Paranormal Activity 4

Latest entry in the found footage horror franchise fails to deliver the scares

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Paranormal Activity 4

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Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman. Starring Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Brady Allen, Stephen Dunham, Aiden Lovekamp, Alexondra Lee. Written by Christopher Landon, story by Chad Feehan, based on characters created by Oren Peli.

Over the past (post-Blair Witch) decade, I haven’t had high expectations for the found footage horror genre, or the Paranormal Activity series: the first film was wildly overhyped, and the second was a joke. But Paranormal Activity 3, from Catfish directors Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, changed that: it had an incredible slow-burn sense of dread, and was one of the few truly scary mainstream cinema experiences I’ve had.

Paranormal Activity 4 should reap the benefits of its predecessors’ success, and Joost & Schulman have returned to the director’s chair, creating some hope that this may be more than the usual-usual. But among other issues with the genre, the series, and the story particulars in this entry, there’s one fatal flaw PA4 cannot overcome: it just ain’t scary.

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It’s little more than a series of “jump” scares strung together under the guise of a feature film. And on that level, it works. PA4 will make you jump, as the filmmakers exploit a successful formula: dead silence with that deep, slowly-building baseline, and then BAM! It was a prank, or the cat, or even just a quick jump cut. Every trick in the book, but they’re effective.

By the time we get to the ghostly stuff, however – people thrown on and off screen like rag dolls by some invisible force – we’re more inclined to laugh than be scared; we’re always conscious that we’re watching some CGI effect. It says a lot that the “fake” scares here end up being a lot more effective than the “real” ones. 

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PA4 is just missing that creepy, chilling vibe that made the first and third films what they were; there’s no equivalent here of that spine-chilling ghost-under-the-sheet scene in the previous film. That’s because Joost & Schulman end every scare with a BANG, allowing us to breathe a sigh of relief afterward; PA3, on the other hand, was so successful because it relentlessly let the tension build.

In other words, we’re back in PA2 territory, which makes sense – this film is more or less a direct sequel (PA3, a prequel, takes place before the other three features). PA4 begins with footage from the end of the second film, with the zombie-walking Katie (Katie Featherston) kidnapping her infant nephew Hunter in 2006. Reminding us of the series at its worst, the film is already on shaky ground.

Flash-forward five years to 2011: Katie and her six-year-old ‘son’ Robbie (Brady Allen) are living in a suburban neighborhood, but the focus is on a neighboring family when Katie is taken to a hospital and Robbie comes to stay with them. Teenage Alex (Kathryn Newton) suspects some strange goings-on, and sets up some makeshift security cams using the family’s laptops with the help of boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively). Of course, Mom (Alexondra Lee) and Dad (Stephen Dunham) don’t believe her, while younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) is drawn into Robbie’s strange activities.

There’s not much active story: typically in these films, the lead attempts some paranormal investigation, and discovers the true nature of the threat. Here, it’s all about the jump scares. I guess the filmmakers decided we knew enough backstory already, and didn’t want to try to push the series further, either. Which is fine by me – I just wish the film was able to deliver the scares. 

Acting (for the series) is unusually good – Newton’s Alex is easily the series’ most likable character. But Featherston, the only actor to appear in all four films, is a huge problem: she’s fine (and even a little unsettling) when acting normal, but fails to convey any sense of terror, and nearly turns laughable, when lurching around like a zombie. Creepy side note: co-star Dunham, who plays the father, passed away last month after suffering a heart attack on his 48th birthday.

Paranormal Activity 3 had a great (and inventive) gimmick: the camera mounted on top of an oscillating fan, which led to a number of genuine scares. PA4 has its own gimmick: the Xbox 360 Kinect, which projects an eerie glowing tracking field when captured via a camera using night vision. It’s a neat effect when you first see it (and a terrific bit of product placement), but the film really fails to exploit it.

Stick around after the credits for a creepy (but pointless) thirty-second scene.

Also opening:

  • Posel (showtimes), a Czech drama from director Vladimír Michálek. Screening in Czech.
  • Le Voyage extraordinaire (showtimes | IMDb), a documentary about the making of Georges Méliès’ landmark silent A Trip to the Moon. Screening in French with Czech subtitles. 
  • Astérix and Obélix: God Save Britannia (showtimes | IMDb), the latest in the French family series starring Gérard Depardieu. Screening in a Czech-dubbed version.

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