What the filmmakers forgot to tell the public about “Paranormal Activity 4” is that it’s really a moral story about how taking a phone call while your six-year-old is sitting in a bubble bath is a bad idea. Okay, it’s not exactly a moral story, but it’s just as stale as one. Whereas Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish,” “Paranormal Activity 3”) livened up the found footage subgenre in the prequel by mounting a camcorder on an oscillating fan, they pretty much axed it to death in the latest installment; and meanwhile, in the writing department, it’s clear that Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”) is running out of ideas. It’s as though a bunch of high school students decided to make an amateur movie based on whatever technology was lying around in their bedroom. In this case, they ended up with a grab bag of smartphones, MacBook webcams and an Xbox 360 Kinect. It’s a good thing the movie is actually about one family’s struggle with a Best Buy catalogue. Oh, wait.
The opening scene resurrects familiar faces in a snippet of footage from September 2006, back when sisters Katie and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) were happy and healthy and not possessed by demonic forces; it was a time when little Hunter Rey was still in his parents’ custody. We then skip a month ahead to a less than pleasant family reunion, the night when Katie kills her sister and brother-in-law, and then vanishes with her baby nephew. Jump ahead to five years later (2011), and we’ll find ourselves in Henderson, Nevada, where teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton) is filming her younger brother Wyatt’s (Aiden Lovekamp) soccer game. Modern society clearly dictates that today’s youth must tote around video cameras in order to enlighten the world with their mundane existences; our heroine is no exception. An unattended boy caught on film, lingering at the sidelines during the game, is revealed to be Robbie (Brady Allen), who lives across the street with his mother, a seldom seen woman who is carted off in an ambulance one night, leaving the kid in the care of Alex’s parents (who are fighting, but not really). At first, his only offenses are getting in the way of Alex’s boyfriend Ben’s (Matt Shively) raging hormones and standing alone in the kitchen past bedtime. However, after some webcam footage “unintentionally” recorded by Ben shows that Robbie snuck into Alex’s bed at night, the young couple fixes all viable cameras in the house for 24 hour surveillance. That’s when things get weird.
Now, there’s a fine line between making nods to classic horror films and trying to surf on the wave of iconic scenes. As if the teenybopper-tech theme wasn’t enough of a hindrance, the movie drowns itself in “homages” to old school horror flicks, including “The Shining” and “Poltergeist.” The found footage vein was birthed in order for horror to branch off into a more minimalistic approach for creating tension without falling back on the typical supernatural scare tactics employed by other movies (e.g. “The Ring,” “The Amityville Horror,” “Insidious”); therefore, it shouldn’t stoop to filling long minutes with references that don’t do anything to illuminate the trajectory of the series’ mythology. “Paranormal Activity 4” does, however, continue to do what it does best: point the camera at empty walls for excruciatingly uncomfortable lengths of time until something pops up. Unfortunately, this aspect of the film becomes a one-trick-pony that loses momentum each time it repeats the “trick.”
Everyone’s favorite imaginary friend, Toby, is back, and he appears to have been reduced to the status of misbehaving pet, rather than remaining the demonic terror that has hitherto manipulated children into making appalling decisions and led the crusade against middle-class Americans who live in nice two-story houses. The problem with having two six-year-old boys with similar haircuts under one roof with night-vision camera surveillance is that an absent-minded audience may experience some difficulty identifying which boy is which when one of the two sneaks downstairs for a midnight rendezvous with Toby in front of the Xbox. The night-vision mode, while apparently great for “space dance parties,” isn’t ideal for igniting fear when the viewer is too busy trying to figure out whether the diminutive figure bathed in shiny tracking dots is the creepy kid from across the street or a space alien. Or the other progressively creepy kid.
What does manage to make this movie a near-enjoyable experience is the presence of Alex’s cam-junkie boyfriend. Ben is (for lack of a better world) the audience on-screen. He takes the time to comment on the noticeably “not okay” moments in the movie, without any regard for inappropriate timing, and he will record extreme close-ups of his girlfriend’s face, while ominously crowing, “BUM BUM BUM,” after they watch videos of weird little Robbie and his bizarre behavior. Also, I hope you’re a cat person, because there’s a lot of feline action going down on camera.
But aside from a particularly nerve-racking plot device involving a kitchen knife and its disappearing act, there aren’t any scares that can’t be dismissed after the end credits roll. If you lose any sleep after watching this movie, you may want to steer clear of “Hotel Transylvania” and “Frankenweenie” while you’re at it. Horror is not your color.
Critics have been condemning this as the end of the “Paranormal Activity” series, but I have to disagree. “Paranormal Activity 4” embarks on a new direction that proves that the franchise has a bright future in black comedy. As a final precaution, this movie may seem a lot like an 88 minute long trailer for the real sequel to the original trilogy. Because this surely can’t be it. Come on, guys, we’re waiting.