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Non-Review Review: Paranormal Activity 4

I actually quite liked the opening set-up of Paranormal Activity 4. As far as horror franchises go, the Paranormal Activity series is still much more spry than most other long-running series, and there’s a certain charm to the opening hour of Paranormal Activity 4 that seem almost playful. It feels strange to talk about a movie featuring an ominous demon hunting a small suburban family in these terms, but there’s a surprisingly warm and endearing sense of humour to be found in the first two-thirds of the film. Things definitely come off the rails towards the finalé, as the movie (and the series) become too burdened down with mythology and story – and the last third certainly becomes a little over-crowded and generic, threatening to collapse under its own weight as so many modern horrors do.

While it’s nowhere near as innovative, clever or genuinely frightening as Paranormal Activity, Paranormal Activity 4 measures up reasonably well to the standard set by the sequels, ending up much stronger than Paranormal Activity 2, and about on-par with Paranormal Activity 3.

Something to watch over me…

By this point, we know what to expect from these films. It’s a small suburban family at the mercy of some ethereal other-worldly force. “He doesn’t like it when you film him,” a creepy child advises out leads at one point during the demon’s most forceful attack, perhaps retroactively explaining the ferocity of the creature’s attacks in the original trilogy. He’s just camera shy. The film does well to open on a new family instead of continuing to focus on the old tangled family tree.

Part of the appeal of the original film was watching a couple deal with something that seemed genuinely otherworldly. The two sequels explored the family history a bit too much, to the point where the series became almost over-burdened with story. Indeed, Paranormal Activity 3 was something of an origin story for the two female leads in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2. It removes the randomness and the brutality of the original haunting, creating the impression that the malignant force has a reason or motivation, and that it could be bargained or bartered with.

Creepy kid is creepy…

It made the haunting seem less like something that could happen in any dark or strange house inhabited by any young couple, and instead made it very specific to this particular person. While the first film hinted at a twisted family back story, the sequels dwelt on it a little too much. So it’s great to see Paranormal Activity 4 at least open on an entirely new family. The short prologue all but assures us that the movie will eventually pick up the threads of the first film, and it certainly does. (Although one of the twists is shrewd enough that I give it a bit of credit for execution.)

It’s nice to open on a new cast of characters who we know aren’t burdened with decades of family history tied to demons and ghosts. The script actually makes a very clever decision to shift the film’s attention away from the parents at to two teenagers. This is quite a shrewd decision. After all, the most unbelievable aspect of the first three films was the idea that the family had three selfish jackass patriarchs more concerned with documenting these bizarre experiences than caring for their family.

This is totally less sleazy than it looks. Totally.

The original film strained credibility in that regard, with Micah seeming like a self-centred tool. It worked there due to novelty, but seeing the pattern repeat made the concept rather stale. Indeed, by the time the third film rolled around, it seemed almost incredible that not one male figure was more interested in his better half’s sanity than in making a nice home movie. That was certainly less believable than the existence of a sinister demonic force answering to the name “Toby.”

Focusing on two teenagers actually allows for several interesting opportunities that make the film’s human characters a bit easier to stomach. For one thing, setting the film among the young YouTube, Twitter and Facebook generation helps rationalise the dependency on technology to document and record every waking second. We can’t help but stifle a cynical chuckle as the lead’s boyfriend assures her that he wasn’t just watching her sleep, but his computer records everything.

Hopefully they can shed some light on the matter…

Sure, the notion of an Orwellian security system run by two teenagers beggars belief, and it seems that certain cameras should pick up more than they do, but the film plays a bit faster and looser with the whole recording and documenting thing than its predecessors. It almost seems like, even before the leads notice something is wrong, everything is just recording everything. Our lead’s phone, for example, doesn’t seem to need to be set to record.

Maybe we are truly living in a Google and Apple controlled world where everything really isrecording us all the time. The film cleverly avoids dwelling on it too much, and it’s a smart decision. By this point in the series, you either buy into the central premise, or you don’t. If you do, you don’t want too much forced set-up. If you don’t… well, you won’t be buying a ticket, will you? The film handles it quite well.

He’s behind you!

I also like the sense of humour that the two kids bring to the film, played rather well by Kathryn Newton and Matt Shively. The performances are hardly revelatory, but they’re light and they’re entertaining. I appreciate the film’s sense of humour about itself – the fact that it refuses to take itself entirely too seriously. After all, we’ve already watched three of these films, so it’s nice to see that the movies can adopt a slightly playful and cheeky manner. There’s something charming about Shively’s portrayal of a teenager trying not to be too pervy, and Newton’s relatively genre-aware teen.

