Editor’s note: With Paranormal Activity 4 now officially released in theaters, here is a re-run of our Fantastic Fest review, originally published on September 27, 2012. Although the FF version was a work-in-progress, as far as we can tell the final cut is mostly the same save for a slight reordering of some scenes near the end.
Another set of cameras and another hopeless family that can’t help themselves. They can’t rid themselves of a demonic presence that is purposefully in their home for a reason, nor can they keep from being compelled to record everything that happens. For a franchise that utilizes the “found footage” form of filmmaking, it still isn’t quite clear yet who has found all of this footage to show us, or why they’ve chosen to sift through two decades’ worth of recordings and cleanly edit it all together and make movies out of them. I gather I’m reading too much into this, but by this point I think I’m due an explanation.
Paranormal Activity 4 takes place chronologically following the disappearance of Katie (Katie Featherston) and her nephew Hunter (Brady Allen) at the end of Paranormal Activity 2, which actually took place before Paranormal Activity, except for the final five minutes, which take place after the events of Paranormal Activity, which started this whole train until we saw Paranormal Activity 3, which explained the origins of the hauntings and the commentary on home video paranormal voyeurism.
Part 4 takes place five years after the events of the first two films. A young boy and his Mom (Katie and Hunter, now called Robbie) move into a nice suburb across the street from a family with a son who is Robbie’s age, Jackson (Tommy Miranda), a teenage daughter named Alex (Kathryn Newton), and apparently a lot of MacBooks with built-in cameras. Robbie shows up suspiciously in their backyard clubhouse late one night, and this begins their exposure to young Robbie’s odd behavior.
The next night, “Robbie’s Mom” (really his Aunt Katie) becomes ill and has to go to the hospital for a few days. So, being the good neighbors they are, the family across the street offer to house Robbie in the meantime. He, of course, brings with him inexplicable sounds in the middle of the night (heard by Alex) and, if you’ve seen any of the other pictures, you know what happens and what gets recorded.
Paranormal Activity 4‘s biggest issue is that it’s the first in the series that feels mostly uninspired and derivative. The same could justifiably be said about parts 2 and 3, but even where those felt like the same picture as their prior installments, the set pieces noticeably attempted to one-up the scare tactics of the prior picture by adding a new element to the recording. The second film had stationary cameras all throughout the house, and the third picture introduced the oscillating panning of the camera across multiple rooms. Paranormal Activity 4 just seems to take aspects of each of the first three and use them at will. Different recorders, but overall, just the same effect.
This is also the first film in the franchise that doesn’t seem to move the mythology of the overarching story forward in any way. With the conclusion of Paranormal Activity 3,we got the sense that the filmmakers were working towards a much larger story, but by the end of this one you feel like there’s no story-serving direction or purpose other than to make more movies. If each of the films are like chapters then this is the one you don’t re-read.
It should be acknowledged that this may be the first in the franchise that doesn’t have a frustrating male figure. The father of the family is as clueless and dismissive of what’s going on as many dads would sadly be, but at least he’s genuinely oblivious and that makes for a couple of honestly funny moments. Ben, who is Alex’s boyfriend, will occasionally carry around the camera when he has no real reason to, but he isn’t the protagonist and doesn’t usually stick around longer than he should. He’s also relatively likeable, whereas characters of his kind typically are not, in order to serve a horrific payoff.
At this point in the Paranormal Activity franchise, the series is starting to reflect the viewership events of the Lost series. Paranormal Activity 4 is like Lost‘s third season — it answers nothing and only adds new queries. It may be about time for the creative team to take a page from the Lost playbook and make it known that there will be a definite, planned end to this continuous story of Katie and her haunted kin. Otherwise, I’m fully prepared to just change the channel, and I don’t think I’ll be alone.
The Upside: Clever set pieces (again) and a much more tangible and successful attempt at occasional humor. Sometimes it uses itself as the butt of the joke, but the obliviousness of the dad and the likability of Ben (Alex’s boyfriend) were a good choice of inclusion for the audience to find another kind of male personality that isn’t frustratingly carrying around a camera in an intense situation when they have absolutely no reason to. Might also have the best final shot of the series.
The Downside: A female carries around a camera in the most intense situations when she has absolutely no reason to. Seems to add nothing significantly new to further the mythology and opens up an aspect of the story that at the moment appears only to service the need to continue the series for monetary purposes. By the end this one felt completely unnecessary in its connection to the first three installments. Also, minus the final shot, this one lacked the heart-pounding sequence escalation of its predecessors.
On the Side: To date, the Paranormal Activity franchise has grossed over $580m worldwide and the first three installments have cost only a combined $8m. If the franchise continues this same success for another two pictures, it’s possible their combined grosses can reach $1b in worldwide box office and cost only $20m total to produce. Only thirteen films in history have grossed $1b worldwide and the least expensive production amongst them cost $94m.