18 October 2012


This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three Paranormal Activity films. Obviously.

The marketing for Paranormal Activity 4 promises that "All the activity has led to this." Since the original film, which took place in 2006, we've had a film that took place simultaneously, and a prequel set in the 1980s, so the setting of the fourth instalment in 2011 would seem to move things forward. Now, having seen the film, it turns out to be a truism as obvious and anti-climactic as "Today will lead to tomorrow", or "Slamming your dick in a car door is not ideal."

2011 marks five years since Katie Featherston murdered her boyfriend and her sister's family, and abducted her baby nephew, Hunter, as seen at the end of the second film and recapped at the start of this one. This time around, teenage Alex and her boyfriend Ben start filming, when her parents agree to look after a young boy who lives across the street, while his mother is in the hospital. There is something off about little Robbie, and Alex is disturbed, both by his relationship with her younger brother, Wyatt, and his tendency to creep around the house at night.

For the last couple of years, I've gone into spoiler-y detail with my thoughts on these movies, not least because they usually maintain an air of secrecy, even with prolific marketing. That's not happening here, because aside from disappointment, the emotion I felt most keenly after seeing this film was vindication. After everybody telling me that the hugely enjoyable third instalment was just exactly the same as every other Paranormal Activity movie, I can now safely say that there's no way that people can place that movie and Paranormal Activity 4 side-by-side, and call the former film unimaginative.

After reinvigorating the formula with their first contribution, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman completely phone in their second sequel, with so little of the ingenuity that made the last film such a blast, that there is only one possible explanation- they're fucking with me, in much the same way as the film's demonic presence fucks with the inhabitants of whatever dwelling it invades in each subsequent film. I spend a year telling people that the third film was great, and that the fourth one might be worth a look, because it's going to advance the story, and it all reverts to form. It's like a ghost appearing, and then hiding out of sight as soon as I get somebody else to look with me.

If it's intentional, that bit of metatextual mischief would be more frightening than anything else in the fourth instalment, but I regretfully report that it's all far more cynical than that. This time of year used to be the province of the Saw franchise, and while this series hasn't yet plumbed the misantropic depths of its predecessor, its successive protagonists are really little more than temporary ciphers, built to react to supernatural gubbins along with the audience. It's more depressing than before, because one of the things that this film gets right is the characters of Alex and Ben.

Tipping towards comedy more than any of the other three films, the chemistry between the two young actors, Kathryn Newton and Matt Shively, is engaging in a way that most of the characters we've encountered thus far have not been. Although Ben disappears for a large section of the film, Alex is a likeable protagonist who's easier to root for. She comes closer to death than most of those other characters, without actually dying, showing off a bit of that practicality that we miss in other horror heroines. However, in the end, Christopher Landon's script really has nothing for her to do, in the context of a series that has a revolving door for unknown actors, in an attempt to maintain the found footage conceit.

Joost and Schulman bring two new adaptations to the formula for their second run, and neither are as imaginative or as effective as the rotating fan base from last time. The first stinks of product placement, and involves the motion dots that are projected from the XBox Kinect peripheral- this only has one particular usage, and it's used quickly and often. The second, more mobile addition has Alex carrying her laptop around the house while engaged in video chats with Ben, which has an air of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, and stumbles upon that eternal found footage question, of why characters are still carrying cameras around with them into perilous situations.

Paranormal Activity 4 introduces something of an inverted Star Trek rule, by which the odd-numbered instalments are good, while the even-numbered entries are a bit shit. There are a couple of good scares, and the young leads punch above the film's weight, but as the series takes a predictable detour from the haunted house to the creepy child, there's not enough in here to confound or even entertain the audience's expectations. It's the weakest of the series to date, and easily the most formulaic- here's hoping that odd-number rule holds up, or else Paranormal Activity 5, and the mooted Latino-flavoured spin-off, are only depressing inevitabilities.

Paranormal Activity 4 is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen
Paranormal Activity 4, why not share your comments below? You know what's sillier than making a Latino spin-off that's not in Spanish? Doing a female version of something that has nothing which will appeal to women.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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