(I also like the touch that the father here is, in the finest tradition of the series, a complete failure. He’s just not one who documents those failures for the world to see. He can’t attend his son’s game, he’s oblivious to his daughter’s problems, he’s emotionally distant from his wife. Paranormal Activity is a horror movie very much focused on feminine archetypes and the male character seem to exist to take up space. And to do boring exposition. And to document stuff. It’s a neat reversal of the horror films that typically focus heavily on male cast members, reducing the female cast members to sex objects.)

Being led down the garden path…

However, the movie is far from perfect, and it runs into some serious problems early on. The series has become burdened with far too much continuity, and that continues here, as we discover sinister goings-on across the road from the family home, and connections to the original film slowly become more obvious. The threat shifts away from the sinister and ethereal “Toby”, and we’re left with some very human foes for our heroes to face – it just feels too mundane, and too story-driven. The original film worked because of its low-key nature. Now it seems that everything has to clumsily tie into everything else.

This comes together for a mess of a third act that feels transposed from another horror film. There’s lots of running and screaming, but not really a lot of tension or scares. It’s all rather typical, despite being somewhat muddled. It doesn’t feel like a conclusion to the film we started watching, but instead a continuation of the worst parts of Paranormal Activity 2 and Paranormal Activity 3, as our leads find themselves confronting a sinister force with a very clear tactical objective, rather than the sinister and malevolent chaos that grounded the first film. It really detracts from a film that starts out as a relatively endearing breath of fresh air, falling back on patterns and devices that were irritating the first time.

Don’t look now…

That said, there’s an argument that the Paranormal Activity films work best as a collection of Checkov’s guns, as each room has any number of objects and gimmicks ready for manipulation by a sinister force. The only real innovation in the series is the design and application of these devices to dramatic effect, as each new house offers new settings for scares. It’s not a bad way to judge the films, and Paranormal Activity 4 has some genuinely clever set-ups, even if not all follow through.

The best, interestingly enough, is a nice bit of product placement for the Kinect for the Xbox 360. It projects a series of dots to pick up movement. The implications are obvious, and there are some shots that actually make great use of it. It justifies the rather transparent advertising – as I genuinely don’t mind films using real-life products in a manner that actually makes sense. The device allows for some atmospheric sequences, and I like it.

Glow in the dark, eh?

The rest of the house is somewhat sparingly used. Toby doesn’t get too much play this time around, so it seems like many of the obvious objects waiting for manipulation are never used. I spent, for example, a great deal of time looking for shapes in the humidifier in one room, or monitoring the swaying beads in the doorway our lead character’s wardrobe. They aren’t necessarily exploited as well as they could be, but I think the films have suffered at this sort of set-up since Paranormal Activity.

To be fair, the movie hints that it’s intentional. It delights in teasing us with false “reveal”shots to build tension. A fridge door will open, and we’ll expect something sinister behind it when the character closes it. A character will move close to fidget with the camera, only to lean back, and we’ll tense as we expect a sinister shadow shape to be waiting. Many would accuse the movie of unduly teasing the audience, but I don’t mind –  playing on expectations works well enough. That said, the movie doesn’t quite deliver on anything in its third act.

Kids will be creepy, satanic kids…

I will concede to being fond of Paranormal Activity 4. It’s a solid addition to the series, even if it’s far from purpose. It’s too heavily burdened by the series’ mythology, and its conclusion is all over the map. However, it has an endearing charm for the first half of its runtime, and two solidly engaging leads, with a new lease on life. The Paranormal Activity series might not be a spring chicken, but it’s still a lot healthier than a lot of other horror series to make to four films.

4 Responses

  1. You mentioned “The best, interestingly enough, is a nice bit of product placement for the Nintendo Wii. It projects a series of dots to pick up movement” The technology used is actually a Kinect for the Xbox 360. Just thought I’d clear that up.

  2. Saw the final cut today. None of the footage from the first trailer ended up in the film. The still used in the poster doesn’t occur either.

    • That’s hardly new, though? The same thing happened with the last one, right? Being honest, I don’t mind too much. Horror movies thrive on surprise, and putting something in the trailer removes that surprise. I don’t mind if trailers feature lines and scenes not in the film (or even occasionally being downright misleading), as long as they convey mood. I don’t want to see the movie compressed to 2:30, I want a taste of the kind of thing I can expect.

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