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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 is the first film in the series to be
as funny as it is scary, and that’s not a bad thing, as it seems to have been
intentional, and was probably the right direction at this point in the
Rather than continue in the creeping-dread mode of the
previous movies, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and screenwriter
Christopher Landon (all returning from PARANORMAL 3, this time working from a
story by Chad Feehan) aim for a funhouse feel that encourages the audience to
jump and scream, and then laugh at themselves for having jumped and screamed.
(It should be noted that this review and the rating below are based on having
seen PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 with a packed and enthusiastic audience, without
which it likely wouldn’t be quite as effective.) Sometimes the jolts are the
payoff of a careful buildup of suspense and the result of precise timing and
framing, at others they’re elicited via the simple (one could say cheap) trick
of having a character suddenly jump-cut into the middle of the screen. The
methods employed by Joost and Schulman here are sometimes old, but they still
Eschewing a continuation of the open ending of the previous
1988-set prequel, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 recaps the conclusion of 2, in which
the possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) was last seen spiriting away her infant
nephew Hunter circa 2006. Five years later, an odd little boy is seen watching
in the background as teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton) videotapes her little
brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) at his soccer game. To effect these movies’
signature found-footage style, Alex, like all PARANORMAL protagonists, has a
penchant for running her camcorder at all hours of the day, and her Skype chats
with boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) are accidentally—he says—recorded on his own
laptop. When weird stuff starts happening around Alex’s house, Ben is able to
set up the computers in every room to send nonstop video feeds back to his
machine, where the images can be recorded and perused later.
This up-to-the-minute technology gives PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4
a bit of distinction from the retro-hardware-oriented previous film. Similarly,
there’s an nifty visual gimmick in which we frequently see night-vision footage
of a darkened room where an Xbox Kinect is running, and its thousands of
motion-tracker dots become visible, making the space resemble an eerie
starfield. Otherwise, the material is tried-and-true: doors and other objects
moving by themselves, people (and ghosts) appearing from the corners and a
creepy kid. In this case, he’s the aforementioned soccer voyeur Robbie (Brady
Allen), who has moved next door with his mother but seems to prefer lurking
outside Alex’s window. His mom is taken away in an ambulance for mysterious
reasons, which at first seems a convenient way to write Featherston out of the
scenario and results in Alex’s parents (played by real-life married couple
Stephen Dunham—who, sadly, died last month, and to whom the film is
dedicated—and Alexondra Lee) taking Robbie in.
The resulting, slowly escalating terror incorporates
occasional homages to past horror classics (Wyatt rides a Big Wheel around the
house like Danny in THE SHINING) but for the most part proceeds by both
honoring and having fun with the approach that worked in the past PARANORMALs.
As often as they aim for an honest scare, Joost and Schulman seem to know that
this bag of tricks has become familiar after three installments, and play with
expectations in ways that draw nervous laughs of anticipation and recognition.
(A setup involving a piece of kitchen cutlery is particularly good at getting
you cringing and giggling as you await the payoff.) They never outright poke
fun at the material, though, and they resist the frequent franchise pitfall of
trying to go bigger and better. What was once achieved by Oren Peli (continuing
on as producer/godfather) with his camcorder and $11,000 now has the full force
of Industrial Light & Magic behind it, yet the FX and scare tactics remain
modest enough to continue the homegrown veneer that gave PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
its appeal in the first place.
There is, as always, the question of why Alex keeps carrying
her camera around even after her circumstances become nightmarish, and a moment
where she doesn’t take advantage of available video communication when it could
save her life. If things like this have become par for the course in the
found-footage subgenre, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 also allows for reflection on the
fact that these kinds of movies have helped repopularize the classic genre
virtues of mood and a gradual build of tension on a horror scene that has
elsewhere overdosed on sadistic gore and hollow spectacle. This sequel doesn’t
have the resonant chill of the original—it probably won’t haunt your sleep—but
the scary/funny high it provides—particularly at the climax—is akin to the
sugar rush of a post-trick-or-treat candy binge—in other words, the perfect
movie for Halloween.
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