are bogged down by questionable choices and typical horror obliviousness. The found-footage genre of filmmaking has prospered based on the illusion of reality that such movies can create. “Paranormal Activity 4” abandons this in favor of insensible decisions and an unexplainable loyalty towards filming everything.
The previous three movies sometimes failed to convince viewers that a camera would be present in these situations, but “4” doesn’t bother establishing any realism. The movie starts using recorded Skype chats as video, but it soon abandons that for the traditional spy-camera setup of the older films. One of the characters carries around a camera just because the story this footage. Her devotion for recording everything is never explained and it becomes laughable when she continues to use it during very dire circumstances towards the end of the movie.
“Paranormal Activity 4’s” shocking ineptitude at storytelling leaves viewers unsatisfied for the first time in the series. Here’s hoping that whoever is making the inevitable “Paranormal Activity 5” remembers what made it so successful in the first place, or at least takes it in a new direction. “Paranormal Activity 4” is a disappointingly meaningless addition to a franchise that impressively had not succumbed to the many failings of other long-running horror franchises. If you’re looking for a taste of originality mixed with the terror of the first three films, skip “4” and see the highly disturbing and utterly refreshing “Sinister” instead, now playing in most theaters.