‘Paranormal Activity 4’ Sees the Franchise Running Out of Clever Ideas

Paranormal Activity 4 movie poster

With “Paranormal Activity 4,” the law of diminishing returns has finally caught up with this found footage franchise. Granted, all the films have revolved around the same old story of people taping themselves and their homes while they sleep so they can see what goes bump in the night, but this same old story has now become all too familiar for me. This sequel does have its moments, appealing characters and some clever twists, but the scares are a hell of a lot easier to spot this time around.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity 2 & 3” revolved around the events of the original film or came before them, “Paranormal Activity 4” marks the franchise’s first real sequel. Moving us forward to the year 2011, 5 years after the events in Parts 1 and 2, the story takes place in a small neighborhood in Nevada where the very pretty Alex (Kathryn Newton) lives with her parents, who are having marital difficulties, and her younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Alex appears to be pretty happy for a teenager, and she has a cool boyfriend in Ben (Matt Shively) with whom she confides in every night via webcam.

But, of course, things are destined to get weird as they always do in a “Paranormal Activity” movie, and the weirdness begins with the appearance of a young boy named Robbie (Brady Allen) who appears one night in Alex’s tree house. Robbie is the son of their neighbor who lives across the street, and his mother has just been hospitalized for some unknown reason. As a result, he is sent to stay over with Alex’s family until she recuperates. After that, it doesn’t take long for those ominous sounds and loud thumping noises to start haunting this suburban household.

With each “Paranormal Activity” movie, the filmmakers have managed to use different forms of technology to tell the story like video cameras and surveillance equipment. In this fourth movie, they use several: laptop computer cameras, Kinect, a MacBook, smart phones and a Canon XA10. The Kinect proves to be especially interesting as it uses some kind of scanning system which puts out these green lights to map the game player’s physical environment. Those same green lights end up capturing sights not easily visible to the human eye. There’s also the automated voice which keeps saying “FRONT DOOR OPEN.” When you hear that, you know things are going to get bad.

I really liked the way the younger characters were drawn out here. Kathryn Newton is especially appealing as her character of Alex shows a maturity her mother and father seriously lack. I also enjoyed Matt Shively’s performance as Ben, and not just because he shares the same first name as me. The boyfriends in these “Paranormal Activity” movies threaten to be seriously annoying at times, but Ben has just the right amount of cool to keep him interesting. Furthermore, Alex and Ben are wearing Beastie Boys and Metallica t-shirts, so you have to applaud their taste in music!

As for Alex’s parents, I spent most of this movie wanting to smack them in their faces. They are made out to be like some generic bickering couple, and they keep making foolish assumptions and decisions to where you just want to yell at them. When that chandelier comes crashing down in front of Alex (and I know I’m not spoiling anything because we’ve all seen this in the trailers), you’d think they would be a little more suspicious about this strange kid they let stay in their house. It’s like some demonic force has to come out of the ground and throw fireballs at this couple before they finally get the picture. This is nothing against Alexondra Lee and the late Stephen Dunham (who passed away from a heart attack in September 2012) as they do their best with the material they’re given, but the “Paranormal Activity” movies have succeeded in giving us characters who feel real, and these two feel like cardboard cutouts from other horror flicks.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who directed “Paranormal Activity 3,” return to helm this fourth entry. You can feel them struggling to keep the material fresh here, but the series is now becoming more formulaic than ever before, and things become frustratingly predictable as a result. They also rely on cheap scares too much this time around. This was a problem in the previous film as well, but here they just go overboard to a very annoying extent.

“Paranormal Activity 4” does get better as it goes along as things become more eerie, leading to a climax which feels predestined but still makes you jump out of your seat. There is a lot of mystery still left in this series as the whereabouts of Katie and Hunter remain hard to pin down, and this entry is not about to answer all the questions we have. As for the next “Paranormal Activity” movie, stay through the end credits and you will get a glimpse of what it may be.

But as of now, this franchise is running on fumes. The fact these “Paranormal Activity” movies have lasted this long is a testament to our collective fears of those weird sounds we hear late at night when all our electronic distractions have been turned off. However, “Paranormal Activity 4” proves to be a lot less viscerally frightening than its predecessors as we’ve become all too familiar with how these movies work. For the next one, Blumhouse Productions and Paramount Pictures really need to shake things up, and I don’t mean in the way they handle the “demand to see it first” crap. I can’t believe people are still buying that malarkey.

* * ½ out of * * * *

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