Invisible Demonic Terror Returns to Suburbia Again in Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
Among modern horror film franchises, Paranormal Activity is the only one that has been able to consistently use the "found footage" style of storytelling throughout each of its films. Other franchises that began in the horror subgenre of found footage all jettisoned that style at one point or another. Some did as soon as the first sequel (Blair Witch Project, The Last Exorcism), while others did so later (REC). Yet upon my viewing of Paranormal Activity 4, this franchise's accomplishment is looking rather dubious. After all, why stay within the style of found footage if it begins to hamper a franchise's storytelling possibilities?
For as competently made as it is, PA4 serves as a reminder that its franchise needs to make some major changes very soon to keep its central story engaging and avid fans interested in more PA movies. Read on for my complete and spoiler-free review of Paranormal Activity 4.
Paranormal Activity 4 takes place in 2011, when a family in a suburban neighborhood takes in their neighbor's child Robbie (Brady Allen) after his mom is suddenly rushed to the hospital. During his stay, Robbie begins to bond with the family's youngest member Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp)--a bond that sparks suspicion in older sister Alex (Kathryn Newton) when strange, inexplicable things begin to happen in their house.
I wasn't completely dissatisfied with PA4, because there are plenty of scary ideas embedded within the story. It provides some more ideas about how the cult that was introduced in PA3 operates, and how children play a key role in the cult's grander scheme. Such a scheme explains a crucial plot twist that happens during the middle of the film, a twist that honestly surprised me but was logically consistent with the PA movies that came before it. PA4 also makes use of the Xbox 360's Kinect feature in a very creative, creepy way.
Because of the low-budget nature of found footage movies, PA4 has to rely on a lot of strategically placed obscurity to keep the special effects budget at a minimum. In doing so, this sequel mostly relies on same bag of tricks used in the previous films: characters reacting in horror to something just outside of the camera's view, supernatural entities appearing as powerful, fast-moving blurs, etc. These tricks worked well enough in the previous films, but they're begging to show their age in PA4.
Just as the camera angles are set up in PA films to hide certain visual details, the films are also structured in a way that conceals key plot points until near the end (or at the very end) of the film. As such, PA4 recycles plot details from the previous two sequels--the protective sister figure from PA2, the children who have strange imaginary friends from PA3--as a way to keep things going until the final reveal. Further dulling the sequel's creative spark is that its setting and characters look almost identical to settings and characters from the previous films: upper middle class people living in upper middle class households. To go by the situational logic of the PA franchise, supernatural entities are only interested in terrorizing people who prefer suburban living and fall within a particular income bracket.
Watching PA4 was like watching one of the later seasons of The X-Files. You sit through a lot of stuff--some familiar, some different, some scary, some boring--for the sake of learning a bit more about the grand conspiracy that ties everything together, only to be left with only a few more small details to ponder at the end. PA4 is shorter than a season of The X-Files, so it at least has that going for it. Yet if this franchise is going to have a future, it has to do something different to keep the story fresh and scary. Otherwise, future PA sequels will be the kind of footage that no one wants to find.