Fantastic Fest 2012 Review: Paranormal Activity 4

Posted on September 30, 2012 by UK Editor

Review by Eric Lefenfeld

Note: The version of the film shown at Fantastic Fest was a “work in progress” print. Visual effects and the sound mix were not completely finished.

October is just around the corner, and with it brings the yearly arrival of a new Paranormal Activity film. Plenty of detractors dismiss the entire series outright as a cheap jump scare delivery system, and while there’s certainly some merit to this claim, it’s not entirely valid. No bones about it – the ongoing mythology that has been strung along over the course of the series is far from groundbreaking. These movies, though, could still probably make buckets of cash as a collection of random set pieces with literally no connective tissue. Defying expectations, the films thus far have done a surprisingly decent job of pulling back the layers of the story while still keeping up with the jump scares that continue to put asses in seats. Part 3 was particularly successful in this regard with its introduction of the coven/secret society angle. Once again, nothing too original, but it gave the series the shot in the arm it needed. Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have returned for the new entry, so one would hope that this same energy would carry over. The film is competent enough, but the spark that lit the prequel, both in terms of story and scares, is gone.

The movie opens with a quick refresher on the end of part 2, in which a possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) – the series’ unofficial mascot – kidnapped her nephew. Things briefly look promising as we’re introduced to our central family who, for the first time, bear no direct connection to Katie. The main protagonist is Alice (Kathryn Newton), a 15 year old girl with a goofy boyfriend and a camera that is conveniently recording much of the time. This is a nice change of focus from the previous films, all of which have featured younger characters, but never as the driving force. PA 4 is mixing things up right out of the gate – always a good sign.

The neighbor from across the street is in the hospital for a few days, so Alice’s parents agree to take in her son, Robbie (Brady Allen), until she returns home. And so begins the escalating series of ghostly occurrences. The opening scenes with Robbie mark the film’s other distinct shift from the standard PA template. This a series built on mostly invisible scares, so the introduction of a tangible antagonist is refreshing. He’s a creepy kid, but still more eccentric than overtly frightening – it’s a more subtle sense of dread than this series usually plays with. This promising start seems to indicate that the film will maintain this sense of freshness, but once the ghostly happenings kick in and that familiar “Night #1” title card pops up, the film falls into a rut.

The big “BOO!” moments feel tired this time out. There’s plenty of jump scares, and they’re effective in that they proved my body’s fight or flight reflexes are in working order, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about them. Not one of them comes close to the kitchen exploding in part 2 or the sheet behind the babysitter in part 3. They work. You’ll jump in your seat a few times, no doubt, but you won’t remember why once the movie is over.

No PA film would be complete without the requisite introduction of a new camera trick. The third film introduced a great gimmick with an oscillating fan that allowed for some of the greatest moments of the whole series. There’s nothing in this entry that comes close to being as memorable. The big novelty this time out involves using the infrared setting on a camera to make visible the sea of motion-sensing lights that spill into the living room from an Xbox Kinect. There are scenes that play with this visual device, which is definitely cool to look at, but doesn’t foster as much dread as some of the novelties from the earlier films. It’s practically screaming at the audience, “LOOK AT OUR COOL NEW TRICK!!”

Kathryn Newton is fine as the increasingly terrified Alice; it’s Matt Shively who manages to steal the show, giving a funny and charming performance as Alice’s boyfriend, Alex. It’s too bad he pretty much disappears after the first half of the movie. The most egregious crime, character-wise, is in the form of Alice’s parents. They’re never once anything but non-characters who exist solely to doubt their daughter’s claims. The film has to come up with increasingly more unbelievable reasons for them to ignore the bizarre events that are inflicting their household. Some broadly telegraphed scenes of marital discord throw out the blanket excuse that they’re too stressed with their own problems to really pay attention, but that only goes so far in justifying their cartoonish indifference. When knives are disappearing from right in front of you, maybe it’s time to bend an ear to what your daughter is saying. It becomes more and more distracting and cartoonish the longer the film goes on.

The expansion of the mythology, done relatively well in all the previous films, collapses in on itself. Perhaps the filmmakers are playing coy, but the storyline verges on being incomprehensible. Nobody should be turning to the PA series looking for the Great American Screenplay, but the story should at least be successful in setting up a good framework for the scares. The original demon, Robbie, Hunter, Katie, the coven: all these elements are thrown together into a stew that doesn’t add up to anything, and so all the frightening moments end up existing in a vacuum – a pitfall the series has previously avoided.

Story issues and uninspired scares won’t bother some. If one is looking to just spill some popcorn when a cat jumps into frame, Paranormal Activity 4 will not disappoint. The whole venture feels noticeably more hollow at this point. The film hits all the now-familiar beats, and does so skillfully enough, but one can’t help but feel that this is the turning point at which the novelty of the Paranormal Activity series has finally calcified into formula.

Paranormal Activity 4 is out in UK cinemas from October 17th, the US on October 19th, and most other territories in the weeks ahead, from Paramount.