If one were to graph the quality of the “Paranormal Activity” movies, the result would look much like a sine wave. The first film kicked off the series with great promise, thanks to the high tension that it was able to elicit from only two people, a camera, and a long, dark hallway. Its sequel proved to be more problematic: the massive success of the original allowed for a much larger budget, which upped the number of cameras and therefore detracted from the air of mystery that was so effective in the original. The third film, however, brought back the scares with the most inventive “activity” of the series and a particularly sinister oscillating fan. And the fourth… well, you know where this is going, which is a shame because the film was directed by the same capable team (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman of “Catfish” fame) as part three.
“Paranormal Activity 4” begins with a reminder of the bloody end of the second film, as this is a direct sequel to that one (the third was a prequel). After demon-possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) makes off with her infant nephew, the filmmakers fast-forward five years to 2011, to focus on a whole new family. Teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton) starts to suspect strange goings-on when her family takes in their neighbor’s unusual young son Robbie (Brady Allen). At Alex’s behest, her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) programs multiple computers throughout the house to record the malevolent force that Alex suspects is invading her home at night. Directors Joost and Schulman use the film to tie various threads of the series’ mythology together, but by now, most opportunities to thrill have been exhausted. This leaves “Paranormal Activity 4” with only a handful of half-hearted jump scares to try to spook the audience.
Each successive “Paranormal Activity” has captured the action with a new form of surveillance. This time around, it’s the evidently well-off family’s plethora of webcams, mounted on laptops and phones. This makes the cameras more mobile than ever, opening up the action but sapping away the tension created by the stasis of the tripod-bound recording devices of the successful first and third iterations. In those films, the viewer was held at a distance, which made the supernatural occurrences feel all the more mysterious. Here, everything is just as in-your-face as in any other found footage horror film, replete with the requisite shaky-cam and booming sound design. Not only does this style eliminate the “Did I just see what I think I saw?”-dread of the prior films, it violates the series’ distinctive aesthetic.
Unexpectedly, the most engaging part of “Paranormal Activity 4” is the relationship between Alex and Ben, who actually behave like real teenagers rather than lifeless horror pawns. For instance, when the couple are about to make love in the family clubhouse, they are alarmed to find Robbie there, hunkered down like Gollum. Instead of this setting off a red flag for Ben, he merely chastises the kid for “cockblocking” him. Sure, one could fault Ben’s attitude as reflective of typical horror character ignorance/stupidity toward a potential threat, but his response to the clearly disturbed child is humorously characteristic of a teenage male. Similarly, Alex argues with her mom about not being allowed to close the door to her room when Ben is over — a scene that audiences have encountered in dozens of sitcoms, but it’s so authentically acted here that one can’t help but believe it. The surprisingly human performances would have heightened the stakes considerably upon the demons’ arrival had the directors’ execution of the “scary” material not been so uninspired.
“Paranormal Activity 4” sets up another already-in-the-works sequel, which one can only hope will follow the series’ aforementioned sine wave pattern. However, this film strongly suggests that the franchise is out of new ideas and should come to an end. In the original “Paranormal Activity,” the sight of the protagonists sleeping was a frightening one, in that the viewer knew that terror was lurking mere feet away. The same image in “Paranormal Activity 4,” on the other hand, just makes the viewer want to catch a few z’s right alongside the characters.