Paranormal Activity 4: A Bore or a Good Addition to the Lore?
With the exception of the ending of Paranormal Activity 3, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how the franchise has sustained its gimmick of using found footage to document things that go bump in the night. The original movie was the first major found footage movie to strike a chord with audiences since The Blair Witch Project several years earlier. The second movie surprised by turning out to be a prequel rather than the expected sequel; we find out at the end that events are occurring before the events in Paranormal Activity. The third movie continued the trip back in time and provided some of the biggest scares of the series; however, the ending added another layer to the mythology and was very dissatisfying for me.
How does Paranormal Activity 4 compare to its predecessors? Does the franchise continue its winning streak or does it strike out? To find out, I’m going to apply a three-pronged test to determine whether or not a found footage movie is any good. The first rule: it must be realistic in the situation that someone would be filming the events of the movie. The second rule: it must offer something new to the found footage gimmick. And the third rule: it must have a good ending.
Paranormal Activity 4 mostly adheres to the first rule. However, at the beginning it stretches credulity that someone would constantly be using a video camera while walking around the house, running down the stairs and having mundane conversations with friends and other family members. Passing attempts are made to explain it; for example, a parent tells their daughter to put “that camera” down. Until the infrastructure is laid for subsequent recording, though, you have to put up with a little suspension of disbelief.
That brings us to the second rule, which Paranormal Activity 4 solidly follows. I can’t attest to the authenticity of the technology, but the kids add webcams, video chat, mobile phones and night vision (via Xbox Kinect) to the mix. I found these recording methods to be a fresh and effective change from simply using security cameras stationed around the house. I don’t know that it’s any more likely for a teenage girl to be carrying a laptop wherever she goes, but it at least explains how and why events get recorded.
Something else new to the mix is that the story is told largely from the kids’ points of view. Teenage daughter, Alex, is the only believer when creepy neighbor kid, Robbie, becomes a houseguest and her little brother, Wyatt, becomes influenced by supernatural forces. This is a realistic situation because the parents are portrayed as naturally being more concerned with their own lives than those of their children. It also seems that the kids are more prone to doing something about what’s happening around them than the adults of the previous movies. Paranormal Activity 4 therefore has more “action” than the others, particularly a suspenseful and exciting scene where Alex is trapped in the garage with a running car.
This point of view also allows significantly more humor than Paranormal Activity 1-3 did. And not just the release-of-tension-laughs after a good scare. Alex’s friend, Ben, is an entertaining source of humor as he helps her set up surveillance while also trying to get into her pants. Again, this is realistic and natural. I think Paranormal Activity 4 does a good job of creating believable characters, atmosphere and environment.
For me, the best part of Paranormal Activity 4 is its ending, which satisfies completion of the third rule and then some. It provides a nice comeback after the horrible ending of part 3 while somehow retaining the mythology it created. The ending is sudden, as any found footage movie should be. (Remember, if this is really footage someone who met an untimely fate, it must end abruptly.) But it’s what happens just before the actual ending that provides the scariest footage of the entire franchise. I cannot spoil, but let’s just say there is a more physical manifestation of the evil and it’s scary as hell.
Unfortunately, nothing scary comes before its conclusion. For me, there are virtually no jumps. The convention of apparitions appearing and pots and pans falling has gotten stale. And that’s why you go to a Paranormal Activity movie: its jumps and scares. You don’t go because it has a solid story and sweet ending. I must admit, the audience was startled in a couple of spots; however, the count was much lower than in the previous movies. This does bring up the point, though, that you absolutely must see Paranormal Activity 4 in a crowded theater. The best entertainment comes not from the screen, but from the reactions of the audience.
The other huge failing is the plot. A prologue sets up a compelling premise, but its realization is a mess. There may or may not be a twist midway that shifts suspicion about one character to another. If it does, then you don’t really know who the other character is. In a way, it doesn’t matter because of the conclusion, but you certainly don’t want to think about it very long or it doesn’t make sense. You want some mystery, but you also want some logical explanation at the end to fuel your speculation about what happened. Upon further scrutiny, Paranormal Activity 4 doesn’t give you that.
All in all, I’m pleased that Paranormal Activity 4 wasn’t awful when there was every possibility that it would be. I kind of liked it. However, if you’re expecting the scares of the other three, you’re not going to get them. I’d say it’s a mostly solid addition to the franchise, but an excellent opportunity for it to end. It could have gone out on a higher note, but let’s hope it doesn’t go out on a lower one at this time next year.