Paranormal Activity 4: This Time, Teenagers Run The Haunted House
The Paranormal Activity series, the cineplex’s answer to haunted house attractions, is not about plot. It’s not about well-developed characters. It’s not even really about originality. It’s all about creating a moody theatrical experience, full of tension and visual wit, to be shared with an audience. The laughs, the jumps, the nail-biting– it’s communal. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, responsible for the previous entry (the best in the series), return again for the fourth installment, bringing a few nifty tricks while still enjoying the classic tropes. They continue to bring different types of technology to the table, playing with camera angles and new light and sound effects to keep the audience guessing. Also, by creating teenage protagonists, there’s a new twist on the family dynamic this series contains. None of this is wildly original, especially the ending which feels enormously familiar, but it’s all effective and it’s all fun.
We begin with a flashback to Paranormal Activity 2: Katie (Katie Featherstone) has kidnapped her nephew, Hunter. Flash forward five years: Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Ben (Brady Allen) notice that the child who lives across the street, Robbie, is exhibiting odd behavior. After further investigation, Robbie’s mother is in the hospital, so Alex’s parents (real-life couple Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham) agree to take Robbie in; after all, he can be friends with their son Wyatt, who is of similar age. As one would expect in this genre, the second that weirdo Robbie shows up, strange things begin happening around the house. Robbie comes in and sleeps in Alex’s bed. Robbie draws strange symbols on Wyatt’s body, symbols that anyone who saw Paranormal Activity 3 will recognize. In a nifty sequence, the infrared beams from their XBox Kinect picks up the vaguest hint of a figure sitting next to Robbie on the sofa. However, because they’re tech-savvy teens, the parents don’t believe them, thinking it’s all trick photography and editing software done as a gag. Soon enough, things begin happening in front of the parents too.
Many critics and personal acquaintances don’t enjoy aspects of this series: the commitment to the found footage style, the familiarity of the tone and the pacing, the somewhat shallow character development. Luckily, Joost and Schulman are aware of these issues and embrace them as challenges. The found footage is not only a self-reflexive gag (the mother says at one point, “Again with the cameras?”), it forces new technology into the equation. Much of the film is shot on webcams, with several tracking shots done courtesy of Alex and Ben’s frequent Skype sessions. The XBox Kinect is especially creepy, and though I wish it had been utilized more, its couple of scenes are among the most effective in the franchise. Nothing is as mind-bogglingly brilliant as the “fan-cam” from the last film, but once again, Joost and Schulman prove to be experts at denying us what we want to see. We hear sounds of occurrences off-camera that characters witness, or we witness events in the frame that the other characters in frame are ignorant to. In my favorite sequence, the mother is chopping food with a sharp kitchen knife, and just when you think the sequence couldn’t get any more tense, the knife goes away (I won’t spoil where). Both the remainder of that scene, knowing the knife could come back into play at any moment, and the payoff of the suspense that scene builds are beautifully executed. It goes back to Chekhov’s famous quote: you see the knife on screen, so you assume something HAS to happen with it. This film fills its frame constantly with elements you assume will come into play, and nearly all of them do.
The tone and pacing are achingly tense and drawn out, but if these films were non-stop action, they wouldn’t be nearly as frightening. It’s a study in making the audience anticipate the scare: classic horror directors like John Carpenter and Ridley Scott used to do this, and so few do anymore. The thrill doesn’t come from action unfolding– if anything, that serves as relief. While character development has been a problem in the past (the first two films have fairly obnoxious and woefully ignorant characters), using Alex and Ben as the vessel through which this demon slowly reveals himself solves the character dilemma in two ways: 1. Alex and Ben are charming and funny, probably the best in the series. 2. In previous films, we’re in the audience shouting “Just move already! Call the cops!” Here, because of their age, there’s an understandable obstacle between departure: adult disbelief. It’s another smart decision by filmmakers who don’t seem to have any shortage of intelligent ways to extend the series. They’re not “movies” in the traditional sense, but for those with a taste for this type of experience, there really isn’t anything better in this vein in cineplexes on a yearly basis. I laughed, I jumped, I freaked out. At one point, Robbie says to Ben, “He doesn’t like you.” Ben inquires, “Who doesn’t like me?” Robbie deadpans, “You’ll find out.” The theater roars with approving laughter. Just the right balance of smart and dumb, sincere and self-aware. I’d gladly tune in for a fifth Activity.