Alex: “You can’t just run across the street and not tell me. That is so not cool. What if you got, like, kidnapped or something?”
Wyatt: “We live in a good neighborhood…”
At this point, my review for these Paranormal Activity sequels should just be Mad Libs, or maybe a score sheet.
Paranormal Activity 4
Effectiveness of scares: minimal
Amount of sexism: 3/10 (“some douchebaggery”)
Generic family still generic? mostly
Series plotting nonsensical? unfortunately
Katie Featherstone still turning in mediocre cameo performances? oh yeah
It just feels like I’m checking off boxes, and that’s probably because it feels the same for the three men responsible for PA3, PA4, and the fifth one (subtitled The Marked Ones). That’s co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and screenwriter Christopher Landon (who replaces them as director for the 5th entry). I didn’t go into it in my PA3 review, but Joost and Schulman were the guys behind the documentary Catfish. Catfish is one of those movies whose reputation is in the eye of the beholder; it’s either a compelling, if slightly trashy doc out of whatever they’re calling the new wave of internet documentaries, or it’s an inadvertent horror movie shot from the perspective of the bad guys. Either way I’m not actually sure this qualified them to make Paranormal Activity movies. The series is very found footage, with the most important material not even being handheld footage controlled by the characters; not really faux documentary at all. Also in my estimation their two directorial efforts in this series blow chunks, a clinical film review phrase which here means “my theory has empirical proof.”
Did they at least blow any new chunks this time? Well, the series has finally moved forward in time to 2011. We get our first mention of Youtube (but nobody actually uploads their footage). There’s a significantly new type of night shot that uses the infrared tracking dots from an Xbox Kinect, which apparently can pick up demonic presences. And this is the first film to focus on the teenagers to this extent. The protagonist of the film is Alex (Kathryn Newton); when the creepy kid from next door stays with her family for a while, she starts noticing some (say it with me) supernatural events, and gets her moronic boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) to help film them. Ben obliges by setting up the most ridiculous camera set-up in any of these movies. First, he’s using laptops webcams instead of normal video cameras. Second, he’s doing it without permission from Alex’s parents. So this guy is secretly recording the whole house, which is arguably the creepiest thing in the movie; except how can it be secret when there’s (for instance) a laptop sitting open on the kitchen counter for weeks? Third, Joost and Schulman still want their handheld portions, so now instead of the increasingly common sequence where a character is getting handheld footage even when they clearly have bigger priorities, we get that sequence and the character is filming by holding an open laptop. This means they’re walking around trying to save their family members like this:
Paranormal Activity 2 had a couple of scenes where Hunter, Kristi’s toddler, stood up in his crib and stared at nothing we could see, moments that were genuinely creepy because we knew this invisible demon wanted to take him but the baby was too young to understand that he was in danger. It’s another strong example of that film using dramatic irony to create tension. Joost and Schulman appear to have seen that and taken a different lesson from it, that children are eeeeevil. In PA3, Kristi talks to the demon, promises to marry it, and when (spoiler)
Robbie: “He does not like you.”
Ben: “What? Who? Who does not like me?”
Robbie: “You’ll find out.”
Robbie’s supposedly sick mother is, of course, Katie (Featherstone again, ffs), whom the movie reminds us kidnapped the infant Hunter in PA2 six years ago. So presumably he’s been raised by a demon-possessed woman and that’s why he’s a creepy little jerk, and that’s why the paranormal stuff starts happening when he comes to live with them. Makes sense, right?
Ha ha. Ha ha. No. Spoilers follow.
Actually, none of this makes any goddamn sense. The twist in the movie is that Robbie isn’t Hunter at all; Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), Alex’s little brother, is Hunter. Wyatt was adopted, and there’s some actual nice dramatic material that Lovekamp performs well where Wyatt is confused and scared by Robbie telling him that his real name is Hunter and his real family wants him back. Making me care about the characters as people is off-brand for the Paranormal Activity series but I’m not going to begrudge that. What I do begrudge is a story whose antagonists make no sense. Why would the possessed Katie kidnap Hunter only to give him up for adoption? Why would she adopt (or more likely steal) and raise Robbie to be a creepy little shit? And more importantly, what is the point of all of this? Paranormal Activity 2 strongly suggested that the demon wanted Hunter as payment for a deal made with Hunter’s great grandmother, the woman who delivers Kristi as the devil’s bride at the end of PA3. So leaving aside what the demon actually wants to do with Hunter, why give him up only to reclaim him five years later? I mean, other than the fact that they wanted to make another movie? At the very end of this film, Alex goes across the street to Katie’s house to find Wyatt, but as she runs outside with him, the pair are confronted by about 50 women marching toward her in unison, all wearing the “circle within a triangle” symbol PA3 and 4 associate with witchcraft. And that’s it. That’s the end of the movie. It’s just some spooky shit they threw in at the end because it looks scary. None of it means anything.
Paranormal Activity 4 is, moment to moment, a better film than its predecessor. The teenage focus is refreshing, Alex is a likeable protagonist, and the film breaks out of the series mold in small ways that seem more natural expansions of the form, from the infrared Kinect shots to the excellent, tense scene where the entity traps Alex in the garage with a running car and she has to fight her way out. But all of that is meaningless compared to the amount of total fucking nonsense in this movie.
When they made the decision in Paranormal Activity 2 to make this a series with one continuing story–the story of how Katie and her family attracted and suffered the attentions of a demonic presence–they should have maybe written their notes down on a Post-it or something where they wouldn’t be forgotten. The first two films play off the very understandable fear that some unknown supernatural force wants to hurt you and your family. It’s the classic haunted house notion that your own space, your comfortable, familiar place where you eat and sleep and shower and raise a family is suddenly and inexplicably vulnerable. That Wyatt’s protest that “We live in a good neighborhood” won’t protect you. That’s a scary idea, and the series has always been about showing us clearly what’s happening and letting us know that these families have no ability to save themselves. That works, and works well… until you start explaining the inexplicable. Let me be clear: my problem is not that we have a better understanding of the demon and his helpers in this series. My problem is that what we do understand is poorly conveyed, incomprehensible nonsense. At the end of this film, I was confronted with the sense that everything happening in this series is totally arbitrary. There’s no story being told here; just an endless series of collections of fake footage where demons stalk and kill one family after another to no discernible end and with no end in sight. At this point the scariest thing of all is knowing I have at least two more of these movies to go.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because this election has also gone on too long and made too little sense. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.