Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 4
Horror cinema is a lucrative business in Hollywood. It’s no secret that these movies can be made cheaply and quickly, which often leads studios to pump out horror sequels to theaters or direct-to-video in order to capitalize on a franchise’s popularity. Collectively the Saw franchise has made about $415 million dollars in the United States alone, and those seven films only cost roughly a combined $67 million dollars to produce. It’s no stretch to say that studio executives literally see dollar signs when they green light these films. So it’s no surprise to see a horror franchise become annualized. It’s frustrating and a little sad, but not surprising. The latest victim of the Hollywood machine is Paranormal Activity. What began life as an ultra-low budget haunted house scare-a-thon is now Paramount’s crown jewel of scary movies. But this year’s entry into the franchise pantheon proves that, yes, you can have too much of a good thing.
I’ll readily admit that I love the first entry in the PA series. It came out of nowhere and provided a good, scary reinvention of the found-footage horror genre that had all but laid stagnant since The Blair Witch Project scared up box office records in 1999. When this little $15,000-budget gem exploded at the box office, Paramount decided the best recourse was to turn around a sequel as quickly as possible. Four years later – and before Paranormal Activity 4′s opening weekend concluded – Paramount announced a fifth film for next October. After three mostly good films, Paranormal Activity 4 lands with a thud. It’s a stupid and largely scare-free retread of the formula, and if this is the direction that the series intends to take going forward, well, I’m washing my hands of the franchise and walking away.
Paranormal Activity 4 is set in fall of 2011. Katie, the now-creepy-possible-villain of the series and her abducted nephew Hunter have been missing since the events of Paranormal Activity 2. We follow the exploits of Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively). Alex’s family takes in their neighbors’ son, Robbie (Brady Allen), after his mother is rushed to the hospital. Unfortunately for Alex’s family, once Robbie is living in their house, strange things begin to occur. Alex and Robbie hatch a plan to document these events by recording video from all of the family’s computers (because, apparently, this family doesn’t move their laptops and they leave them running all the time). So, there’s your set-up. Cameras in place, spooky things happen.
Fundamentally it sounds identical to the premise from the other films in the series, and it is. If you’ll recall my review for Paranormal Activity 3, then you’ll remember that this was my chief concern with the series going forward:
Aside from a few glaring issues, PA 3 manages to live up to the first film quite easily and even surpasses PA 2 on a couple of levels. But with the film grossing $52 million dollars USD and breaking the Fall opening record (not to mention besting the Law of Diminishing Returns) on a budget of around five million dollars—we’re bound to see Paranormal Activity 4 next Halloween. And while I’m certainly going to see it, my fear is that we may have seen all the ingenuity that the brand can squeeze out of this concept.
Well, my concerns have basically come true. Paranormal Activity 4 is nearly devoid of anything resembling a new idea. What little is here has either been done better elsewhere. The Skype conversations with spooky things happening in the background were done first – and better – in V/H/S. One of the only things that movie did well, actually. Or, they don’t really add much to the formula. Take, for instance, the Xbox Kinect segments. At one point, Ben excitedly tells Alex, her brother, and Robbie how the Kinect works. It emits infrared light that can be seen with night vision. The camera that Alex sets up in the living room tracks in night vision whenever it’s dark in the room. These sequences, bathed in green and spotted with dots from the Kinect sensor, start promisingly enough until the film just goes full-on CGI ghost kid. It looks terrible to say the least. Not to mention the somewhat gross product placement of the Kinect (Seriously, who leaves their Xbox 360 turned on all the time? People who want an RRoD, that’s who.). In fact, PA4 is full of product placement; from MacBooks to iPhones and Sony brand cameras, the characters are always willing to announce the product they’re using.
Look, I live in the real world, and I understand that films and television survive because of advertising. But in a movie like this, the product placement is jarring and unnecessary. It’s a low budget sequel to a monstrously successful franchise, Paramount didn’t need to push the product placement as grossly as it is here. But, if that were the biggest failing of Paranormal Activity 4 it would be easy to overlook. Sadly, the film makes the biggest mistake of all for a horror movie: it’s just not scary.
It feels like the Paranormal Activity bag of tricks has fully and completely been exhausted. The series’ signature tension builds are still present and, for the most part, work. I realized while sitting through my showing that the Paranormal Activity films are the movie equivalent of those terrible photo hunt video games. The audience is tasked with searching a particular scene and must scan the screen for whatever changes the spectral invaders have made in the room. But unlike the previous entries in the series, the buildup and scanning rarely amount to anything. There are entirely too many fake-out scares that are telegraphed way too easily. The ratio of actual scares to fake-out scares is entirely out of proportion and there really aren’t any good scares to be found.
Not to mention that the script is incredibly lacking in this entry. It’s mentioned early in the film that Alex’s parents are having a rough time and don’t talk much. It’s an interesting characterization but nothing is done with it. The parents don’t have any sort of personality, barely any involvement in the main narrative thrust, and, most damningly, they fall into the horror movie cliche of the adamantly staunch disbeliever, even when presented with something that would convince a sane human that something weird is going on. Stephen Dunham, who plays Alex’s father, recently passed away (at the unfortunate age of 48), so perhaps the film’s use of the parents was tweaked by the studio out of respect for Dunham, but this is simply a theory of mine.
As for Alex and Ben, the actors are fine, but Ben is the most insufferable moron. It’s bad when you’re actively rooting for a character to bite it, but that’s where I was with Ben. He’s an obnoxious idiot who records Skype conversations with his girlfriend, including recording her while she’s sleeping! It’s a gross character trait that’s really only there to justify the new nighttime recording method. Which, I might add, is pointless to the characters, because even when ghostly things do happen, Alex either doesn’t show it to her parents or she doesn’t even watch it herself! I’ve rarely seen such willfully ignorant characters before.
I haven’t even mentioned my disdain for the the cultist storyline that was first introduced in Paranormal Activity 3. PA4 doubles down on this terrible storyline and the final moments are so incredibly cheesy. I’m just going to say it, this stuff is so bad it’s on the same level as those old Lonelygirl15 web videos, and they make just about as much sense. Zing! The only difference, of course, is that those Lonelygirl15 videos are free. Plus, the script for PA4 makes no sense when taken into context within the grander series structure. It’s a problem I had with the previous film, but here it’s ratcheted to an absurd level. It’s a major spoiler to explain why the plot makes no sense, so I won’t go into greater detail. But if you’ve seen the previous films (particularly the ending of PA2), this year’s entry makes no sense and doesn’t even attempt to explain why certain twists occur, as if to somehow entice you into seeing Paranormal Activity 5 for a possible answer.
I didn’t really intend for this review to be a eulogy for what is now the rotting corpse of a once great horror series, but there it is. I’m done. Next year will see the release of two new Paranormal Activity films (PA5 and an as-yet-untitled Latino spin-off), and I’m entirely finished with the series. Remember when you were a kid and you did something wrong and your parents said that they weren’t mad, just disappointed? Remember how that somehow felt worse? That’s me with Paranormal Activity. I knew that this slide in quality was inevitable. I’m not mad, but damn if I’m not incredibly disappointed.