In 2009, "Paranormal Activity" combined a miniscule budget and a clever release tactic to bring the found-footage sub-genre to the scariest place possible: home. "Paranormal Activity 2" surprisingly proved that sequels – much less horror movie sequels – could almost equal their predecessors. Last year's third entry was the weakest of the bunch but did produce the pivoting 'fan-cam.'
So, what new element does "Paranormal Activity 4" introduce to the series?
Boredom. Oh, and the Microsoft Kinect, because what better symbol for a useless franchise addition than a useless video game console addition.
After making a quick pit stop in the '80s in the last movie, "Paranormal Activity 4" jumps back to the present to follow chirpy suburban teen Alex (Kathryn Newton). Despite some bickering parents (Alexondra Lee and the late Stephen Dunham), life is pretty normal for Alex. Things take a hard turn toward the paranormal when Katie from the first film and the kidnapped baby from part two – now a toddler named Robbie – move in across the street.
If you've seen the other three movies, you know pretty much how this new installment is going to play out. It all starts out of innocent – a swinging chandelier here, a mysterious shadow there – until the threats become more severe, leading to an epic climax involving invisible beings throwing people around like ragdolls and people making snarling demon faces toward a shaky camera.
Admittedly, there are a few decent scares in "Paranormal Activity 4," many of which involving the Kinect. The motion capture technology is the most gimmicky thing to hit the series yet, but returning directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman do some cleverly creepy things with the device's thousands of small lights. Plus, it's just a striking image in a found-footage genre that normally doesn't have much to provide visually.
However, these clever scares are few and far between. For the most part, "Paranormal Activity 4" keeps repeating the same tactics and setups. A character blocks the camera and then something appears in the background. A door creaks open. The droning bass starts pounding on the speakers. It may have been effective at one time, but after four movies, it's hard to convince the audience they still have something new to fear – especially since we know nothing serious will happen until the last five or 10 minutes.
Some of the scares reek of desperation as well. A sequence involving a Big Wheel is a clear nod to "The Shining," save without any of the horror that made Kubrick's film a classic. Plus, writer Christopher Landon unfortunately turns the ghoulish menace into a typical PG-13 shadowy figure, swooping past the camera and creating the cheapest of cheap jump scares.
Landon's creative strain isn't limited to the spooky moments. The first film excelled thanks to its simple story told well. Now, the mythology – including the third movie's silly cult addition – is excessively complicated, forcing the audience to wonder what is the point of all of this. We're told the ghost needs to kill a virgin, but he focuses most of his attention on Alex's little brother, Wyatt. What is this ghoul's seemingly elaborate plan, besides giving all of suburbia a case of demon face? Once you've introduced a greater logic or goal to the picture, the audience expects some consistency.
The only thing that's consistent in "Paranormal Activity 4" is the characters' stupidity. The series hasn't exactly featured a cast of Mensa members in the past, but the fourth installment stretches one's tolerance for doltishness. Despite knives falling from the ceiling and obvious warning signs, Alex, nor her parents, do anything. I take that back: Alex keeps recording everything on her laptop, pushing the franchise's premise to the point of implausibility, and her parents bust out the sleeping pills. Jeez, guys, are you working for the ghost?
The depressing part about "Paranormal Activity 4" is that it's probably still the best horror movie I've seen this year (I haven't seen "Sinister" yet). It can build some mild tension, and if you liked the last three films, this one offers a lot of the same. But its rank as the best of the year should be taken as a statement about the sad status of the horror genre rather than a comment about the quality of this tired – hopefully final – installment.
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