I had high hopes for Paranormal Activity 4. I really did. I really, really did.
I should have known that there was nowhere to go but downhill since the letdown of Paranormal Activity 3. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed that movie, but I felt it left too many loose ends dangling. It opened up more questions than it offered answers. I assumed, therefore, that this film would answer some of those questions. Plus, since I was under the impression that this was the last installment of the Paranormal Activity sequence, I expected there to be a big bang finale. But there wasn’t, really. And I just recently found out that despite so-so critical ratings, Paramount is actually moving forward with a Paranormal Activity 5! Say what?
This film felt very rushed to me. Yes, the young Katie Featherstone replacement, Alex (Kathryn Newton) is hot. As a matter of fact, I felt like a bit of a lech watching her myself – she is a creepy old man’s dream come true, especially in her sexy tween outfits and perfectly messy long blond hair. It’s refreshing to meet a new family – the Nelsons of Henderson, NV (although their home looks strikingly similar to the So-Cal homes of the other Paranormal Activity films). We get to watch Alex Skype with her boyfriend, Ben, in her short shorts and tee shirts, rolling around lackadaisicalIy on her bed… it’s a dirty old internet-surfing man’s dream come true. You want to hate Alex, and the fact that she looks better on her Macbook Pro video chat than most of us look after spending an hour doing our hair and makeup. But I digress.
The arc of the Paranormal Activity sequence is that each subsequent film serves to better explain the events of the first film. This film didn’t do that at all. It posed more questions than it did answers. The movie begins when Alex and Ben find Robbie, the little boy who lives across the street, hiding in their tree house one night. I found this to be the scariest part of the entire film, as the camera pans around the dark tree house to see Robbie lurking in the corner, looking creepy and extremely old for his age (and also a bit like a young version of Wee Man. Anyone?)
It turns out that the Nelsons’ neighbor is none other than our favorite Katie Featherston, who is living with her son, who we presume, due to events in previous films, to be Hunter. Early in the film, Katie falls ill and is taken to the hospital, leaving Robbie to stay with Alex’s family. The Nelsons have a younger son, Wyatt, whom Robbie befriends. It turns out that Robbie is attempting to lure Wyatt into his lair. Alex and Ben decide to setup laptops around the house to document the strange activity that Robbie has brought to the house. This seems like a clever enough setup, but why on earth would a normal household require 5 laptops to all be running at the same time, ie: the Macbook that’s set up in the boys’ bedroom that runs 24/7. I guess the Nelsons haven’t embraced green living.
The movie continues as Robbie brings the horrors of Paranormal Activity to the Nelson household: Robbie and Wyatt chasing what appears to be the outline of a small child throughout the house in the middle of the night, Robbie drawing an occult looking symbol on Wyatt’s back. Unfortunately, what seems like it would be scary on paper didn’t translate to being scary on screen. I recognized the director’s nod to Stanley Kubrick’s famous scene in The Shining when Danny rides his tricycle through the Overlook Hotel only to come face to face with the scariest fucking twins in the world, as Wyatt rides his trike through the house and encounters some paranormal resistance. Unfortunately, there was no comparison in the level of suspense or fright. The spookiest spook scenes in this film didn’t do it for me. Even the much anticipated Kinect scenes seemed overly constructed – like directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman needed a gimmick to bring the film back to the present day. An interesting twist to the story is when we find out through Wyatt that he is actually adopted, as is Robbie. Wyatt then drops hints to his sister that his real name is Hunter. Huh? I thought that Robbie was Hunter, since he’s the one living with Katie. It would seem that Robbie is just the messenger to abduct Hunter from the Nelson family. Why? I don’t know. I’ve been wrongfully accused…
The underlying problem, I think, is that no one (presumably not even the writers and directors) knows where this series is going. There’s no big picture in mind. What the first two films achieved were a cohesive story told backwards. The third film removed us from that immediate story in order to give us background information on the two main characters. This film, however, just had what Ben Kendrick described in his Screenrant review as a “meandering” quality. Ultimately, none of the questions that viewers have been harboring over the last five years have been answered. This frustrates the hell out of me! Even the “grand finale” scene seemed like a ripoff of the ending of Paranormal Activity 3. Okay, we get it – Katie’s family is a coven of really scary looking women, and Katie is clearly a demonic entity who wants to devour you. Now what?
Another thing I noticed was that that this movie had a lot more humor in it than previous sequences. There were several “ha ha” cheesy moments that weren’t present in the other films, ie: Mr. Nelson belching on the couch while he’s watching football and drinking a beer. There was also the doofy, clueless Dad figure and the horny boyfriend, which almost seems like a standard for horror movies.
I’d hate for this franchise to go seriously downhill. I remember watching Paranormal Activity and holding my breath as Katie and Micah watched in horror as they played back the overnight footage from their bedroom and witnessed Katie get up, trance-like, out of a dead sleep, turn and stare at Micah for over an hour before turning and slowly walking downstairs into the dark. Those are the moments that made Paranormal Activity great.
All in all, if you have nothing to do on a Friday night and feel like seeing something in the spirit of Halloween, give Paranormal Activity 4 a try. Otherwise, I think you’d be wise to wait until #5 comes out next year, see if it’s any good, then watch PA4 as an appetizer before you see that movie.