I suppose the best place to start with Paranormal Activity 4 would be with my review of the previous entry in the franchise, because everything that was potentially interesting about that film ends up getting squandered here in favour of a storyline that’s not terrible, but very clearly straining to do nothing more than to keep the franchise going for several more entries by answering questions that are either obvious or have already been answered. It’s somewhat maddening, but by this point in the highly lucrative series, fans probably already know what they are getting themselves involved in. Whether they stick around much longer after this one remains to be seen.
Picking up on the story thread that ended the second film (which makes sense since part three only really directly referenced the first one), the action shifts to more of a teen movie vibe as we follow Alex (Kathryn Newton), a young woman living across the street from what appears to be the somewhat infamous setting that appears at the end of the previous film. The palatial estate that she can see from the window is owned by a mysterious woman and her intensely creepy kid (Brady Allen). After something happens to the mother, the dead eyed tyke stays with Alex’s family and she begins to expect something fishy is happening between their ward and her younger brother, she starts setting up cameras throughout the house, and you know the rest of the drill from here.
Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman return from the previous entry, but series creator Oren Peli only offers up a production credit here. Joost and Schulman still understand that people who watch one of these films are constantly scanning the frame for “tells” or anything that will give away that something scary is about to happen. They manage a couple of neat tricks (one subtly involving one of those creepy black cat wall clocks and another involving a pretty cool trick involving a X-Box Kinect that sadly grows tiresome the more and more they use it), but it feels like a bit of a step back for them.
The previous film seemed to be abandoning the artifice that what was going on in the film could actually be happening. It actually felt like watching a movie and not someone’s home videos. Here, they’re handicapped by the series’ own core premise. There’s officially now no way to explain away why there are cameras in every room since the person in the main character has no real plans on being any sort of filmmaker. Relying on laptops to capture all of the footage leads to sequences where people literally have to carry around computers to bring the audience to the action. During a particularly tense sequence, the suspense is ruined by having to force a character to literally kick a computer around so we can see what’s happening.
Maybe that’s part of the joke Joost and Schulman are trying to put forward, but it doesn’t fit this story and it feels like a weak and forced choice. It requires the audience to believe that this family owns at least 4 laptops, 2 cameras, and that they never once shut a single thing off when they go to bed at night. I want to like it and say that it might be some sort of commentary on suburban waste, but instead it just feels like a lazy set up for jump scares that aren’t nearly as satisfying this time out.
What makes the film a bit better and less of a disappointment, however, is a heightened sense of humour. In this respect, making the film a teen centred yarn is an inspired choice. Alex isn’t a movie savvy person. She’s just an average kid awkwardly making her way through life. She’s popular, a good daughter, and a great sister, but there’s nothing extraordinary about her aside from her candid nature. Her boyfriend (Matt Shivley, stealing the whole show), on the other hand can’t stop cracking perceptive and silly jokes. Again, these jokes aren’t of the self-reflexive variety, but rather of the observational kind. The film’s funny bone adds just enough to make it only the second weakest of the four films.
Everything that ended the last film comes back here, but it explains things about as deeply as Prometheus did for the Alien franchise, leaving audiences to question why they would even bother with this one since its contribution to the franchise as a whole can be summed up in a single sentence of dialogue. In fact, the truly loopy post-credits scene suggests what could be an entirely new left turn for the series, but it might have even been added late since the rest of the movie does so very little to forward this almost threadbare mythology.
It has become clear that this franchise will keep going in much the same way as the Saw franchise did a few years earlier: a series of films that have to keep the base audience expectations happy while making them think they are watching a grand sort of multi-movie epic. Once those films stop being profitable, they know they have just enough story to mount one last film that will answer everything. It’s something they can do very easily just by not jerking the audience around anymore and by giving them either something new or by ending it all. If I were these guys, I would get started on this one pretty soon.