Paranormal Activity 4 (United States, 2012)

October 19, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Paranormal Activity 4 Poster

They could have called this Paranormal Inactivity.

It's a rare horror franchise indeed that manages to remain fresh and creepy by the time it arrives at installment #4. Paranormal Activity, despite a terrific beginning, quickly grew stale and repetitive and the third sequel is easily the most lifeless. It's as if all the first movie's assets have been turned into liabilities and all the energy has been leeched away. Part of the problem is that there's really nowhere for the series to go but finances have demanded that the filmmakers churn out a new episode every Halloween. Another issue is the way directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman present their footage (still first-person). Instead of using anticipation to build dread, they approach things in a more straightforward, matter-of-factly fashion. Payoffs are few and far between. The woman not paying attention as she dices vegetables does not lose a digit. The vanishing knife does not reappear in someone's back. There are far too many missed opportunities. The "boo!" moments lack punch. They're uniformly obligatory and not in the least bit shocking. In fact, especially toward the end, they verge on self-parody.

Paranormal Activity 4 follows the same basic formula: first-person footage tells the story of a family who finds their home life increasingly disturbed by potentially malevolent supernatural activity. In this case, the 15-year old heroine, Alex (Kathryn Newton), has a webcam set up on open (Apple) laptops in almost every room of the house, which limits (but does not eliminate) the amount of inappropriate time she has to spend running around carrying her computer. She has a boyfriend, younger brother, mother, and father. All of them are about as well-developed as one might expect. The real problem is the creepy across-the-street neighbors: a familiar figure from the Paranormal Activity saga, Katie (Katie Featherstone), who arrives with an adopted six-year old in tow.

For about 30 minutes, nothing happens. It's a little like watching home movies or PG web chats (because Kathryn Newton is the same age as her character, there's no question of any naughty stuff). Over the next 45 minutes, a few things go bump in the night, but there's a lot of dead space in which nothing much happens. Lots of shots of empty rooms. Of course, we stare hard at those empty rooms, expecting there to be something creepy or scary... unfortunately, they're just empty rooms. Then, every once in a while, someone strolls by. Doors mysteriously open while people are sleeping, but they never wake up or watch the footage. Only in about the last 10 minutes do things happen and, when they occur, the ineptitude of the direction is so extreme that the action turns comedic. Exiting the theater, I momentarily wondered if I had just witnessed a Paranormal Activity parody. But that would be giving far too many people too much credit for cleverness. This is just badly made formula schlock.

I suppose it could be argued that Paranormal Activity 4 finally advances Katie's story, although not in a meaningful way. She hasn't been an important character since the first movie, although she keeps popping up like a whack-a-mole. Installment #3, also directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, attempted to fill in some backstory via taking the prequel route (thereby delaying for a year the need to tell this story), but the whole thing doesn't hold together. The incremental "revelations" serve only to cheapen the original film.

If there's one thing to compliment about Paranormal Activity 4, it's the performance of Kathryn Newton, who sells her role and the situation. The same cannot be said of the other actors, who lack Newton's naturalness. She seems like a teenager who's caught in a very bad situation (in more ways than one); her fellow thespians are awkward and unconvincing. The acting quality is on par with what one gets in faux-amateur porn films.

Paranormal Activity made the transition from low-budget horror phenomenon to bankable product with the release of the first sequel. Paramount's accountants are undoubtedly happy with the franchise but one wonders if the diluted level of scares offered by Paranormal Activity 4 will kill a series that has turned the concept of "found footage" from a legitimate stylistic choice to a groan-inducing mistake. Forget jumping the shark... this series has cleared a shark, a whale, and a submarine.

Paranormal Activity 4 (United States, 2012)

Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Cast: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Katie Featherstone
Screenplay: Christopher Landon
Cinematography: Doug Emmett
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2012-10-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1