It’s déjà boo all over again with Paranormal Activity 4. And the returns in this franchise of first-person POV frights remain as depressing as they are diminishing.
Outside of fleetingly clever bursts, this franchise has never been able to sustain its scares. And here, Toby — the jovially innocuous name of a deadly demon at the center of the series’ destruction and death — has just gotten lazy.
He once had the gumption to work his way up to a murderous frenzy by bashing a German Shepherd, upending a kitchen in broad daylight and clawing a cameraman’s flesh. Here, he just makes a knife disappear, causes laptops to whir and blocks paths with chairs. And when he does go after people, it’s the anticlimactic ragdoll yank-and-snap you’ve seen in the two previous films.
Plus, the few drops of novelty left in the first-person approach — given old-school jolts via oscillating fan in Paranormal Activity 3 by returning directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman — are wrung dry. Cameras here are embedded in laptops, iPhones and Xbox Kinects, with all the shameless product placement that goes along with it. And the Paranormal franchise now feels like its own plug-and-play product, with as simple a way to reformat its narrative hard drive as it sees fit.
Part four is the first true sequel, after a parallel plot in Paranormal Activity 2 (still the series’ pinnacle) and a legitimate prequel in 3. A recap: Possessed by Toby, Katie (Katie Featherston) killed her fiancé, sister and brother-in-law (but not her step-niece) before kidnapping her nephew, Hunter, and going missing from Carlsbad, California in 2006.
We know Katie’s grandmother indoctrinated her and her sister in witchy ways as children. And we know their ancestors, in exchange for wealth, promised Toby (or his boss, Ol’ Scratch) the family’s firstborn son, which Hunter turns out to be. This movie jumps ahead five years to a different family in a different city.
Alex (Kathryn Newton) is a 15-year-old girl whose parents (Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham) may be divorcing. But Alex wastes little time brooding. She’s a good big sis to little Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) and remains chastely flirtatious despite the pleadings of her tech-savvy boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively) — who’s around so often he seems to have a key.
The more these movies go on, the fundamentally nicer its protagonists have been. Here, Newton and Shively have an organic give-and-take, struggling to remain upbeat amid the urges and uncertainties at the cusp of adulthood. But why linger long on natural teen talents when there are lambs to be led to slaughter? (Like most of these movies, much was probably left on the cutting-room floor. How else to explain two credited black actors on IMDb in a movie with nothing but white faces?)
After the new neighbor lady next door goes to the hospital (no points for guessing who she is), the family temporarily takes in her son, Robbie (Brady Allen), a moppet plucked from the Creepy Kid bin at Central Casting.
All grim pronouncements and glowering looks, Robbie even has a “magic fork” that can “tell the future” (which we see once and never again). And as he becomes friends with Wyatt, the oddities Wyatt exhibited as a baby resurface.
Then come the night thuds, the tumbling chandeliers and the cameras — 24-hour feeds Matt established through linked laptops and the Xbox. At first, they show evidence of Robbie creepily crawling into Alex’s bed or whispering in the den under the Kinect’s neon-green pointillist tracking dots. But then the disturbances intensify in unimaginatively familiar ways.
Returning screenwriter Christopher Landon stuffs his plate with garnish to distract that there’s not much of a meal here. Everything is a fake-out jump scare in the long, limp first hour. Cats, kids and even a Prius are preternaturally still until required to barrel into the frame with a loud jolt. And there are references to The Shining because … well, why not if nothing else of note is happening. At a Thursday-night screening meant for the diehards, one man was loudly sawing logs by the 60-minute mark and the final “shock” stinger was met largely with laughter. Para-snore-mal activity, indeed.
The movie teases a truly dark direction, hinting that one of the little tykes may spill blood. But even with an R-rating, it’s too timid. And it’s not exactly a compliment that its twist can’t be seen coming because it’s a triple-take headscratcher of the highest order that pretty much tosses out whatever rickety mythology already existed.
Undoubtedly, 2014’s Paranormal Sixtivity will fill in the gaps on just how Katie lost track of something she couldn’t possibly have let slip through her clutches. But what about 2013’s Paranormal Acti5ity? Oh, we know from the post-credits teaser that one will explain the close-up of Spanish-language newspapers in a creepy house here. By the time we get to Paranormal Activity 7: The Reckoning in 2015, hey, maybe that step-niece will show up again.If people keep paying for this stuff, who knows how much of a punchline the Paranormal producers will make out of slow-burn horror?