Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Writer: Christopher Landon, Chad Feehan
Producer: Jason Blum, Oren Peli
Stars: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Aiden Lovekamp, Brady Allen, Stephen Dunham, Alexondra Lee, Katie Featherston
Five years after their disappearance, Katie and Hunter resurface as a new family begins experiencing paranormal activity.
“Paranormal Activity 4” is the film franchise equivalent of a hot band unsure of what to produce for its next album. They know they have to strike while the iron of commercial popularity remains hot, but meteoric success dried the creative well prematurely. To maintain a presence, or to fulfill a contractual obligation (in this case: an annualized release date), they toss out a “Greatest Hits” compilation of things that were good enough in the past. The hope is that fans will eat up the regurgitation while the artists buy time to figure out how they really should be moving forward.
As the first series sequel to show more than a scant few minutes of events following part one’s conclusion, part four should be free from having to stuff itself inside the confines of already established storylines. Here is an opportunity to be unencumbered by prequel status, with an open direction to take PA towards new heights. Instead, “Paranormal Activity 4” settles for getting by on that aforementioned “best of“ compilation featuring retreads of Paranormal Activities past.
It has been five years since a possessed Katie Featherston murdered her extended family and disappeared with her nephew Hunter. In late 2011, Katie and a little boy resurface across the street from the Nelson family in Nevada. The Nelsons have a young son the same age as Hunter. After little Wyatt Nelson makes friends with Katie’s “son” Robbie, strange occurrences begin happening throughout the Nelson household. And Wyatt’s big sister Alex is the only one who suspects that the new family across the street may not be as innocent as they seem.
What are these strange occurrences haunting the Nelsons? Pretty much the same things that plagued Micah, Katie, Kristi, and everyone else who participated in the previous three movies.
Invisible hands tug sheets off sleeping family members. Young ones speak with an imaginary friend named Tobi. Toddler toys with a mind of their own startle someone investigating strange noises. Google uncovers demonology factoids that lend credence to unbelievable theories about an evil presence. And parental figures pooh-pooh it all as nonsense. The only scene PA4 does not redo is breaking out the Ouija board.
It is an oft-heard complaint about the progress of the PA series and it is well earned by the fourth installment: this is recycled material seen before. Three other times in fact, and that does not include similar movies that the series inspired in between. Every time the filmmakers repurpose the same setup under the pretense of being a “new” installment, the train of faithful fans loses more passengers grown tired of the formula.
PA4 even scratches the needle and starts skipping its own record to borrow scares from within the same movie. A person fills the frame suddenly from the right side to create a jump scare. A Prius races into frame from the left to provide another. A knife falls from the top of the screen for one more. Then the cycle starts again from the right side with a cat bumping into the lens. Only so many of these moments can go on before the audience starts responding with, “enough already” instead of with a shriek.
Previous PA movies let wandering minds scare themselves by flitting eyes across shadows, eagerly soaking in each shot in anticipation of where, when, and how the next fright would take place. The way PA4 telegraphs jumps by obscuring the frame only for something to suddenly appear from behind or from the side deflates the tension and replaces it with a purely sensory assault. This is great for guys with jumpy girlfriends or those who enjoy being startled easily. Everyone else? Not so much.
The scares stay empty thanks to a script that is not working to make emotional or psychological connections with the characters, including the entity. In earlier PA movies, the demon’s gradual ramping of suburban terror played like a mind game. He/she/it wanted to tenderize Katie and Kristi and their families’ psyches before possessing or driving them mad. PA4’s version of the malevolent presence merely knocks over books or drops a ball down the staircase. This demon is taking a step backward from the mental torment portrayed in PA1-PA3 with paranormal activity that actually is just as likely to be explained as a draft.
Characters too are vapid vessels moving the beats ahead. The parents have some marital issues and other details attempting to add depth, but they are as ancillary as anything else in the movie. Doug and Holly are not even obstacles getting in the way with repeated dismissals of paranormal claims. They are just empty personalities that sort of happen to be there.
A late inning substitution for a particular person’s identity is an unpredictably clever twist at first glance. Then taking a second to let it settle shows that the development does not make sense given a half dozen reasons that would be spoilers to discuss. Clearly, “Paranormal Activity 4” is tuned in to surface appeal for its frights and for its story. Context and substance stay unseen in the ether, somewhere next to the family demon.
“Paranormal Activity 4” drips little into the bucket of the overarching mythology and has even less to offer for lasting impact. There comes a time when overdone material has to be retired and an artist needs to forge ahead on a new creative path. For the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, it is no longer arguable that its time has come.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 45