Like Easter and FIFA, the Paranormal Activity movies are now an annual occurrence. Last year’s Paranormal Activity 3 took the series back to the 80s, and with directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman at the helm, brought some simple yet refreshing ideas to the franchise, including a camera mounted on an oscillating fan, an entire living room full of levitating furniture, and a cameo from Teddy Ruxpin.
By now, though, the naturally pared-back approach to supernatural horror that has been the series’ stock in trade since the first Paranormal Activity is well established. Cameras are set up around a middle class family’s home, and various low-key yet ominous things occur in front of the lenses.
Paranormal Activity 4 begins with a brief recap of the events that occurred in 2006, when the terrifying Katie (Katie Featherston) went on a supernaturally-charged killing spree and spirited away her sister’s baby, Hunter. We’re then sent forward in time to November 2011, and join another well-to-do family, this one living in a suburb of Henderson, Nevada.
Here lives 15-year-old Alice (Kathryn Newton), her parents, who appear to be hovering on the brink of divorce, and her little mop-haired brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). One day, a single mother moves in over the road with her son Robbie, who’s about five years old and doesn’t blink. Before too long, the mother over the road is called away and Robbie ends up staying in Alice’s house for a few days – and then the paranormal activities begin.
By this point, there’s really no reason to delve into the rest of the plot; it’s enough to say that Alice has a sort-of-boyfriend, the smart-mouthed Ben (Matt Shively), who’s an amateur surveillance expert. He has the bright idea of recording the ghostly happenings by using a network of webcams – Alice’s family being so rich that it can afford to keep a Macbook in every room of the house.
This is a logical progression for the series, since one of the trickiest tasks for its writers is to find new means (and reasons) for its characters to record what’s going on. Aside from the use of webcams and laptops, Paranormal Activity 4’s most prominent gimmick is its employment of an Xbox 360 and its motion-sensing Kinect device.
Viewed through a nightvision camera, the Kinect bathes the room in motion-sensing green dots, creating a pleasingly creepy effect that makes Alice’s living room look like an 80s nightclub designed by Clive Barker. Unfortunately, it’s an over-used device, and there’s far less mileage in it than the writers seem to think there is; by the time we’ve seen one shadowy figure moving through a living room full of green dots, we’ve really seen them all.
In its favour, PA4 has some lively and likeable characters. Alice and Ben are pleasant, natural leads, and unlike most horror movie teens, actually seem like teenagers, and not like people in their late 20s pretending to be kids. The dialogue is similarly light, and although you won’t necessarily leaving the cinema quoting lines back at your friends, it’s humorous in a way its predecessors seldom were.
The scares, too, are as sharp, abrupt and as teasingly sporadic as we’ve come to expect. Long stretches of ominous silence are interrupted by crashes, rumbles and the stirrings of furniture. There’s a quietly amusing reference to The Shining, and a kitchen knife of Damocles. Weird symbols (one of which looks like the AOL logo, unfortunately) appear in unlikely places. Children collude in the dead of night.
Yet while the jolts are effective, they’re preceded by now familiar sonic effects (rumbling, keening, dog whistle-like whines) whose familiarity deadens their impact. Worse still, the film’s poorly paced. Where the first and third movies established a situation and slowly turned the screws, the tension in PA4 is allowed to ebb and flow. Its frightening moments therefore make the movie feel like a long and slightly dull drive down a winding road, with the scary bits acting as road bumps to keep the passengers awake.
This is partly because the franchise is beginning to show its age, but also because the story is so perfunctory. There are surprises and a revelation or two, but nothing to really alter the trajectory of the series. It’s also a pity to see the franchise succumb to that now well-established modern horror staple, a visit to foreshadowing.com – a handy website that provides lots of handy exposition in readily digestible form.
As the movie rolls towards its climax, a definite sense of déjà vu begins to well up. Where the original Paranormal Activity was refreshing in its simplicity, and its sequels had memorable moments (the pool cleaning robot in two, the falling furniture in three) PA4 feels like a movie with too few new ideas, and precious little going on.
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