A battle between horror conventions and innovations has been steadily brewing over the course of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, and in the fourth film, the conventional finally wins. Less reliant on slow-burn suspense and larded with fake-out jump scares, this is the first sequel in the series that fails to advance the overall mythology in any meaningful way. Whether the faster pace and less inventive thrills will matter to hardcore fans, there’s little indication the “Paranormal” brand has worn out its commercial appeal just yet. B.O. should be positively frightful (in a good way) through the Halloween season.
Small children chatting with spirits. A virginal teenage protagonist fending off her horny boyfriend. Creepy neighbors dabbling in the occult. Auds have seen it all before, which would be less of a concern if this “Paranormal” followed in its predecessors’ footsteps and found fresh ways to spin familiar tropes. Instead, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and screenwriter Christopher Landon (all returning from “Paranormal Activity 3”) seem to be suffering from creative malaise, settling for a few too many shots of doors ominously opening on their own, and multiple instances of the family cat scampering past the camera to deliver a sudden jolt.
“Paranormal Activity 3” circled back to the past to explore the childhood of the first two movies’ sibling protagonists, Katie and Kristi. The fourth film picks up five years after the end of part two, when Katie disappeared into the night with her infant nephew, Hunter, after murdering her sister.
Using their whereabouts as a lingering question, the film introduces two 6-year-old boys. Robbie (Brady Allen), a loner with a proclivity for menacing asides, lives across the street from Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), a rambunctious lad with a lovely teenage sister, Alex (Kathryn Newton), and two stable parents, Doug (Stephen Dunham) and Holly (Alexondra Lee). A mysterious accident at Robbie’s house forces the neighbors to become his temporary caretakers; Alex is the only one who notices all the unsettling things that coincide with Robbie’s arrival.
Even before Alex and her wisecracking b.f., Ben (Matt Shively), rig the home with cameras to provide the series’ trademark nighttime video recording, the film plays fast and loose with the requisite found-footage style. Viewers are rarely clued in as to what’s being used to film the action or why it’s being recorded at all, other than what seems like Alex’s obsessive need to carry around her computer and engage in frequent videochats with Ben. Eventually, the creepy notion emerges that various webcams in the house are permanently recording, whether their users know it or not, but the filmmakers never really follow through on the paranoid potential inherent in such an invasion of privacy.
The pic’s sole visual novelty comes from the use of the Xbox Kinect gaming accessory, which blankets the family living room with tiny green projection dots, visible only when captured by an infrared camera. The gimmick adds an otherworldly quality to select nighttime sequences, while doubling as a quirky bit of product placement. At least it’s more original than the multitude of setpieces blurring the line between ripoff and homage in the pic’s use of a Big Wheel tricycle (“The Shining”), levitating body (“The Exorcist”) and bathtub (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”).
Performances are fairly routine for the genre, though young leading lady Newton summons agreeable echoes of Dakota Fanning and Evan Rachel Wood. Tech credits are also in line with expectations, but the creeping intrusion of flashy visual effects and prosthetic makeup into what started as a low-tech series may not be to everyone’s liking. Gregory Plotkin’s editing further violates unwritten franchise rules by breaking up the “found footage” with jarring cuts, occasionally utilized for quick shocks.
The film is dedicated to the memory of Dunham, who died of a heart attack last month. In addition to playing his onscreen wife here, Lee was Dunham’s spouse offscreen as well.