Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 4 / Cert: 15 / Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman / Screenplay: Christopher Landon, Chad Feehan / Starring: Kathryn Newton, Brady Allen, Matt Shively, Katie Featherston / Release Date: October 17th
By far the most interesting aspect of the Paranormal Activity movies is their marketing campaign: training the camera on preview audiences (while us jaded journalists are discreetly seated at the back of the theatre safely out of the camera’s gaze), trailers for the movies focus on the fearful faces of the fans as each jump scare in the movie makes the popcorn fly, the night-vision camera homing in on the guys and gals shrinking in their seats or grabbing the arm of the person next to them. It’s meta if you say it is: the audience is filmed watching movies in which fear is caught by surveillance technology (the very fact that audiences act up to the camera when it’s trained on them seems not to matter). But really the raison d’etre of the Paranormal Activity movies is to provide a scare machine that will draw in audiences and get bums on seats; meaning is secondary, making the bucks is what counts. And so it is with Paranormal Activity 4.
PA4 takes place five years after the last one and we are given a brief reminder of the events that led to Katie (Featherstone) killing her family and kidnapping her nephew. Jump forward to 2011, teenager Alex (Newton) and her boyfriend, Ben (Shively) communicate nightly by video chat and keep a daily diary of their lives on Alex’s camcorder. When their mysterious neighbour is taken into hospital, Alex’s parents open their home to her son, Robbie (Allen) who turns out to be more than a little creepy. Sure enough ‘paranormal activity’ ensues, captured on the teenagers’ recording devices, and it seems Robbie has brought a malevolent force into Alex’s home.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (who also directed PA3) do a pretty good job of keeping things believable, given the slender premise and the hardnosed commercial drive of providing a seemingly never-ending series of jump scares. Newton and Shively are really quite likable as the two fifteen year olds who are trying (like the characters in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) to prove to the adults that shit is, like, really happening here. Mom and Dad are too distracted by their own marital strife to notice at first (the underlying threat of family break up is slyly captured by the surveillance cams set up by Ben) until their youngest son starts to act strangely, but by then it’s too late.
PA4 doesn’t solve the two basic problems inherent in found footage movies: namely a) why are the characters still filming when any sane person would throw down the camera and run; and b) who edited this footage afterwards and why? Instead Joost and Schulman just assume that the audience will accept these implausibilities, and simply get on with it. The jump-scares are - need we say it - a little overdone. After a while the audience becomes inured to them, and there are also times when Joost and Schulman fail to take us sufficiently unawares for the ‘stings’ to work as effectively as they might. Having said that, the web chat/laptop gimmick helps to conjure one particular moment of supreme dread as Alex leaves the frame to investigate strange noises and we are left staring into an empty bedroom through the webcam in total silence for minutes on end, waiting for the worst to happen.
Apart from this neat use of Skype and the like as a recording instrument for fear, there’s nothing particularly original in Paranormal Activity 4; Robbie is a creepy kid like Danny in The Shining (there’s even an homage to Kubrick’s classic in the scene where Alex’s younger brother is riding his tricycle around the kitchen); the house eventually gets completely overtaken by supernatural like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist; and the demon in PA4 likes to levitate his victims as he did in The Exorcist. (The levitation scene in Paranormal Activity 4, it has to be said though, really is something else, perhaps the most chillingly believable one ever filmed).
Hard to know where the Paranormal Activity franchise can go next, because the found footage gimmick on which it is based really doesn’t add that much here. What it is really crying out for is some development to the themes. What is this demon? What does it want? Alas we may never find out, not unless the producers go easier on the hollow scares route for a while and dig a little deeper into the mythology of coven.
Expected Rating: 5 out of 10