Paranormal Activity 4 is something different and exciting: a movie with the trailer that includes the best part not in the movie: a shot of a teenage girl Skyping with her boyfriend, the image gets garbled and distorted, and when it comes back, there's a Someone in the background. Boom. It's not the scariest thing you've ever seen, unless you are very young, but it gets the job done right. It's also not in PA4, and there is not a singe moment that is in the film that's trying to replicate that kind of jump scare. In fact, there is nothing in PA4 that I'd say meets the definition of any kind of scare, and not in the "I, the sophisticated blogger, am jaded" sense, but in the "no, for real, they actually forgot to put shocking scary moments in their demonic possession horror movie" sense. And when you've stripped the last shred of shocking scary moments out of the Paranormal Activity franchise, there is nothing left whatsoever, unless there exists somewhere a viewer who genuinely enjoys conceptually dubious found footage pictures on their own merits. And if that person does exist, they're too busy wanking to The Devil Inside on a constant loop to bother seeing new movies.
On paper, at least, PA4 has potential: it is the first of these putative sequels to the original Paranormal Activity that predominately takes place later than it, and thus can actually advance the story whatsoever, instead of just filling in the gaps in a convoluted mythology that has literally no fucking excuse in the world to be convoluted. This is supposed to be a simply concept, and simplicity is the reason I still like the first Paranormal Activity, even after everything: it presents two people. In the first scene, one of them says, "oho, we've got a ghost". In every subsequent scene, we're waiting for the ghost to happen. It is a film that does an immaculate job of training the viewer how to watch it, showing us how and where scares are going to happen, and then letting the camera roll while we anticipate those things happening, and in the best tradition of psychological imprinting, they only happen sometimes, which makes it much more rattling than if they happened always, metronomically.
But being a machine designed solely to go "BANG" and shock a healthy portion of its audience was, apparently, too unfussy for the producers of the series, and that is why we got huge piles of exposition and mythology in Paranormal Activity 2, a couple-months prequel that starts to complicate the straightforward "evil ghost is evil" scenario of the first movie, and Paranormal Activity 3, a two-decades prequel that explains a great deal of things we already knew while also turning the whole franchise into an epic family drama about the sins of the parents falling onto children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and leaving those of us who just wanted to be freaked out by inexplicable things - AKA "paranormal activity" - wondering how it is that a scenario about a young couple having the dickens scared out of them turned into a franchise with a mythology convoluted enough that you have to diagram it.
PA4 could have just sat on top of that mythology and allowed it to be in the background; but now. The film is, in fact, fairly transparently trying to stitch the end of the second movie together with the inevitable fifth movie, and is so concerned with clarifying more of the storyline that, to repeat myself only because it is a very important point, never should have been complicated in the first place, that it largely fails to tell its own story. Certainly, insofar as the main conflict in any Paranormal Activity film is "something goes bang at night, and nobody can figure out what it is", that's something PA4 completely lacks. Instead, a nice suburban family with a ginormous house agrees to babysit the boy across the street while his mother is in the hospital, only the boy, Robbie (Brady Allen) is creepy and apparently sees things that aren't there, and his mother is Katie (Katie Featherstone), who we regular viewers know is not actually his mother at all, but a woman possessed by a demon, prone to killing people by the dozen. You'd think there'd be a conflict in there, right? Well, you're wrong. Katie is absent for the entire movie, for ill-expressed reasons that have to do with Robbie needing to be alone with the nice family's young son Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) to capture his soul, except this is done in a very low-key and inactive way, and there are no bangs or unexplained noises or mysterious shapes where there shouldn't be, only Wyatt's teenage sister Alex (Kathryn Newton) finding Robbie's general behavior to be off-putting, and asking her sort-of boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) to help her set up a network of laptops all over the house to constantly record everything they see, because these are found footage movies and all. There is surely an interesting horror movie to be made about life in the age of video-chatting, but this one just turns laptop into portable versions of the security cameras from PA2.
Now, the idea of a creepy kid hanging around ominously is good, classic horror movie stuff, but PA4 never does anything to elevate above the most basic possible level of representation: there are barely any tense moments and not a single on before the last 10 minutes that I, for one, recognise as having the construction of a proper scare scene, even a fake one. Alex isn't scared at any point in the movie, she's weirded out, and virtually nothing that happens is ever inexplicable, or even presented as being inexplicable. If the film works at all, for any moment, it's because directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who also made the third film) are banking on our awareness that Katie and her fake son are murderous demon-beings, not because anything - anything at all - is scary on its own, on the terms presented in this single movie, divorced from its fellows.
I want to restate all of that simply, just because I am still stung by it: Paranormal Activity 4 is a horror movie that is not, apparently, trying to be scary; and it just barely functions as a stand-alone narrative, preferring instead to continue building up a world that worked best when it was at its most simplistic. At least it's not so conceptually tortured as PA3 (which was a found footage movie about people finding found footage that we, though not necessarily they, proceed to watch) though it shares with that movie, as it does not really with the first two, a tendency to rely much too heavily on the worst habit of found footage pictures, which is that the characters, primarily Alex, are obliged to carry around cameras and/or laptops in situations where it's awfully difficult to imagine any normal human being and especially one who is concerned that their life might be in danger, carrying a camera and particularly holding that camera up to their eye and filming. This is especially annoying given how much time is given over to showing Alex and Ben setting up their spy net of laptops in her house, which was presumably supposed to obviate exactly this problem.
Instead, it just creates a new problem; a new problem in a movie that seems to take a perverse joy in creating problems for itself. Paranormal Activity 4 isn't just a weaker movie than all three of its predecessors, it's a movie that straight up does not work in any logical way: its form is unsound, its structure is non-existent, and its characters behave only in accordance with the rules of nonsense horror films. It's a piece of shit, top to bottom, and a bottom that even in my deepest morbidity, I wouldn't have thought this series was capable of reaching.
Have you helped Tim fight cancer? Donate to the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction! The fundraiser ends 18 June, 2015!