I’m a big fan of the first three “Paranormal Activity” films, which managed to build a delightfully high level of suspense and unease without either buckets of blood, or buckets of cash. The first film remains the highest box-office return on the budget dollar Hollywood has ever seen. It was a wonderfully simple idea: a video diary of poltergeist activity, in which a couple uses a remote-controlled video camera to film the eerie happenings in their haunted house while they slept. Unfortunately, it turned out it wasn’t the house that was haunted, and they were dealing with something far worse than a cranky ghost.
The formula held up surprisingly well during two prequels, both of which did a great job of expanding the story and delivering terrific vignettes of nerve-wracking tension. (“Paranormal Activity 2” does more psychic damage to the audience with kitchen cabinets than most films can do with fountains of gore.) Alas, with the fourth installment, the series feels like it ran completely out of gas.
It’s the first true sequel to the original, but it doesn’t really advance the story much. It spends far too much time setting up scares that it never really delivers. The previous movies built slowly up to incredibly intense final encounters. PA4 just kind of checks its watch, decides it’s time to wrap things up, and starts killing off the cast. There’s a bit of a surprise for series veterans in watching the finale kick into gear during broad daylight, rather than one of the trademark late-night videotape sessions, but that’s not nearly enough to keep it feeling fresh. And while the first three films stand quite well on their own, many of PA4’s details would seem baffling to people who didn’t see PA3.
PA4 drops the ball by not adding anything new to the bag of “Paranormal Activity” visual tricks. The filmmakers were wonderfully clever about mixing up the formula in parts 2 and 3, with a multi-camera security system and the “oscillating fan camera,” respectively. Both of those innovations allowed the directors to maintain the pretense of helplessness that makes the “Paranormal Activity” films work so well. Hey, folks, don’t blame us! We can’t control when Camera 2 will cut in and show you something awful happening in the baby’s bedroom, or the oscillating camera will decide to pan left and reveal an ominous presence.
The fourth film’s innovation is the Xbox Kinect, which projects a rather amazing galaxy of tracking dots upon its surroundings when viewed through an infrared camera. The directors spend a lot of time showing us the Xbox, but there isn’t quite enough payoff. That’s broadly true of all the undercooked scares in the film, which takes much longer to get creepy than its predecessors, but then ends far too abruptly. Even the demon seems to take less pleasure from tormenting its victims. At one point, it resorts to a murder plot right out of a 70s crime drama. And its patented technique of dragging screaming people down hallways is already on the verge of becoming self-satire. It’s time to freshen up your act, Toby.
It’s too bad, because PA4 has one really great thing going for it: the extremely likable main characters, a sweet teenage couple who draw much more audience sympathy than any of the series’ other protagonists. They’re smart, funny, and generally believable in their reactions to the unfolding horror. The film noticeably loses its energy when they’re not on the screen. And the notion of a teenage girl lugging her laptop through a haunted house in the dead of night, so she can continue video-chatting with her boyfriend, is far from the most unlikely conceit the “Paranormal Activity” films have used to explain why the video feed never stops coming during the scary parts. I could see that happening. In fact, I think every teenager I know would probably do it.
Speaking of protagonists from films gone by, the “Paranormal Activity” crew deserves applause for transforming Katie Featherston into the most unlikely avatar of fear in horror-movie history. Horror icons from previous decades had hockey masks and knife gauntlets; Katie has naught but a modest soccer-mom wardrobe, and yet she can blow the creep-out meter through the roof just by entering stage left and standing quietly in a corner of the scene. She does a great job of delivering understated menace, which is something the original film had in abundance, and the inevitable sequels need more of.
(Note: There’s a very short teaser after the credits, which hints at an upcoming sequel, evidently set in Mexico. I was the only person in my theater who hung around to see it.)