Paranormal Activity 4 is a terrible movie, a slack assemblage of scenes that aren’t even trying to scare you. It’s a movie immersed in the tedious mythology of the previous installments, but that doesn’t match even the lamest scares of the previously lamest entry (#2, for those keeping track. Maybe Paranormal Activity is the anti-Star Trek, where the even numbered entries are shit).
The return of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman promised good things. They directed the surprisingly effective part 3, bringing a fresh energy to a franchise that already felt exhausted after only two entries. But something has gone terribly wrong with 4, and Joost and Schulman exhibit none of the cinematic verve that made the last film such a pleasure. Gone are the innovative scares and spooky set pieces. The film is formless and aimless, shambling from minor scare to minor scare before blowing it all out in a profoundly dumb and uninteresting finale.
The new film takes place in the 'present' and is set around a rich white family whose daughter is an over-documenter, taking video of everything. A woman and her son move in across the street; when the woman goes to the hospital in the middle of the night, the son stays with the family and some mildly interesting paranormal business begins happening.
I admire the idea that the series is trying to branch out; this film is attempting to tackle the Creepy Kid genre, but it fails. Robbie, the new neighbor boy, is only weird because everybody keeps saying he’s weird. He actually seems like a friendly and adorable moppet. The main girl (Alex, a name I’m not sure I ever caught in the movie) has a boyfriend named Ben who is waaay creepier and more awful than Robbie, but we’re all supposed to like him (spoiler: it’s impossible to like him. He is a vile irritant, played with all the grace and subtlety of a Nickelodeon TV-wannabe mugging for a live studio audience).
The film just struggles along, the Robbie storyline offering little in way of chills or momentum. Even knowing that Robbie is some kind of trouble, it feels like Alex is overreacting to him throughout the movie. There’s not enough activity in this Activity. People eventually get dragged by ghosts, the staple of this franchise, but by the time they do it’s half-hearted and not scary.
I suspect that PA4 has fallen prey to the series’ ridiculous development schedule. They shoot these movies fast and cheap and late; I understand that they were still working on this one a month or so ago. They had one big idea - using the Microsoft Kinect as a way to detect ghosts - but that’s about it. Even the use of Skype in the film is a bust, done much better in V/H/S. The Kinect is pretty cool, and is the source of one of the only striking bits of imagery in the movie.
Katie returns for a fourth go-round, this time more prominent than the previous two movies. It’s a mistake. The character is empty, and actress Katie Featherston isn’t able to bring anything to her. When Katie shows up it’s supposed to be a big moment, but it’s been dead obvious from the beginning of the film and it’s executed poorly, a double whammy of ineptness. What’s worse, the movie doesn’t have a clear idea of what to do with her dangling plot from part 2; while the whole movie is technically about that, everything feels like treading water. The mythology, with which the film is obsessed, is advanced in no meaningful way. What Paranormal Activity 4 feels most like is a web series tie-in that got blown up to feature length for some reason. It's like everybody's biding their time for Paranormal Activity 5.
Paranormal Activity 2 soured me greatly on what had been a decent little first movie. 3 brought me back; it showed that with the right people behind the camera and with a little bit of imagination the found footage spookhouse genre could still work. But 4 has really killed my goodwill; I’m ready to tap out, no longer giving a shit about the demons and covens that are engineering all the door slams and ghost pullings. The series needed to decide if it wanted to have an overarching story or to just be a semi-related bunch of scare scenes. Paranormal Activity 4 doesn’t commit to either, and as a result it isn’t scary and also doesn’t tell any sort of compelling tale.
I don’t care about Katie. I don’t care about witches. I just want to see a cleverly constructed bit of scariness, a cinematic version of a good haunted house attraction. Paranormal Activity 3 delivered that. 4 doesn’t. Between this film and The Devil Inside, it feels like Paramount is trying to poison its own well, to run the found footage films into the ground. Paranormal Activity 4 is boring and trite and tedious, and it feels like it was made by people who kind of hate the whole thing.