Halloween is just a few weeks away which means it’s time for another inexpensive way to make money by releasing a low-budget movie with a familiar name that casual horror fans will flock to for equally cheap scares and thrills. For that crowd, it really doesn’t matter what we say about the fourth installment of the Paranormal Activity movie, which is probably about as review-proof as those Twilight movies, but unfortunately, it’s the first installment that outright fails.
When Catfish directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost were brought on for the third movie, a prequel that flashed back to the ’80s, it seemed like an odd choice but they really stepped things up with some original visual ideas while building on the mythos of the demon that’s been plaguing Katie Featherston and those around her for two previous movies.
This time, we’re back following the story where it left off with the 2010 sequel so we can find out what happened with Katie and her nephew Hunter after he was abducted at the end of Paranormal Activity 2. Like with that movie, this one involves a fully functional family, but mainly focuses on teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton), her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), younger brother Wyatt and the strange kid from across the street named Robbie (Brady Allen). When the latter’s unseen mother is taken to the hospital for a few days, Robbie is taken in by the family and that’s when all the strange things start happening.
One reason why this series has worked well so far is the naturalism created by having unknown and non-actors, because you really feel as if you’re watching real people being tormented by pranking spirits, demons or whatever. In this case, Kathryn Newton does a decent job anchoring this one as the teen protagonist, but it’s usually Matt Shively who steals scenes with his sense of humor. They’re both creeped out by Robbie and the fact he keeps appearing in odd places and times, so they decide to use the technology at hand to document Robbie’s mysterious behavior. With that in mind, the visual gimmick is that the film is shot using videophones or laptop webcams, or at least that’s the pretense. This means that at least part of the movie is shot using lots of shaky handheld camera or awkward use of Skype until all the laptops in the house are jury-rigged to keep an eye on things similar to the security cams in the second movie.
Oren Peli’s original movie and both sequels offered surprising things that left you wondering how they did it, while this one offers nothing quite as spectacular. There just isn’t anything nearly as impressive or inventive as the video camera mounted on a rotating fan from the third movie and the movie proves there’s only so much that can be done when you don’t have any new ideas. Just moving a chair a couple feet, clearly using a thin wire, just doesn’t do it and that’s after having Alex’s younger brother riding around the house on a Big Wheel is such an obvious nod, rip-off, homage, whatever you want to call it, to The Omen.
There seems to be very little flow or cohesion to the scares, as we’re bounced from day to night from one set-up to the next with very little pay-off for the time spent setting up the gags. Instead, the filmmakers go for far too many of the easy and obvious cheap scares that have been used in previous movies. After three movies of strange noises and people jumping in front of cameras to get the audiences to jump, you’d have to be a bigger pussy than the family’s annoying camera-happy cat to be freaked out by any of it. The most aggravating new “trick” is the overuse of the sensor grid from an Xbox Kinect for one static shot, an effect that quickly gets old when you realize how much easier it is to use CG trickery when you have these ever-present dots masking a shot.
Fans of Katie will have to wait some time before she shows up as Robbie’s mother as most of us will be assuming Robbie is the grown-up Hunter. In fact, we’re not quite sure if he is or not, because the last act is so confusing, and once Robbie disappears completely, it leaves you wondering what was the point of having him in the movie at all. Essentially, all the big moments anyone might be hoping for are saved up for the movie’s last ten minutes, but by then, you’ve patiently sat through an hour of boring retread, none of it really justifying having such a big ending.
Lacking any originality of vision or any sense of invention, this is the first movie in the series that really feels cheap, not due to the cost of making it, but because the filmmakers now realize they can just do the exact same thing for a fourth time and the fans will eat it up, even if it does nothing to move the overall story forward. Any hope that the producers would have learned anything from the Saw franchise would be wasted.