I’m a huge fan of 2007′s “Paranormal Activity”. I thought it brilliantly took the haunted house story out of dusty, dilapidated Victorian mansions and brought it to the suburban development. It was ingenious in the way it preyed on our subconscious fears of the dark and of things that go bump in the night.
“Paranormal Activity 2″ served up “More of the same”, but at least it was still served warm. One sequel that plays the same song is completely acceptable by today’s standards.
I thought for certain though that the wheels would come off in the third chapter, but by bringing children into the mix and expanding the mythos, “Paranormal Activity 3″ was surprisingly good. Better than the second chapter, in fact.
Unfortunately, with “Paranormal Activity 4″, the series finally seems out of gas. The “scares” are so tired they fail to even rise to the level of “startles”, and the mythology that served as an asset in the previous chapter now feels like a shackle weighing this film down.
Alex (Kathryn Newton) is a young girl who spends much of her time video conferencing with her boyfriend. One of the things they frequently find themselves discussing is the creepy boy next door, who spends his time quietly staring at her family and occasionally trespassing outright. When the boy’s mother mysteriously takes ill, her family generously agrees to take the boy in for a few days… What they don’t count on is that they’ll be taking a malevolent spirit in as well.
Typically in a “Paranormal Activity” film, a game of “wait for the ghost to appear in the still image” would ensue. There’s some of that, in this movie, of course. But there’s also a great deal of “What’s going on with the creepy kid?”, and unfortunately, that’s not an equal trade. “Oh my God, that kid is weird” just isn’t as scary as “Oh my God, our house is haunted”. There’s still chairs moving by themselves, and swaying light fixtures, and plenty of night vision, but in-between we’re handed liberal doses of watching the diminutive, sullen house guest getting up in the middle of the night or talking to himself. Or just sitting there, frowning. It… just isn’t on par with the slow unfolding of supernatural events of the previous films.
Even when the ghostly activity occurs, however, we really have been there and seen that. There’s practically nothing left for them to suddenly do while a camera records a still room at night. Over the course of three prior films, we’ve seen doors open and close, electronic devices spazz out, sheets fly off, people act strangely, stairs creak, shadowy figures, etc, etc. It’s all literally been done.
Above and beyond the tired “gimmick”, this movie suffers on a narrative basis from several things that previous installments were able to get around. “Why don’t they just leave the house?” haunts this movie more than the ghosts do. With the first few films, there’s a solid rationale as to why going somewhere else won’t help what’s going on. Here, not only do we get no such help getting past that, we’re also burdened with “Why did they take that kid in?” since it’s established that the family doesn’t know the mother, and “Why can’t she get her parents to believe her?” seeing as the young heroine has enough video evidence of the paranormal activity to start her own massive YouTube channel.
Finally, the “Paranormal Activity” mythos is a burden here. In “3″, the prequel back story was entertaining and enlightening. It was an interesting revelation that filled in the hows and whys behind the series. Here, Katie and her clan feel shoehorned in. We’re watching a new family, but the film insists on telling the story in the same fictional universe, and the connect the dots is done in the most hack manner imaginable. They either should have cut the cord completely with the pervious chapters and begun a new possession story with a new family, or found a way to continue Katie’s adventures directly… because the cross-over is clumsy at best.
With scares that you’ve seen before, spaced few and far between, and saddled with a lineage that it bears little relation to in its own right, “Paranormal Activity 4″ at best faintly echoes the things that made the series so popular to begin with.