Set five years after the disappearance of Katie and Hunter at the end of the second film in the series, Paranormal Activity 4 “documents” the strange events plaguing a suburban family after their new neighbors – a young mother and son – move in.
Directors Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost were tremendously clever with their work on PA3, finding new techniques which allowed the “found footage” premise of the first two films to extend into the distant past (the 1980s) when video cameras were hand-held monstrosities that actually recorded on tape instead of…whatever the hell they record on now. Now back safely in the arms of 2011, with all the technology available, the directing team brings that same innovative touch to PA4, finding some surprisingly effective, new ways to freak audiences out.
These two demonstrate a keen awareness of how to capitalize on what works so well about these films. There is no soundtrack, offering the audience no clues about how they are supposed to be feeling and what might happen next. The frequent use of static camera, wide shots keep our eyes darting around the screen frantically trying to find the thing that is going to either quickly dart away or slowly approach or just move an inch to the left – all of which are pretty creepy when we feel like we are actually watching home movies. Screenwriter Christopher Landon (who also penned PA2 and PA3) helps with this last part tremendously by somehow, against all odds, finding a way to make it believable that all of this stuff is being recorded without a total “what, again?” feeling on the part of the audience.
Shulman and Joost have also realized what to let go from past PA films, lest they run the danger of boring audiences. No more “creepy kid/woman/man stands by the bed while their friend/partner/mother/sister sleeps and the time-count speeds up” scenes. Huzzah! Instead, they tweak what has worked in the past just enough to allow for consistency across films (it would be weird if all of a sudden, the paranormal entity started behaving differently), while still providing something new for audiences to be creeped-out by. (Hint: you may never leave your Xbox on overnight again).
The actors do a really nice job in this film. Kathyrn Newton and Matt Shively are entirely believable as regular ol’ teenagers, and with one or two exceptions, they react to what is happening in ways people would likely react. It’s nice. Brady Allen, who plays the creepy-kid-next-door, Robbie, has a knack for seeming just a bit too mature for 6. There is something ominous about a six-year-old shaking hands with another six-year-old.
Now, here’s what doesn’t work.
No matter how innovative the directors and writers, at some point the fourth film in a series is the fourth film in a series. There are only so many ways Michael Myers can kill people before we all start to feel a little bored. Likewise, there are only so many times we can all realize the entity is in the house or see characters walking in that slow, maybe I’m possessed maybe I’m just sleepwalking way, before it loses some of its punch. Landon truly does an admirable job moving the story forward, even providing a nice twist in the middle, but there is no escaping the fact that it’s starting to feel like we’ve been listening to this story forever. While the “event followed by event” feel of the films provides authenticity to the premise of found footage, after three films the audience needs some plot.
Truthfully, I am a fan of these films. I enjoyed watching this latest installment, but I’m not entirely surprised by its low score over on IMDb (4.7 stars out of 10 so far). To me, it is a fun ride. To many, it probably feels like a ride they’ve been on since 2006.
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