(by Dustin Putman
With the twisty, torture-centric "Saw" series but a distant memory, having exhausted audiences and story ideas after seven movies in seven consecutive years, the Halloween movie season now belongs to supernatural found-footage saga "Paranormal Activity." For the last four Octobers in a row, Paramount Pictures has delivered a new entry in the lucrative, boo-heavy franchise, very slowly building a non-linear mythology of a demonic force that has haunted - and in one case, possessed - a pair of sisters. If the events in 2010's "Paranormal Activity 2" coincided with 2009's "Paranormal Activity," and 2011's "Paranormal Activity 3" was a prequel to both, documenting the girls as children in 1988, then "Paranormal Activity 4" is the first official sequel to them all, chronologically set after a lot of spooky, witchy, otherworldly mumbo-jumbo has gone down, the evil force in question having snugly overtaken the body of Katie (Katie Featherston) for the past five years. Article continues below
Faithful viewers expecting any concrete answers or tied-up loose ends during this go-around will be in for a rude awakening, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (2010's "Catfish") and regular screenwriter Christopher Landon happy to drag their feet even as they clearly are running out of inspiration. More of the same but less effective - there is nothing here that captures the nail-biting ingenuity of the much-lauded oscillating fan from "Paranormal Activity 3" - the film cooks up a few new ways of logically telling a story through documentary-style footage from laptop cameras, video chats, and cell phones, but otherwise follows the same deliberate, night-by-night formula of the earlier installments. If it's all getting a little old by now, what's most disappointing this time is the lack of precious few good jumps or scares, let alone anything to lastingly get under one's skin. There's a horror film out right now that delivers on all these counts, one-upping this one in every way imaginable. Its name is "Sinister," and it's Beluga caviar compared to this film's Reddi Wip.
Set over a two-week span in November 2011, "Paranormal Activity 4" relocates from California to Henderson, Nevada, while situating itself with a new suburban family. 15-year-old daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her flirtatious sort-of boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) are at first intrigued by the little boy across the street, Robbie (Brady Allen), and then increasingly freaked out when he comes to stay with them for a few days after his mom is admitted to the hospital. Noticing that some strange and inexplicable things have begun occurring in the house since Robbie got there, Alex sets up recording devices in several rooms as around-the-clock surveillance. With her own 6-year-old brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) regressing and becoming less social the closer he gets to his new playmate, Alex tries to warn parents Doug (Stephen Dunham) and Holly (Alexondra Lee) that something wicked is coming their way. She may already be too late.
"Paranormal Activity 4" has one winning element in lead actor Kathryn Newton (2011's "Bad Teacher"). Often shot in close-ups, Newton is a natural who doesn't need to try to hold the camera's attention, her warm, thoughtful, vivacious personality making her an ideally-cast protagonist. If she is reasonably smart, however, her parents are just about the daftest lunkheads to grace the silver screen this year. No matter what out-there claims Alex makes, Doug and Holly pay no attention to them. Even after Doug experiences unexplainable phenomena himself, he (1) does nothing about it, and (2) decides not to tell his snippy wife after she continues to conveniently cut him off with every word he utters. At some point, the viewer wants to grab them by the shoulders, shake extra-hard, and then finish them off with a slap to knock some sense into them. Also particularly strained is the cockamamie explanation for why Robbie comes to stay with complete strangers after his allegedly sick mom enters the hospital. It just doesn't add up.
Of course, the bread and butter of the "Paranormal Activity" series are the sudden jolts and more subtle Easter eggs the makers drop into stagnant frames. In the past, it has worked like gangbusters, viewers left supremely unsettled by the you-are-there realism, the lack of a music score, and the razor-sharp know-how of delivering upon the genre's necessities. In "Paranormal Activity 4," there is just a single full-throttle jump moment that succeeds; others, like the sudden falling of a chandelier, are so exceedingly predictable that they've lost their punch. Beyond that, the purveying feeling of pure dread is missing, replaced by a glossier, safer sheen. By the contrived ending, which melds the supernatural with more overt slasher theatrics, not even the use of a perfectly-framed cell phone camera that accompanies Alex on a high-stakes quest to save her family is at all plausible. Something tells me that a young girl under such dire circumstances wouldn't think about holding her phone up to capture bodies floating through the air and demon faces rushing toward her. Just as the "Saw" series began to noticeably peter out and grasp at straws after moving beyond a trilogy, the fourth time is most certainly not the charm with "Paranormal Activity 4." If a fifth one shows up next year, there had better be some firm answers to go along with the forever-invisible Toby's reign of terror.