It needs to be said, my expectations were high for Paranormal Activity 4…well, high considering this is the fourth feature in horror franchise that's part of subgenre (found footage) quickly wearing out its welcome. I found the first three Paranormal Activity movies fantastically haunting with their minimalist approach to displaying the titular phenomena, building from oddities that could be rationalized to totally terrifying and unexplainable violence caught on tape. The locked perspective of their cameras similarly made me feel trapped within their frame, and directing team Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman—of Catfish infamy—took this found footage aspect to a terrifying new realm in Paranormal Activity 3. With these two back for 4, I anticipated not only an intriguing continuation of the franchise's growing mythos, but also some innovative new scares within the format. Unfortunately, the most shocking part of Paranormal Activity 4 is how far it missed the mark.
The feature begins with a brief refresher of the end of Paranormal Activity 2, where a fully possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) slaughters her sister then kidnaps baby Hunter before strolling off into the night and out of range of the late family's security system cameras. Cut to five years later in Nevada where Alex, an adorable 15-year-old girl (Kathryn Newton) who inexplicably always carries her video camera, begins documenting the bizarre events that plague her and her family after the weird little boy-next-door stays with them. Robbie (Brady Allen) is a sullen child who lurks around their property late at night until his single mom is carted off by an ambulance, forcing Alex's family to take him in. Luckily for Alex, her goofy boyfriend (Matt Shively) "accidentally" recorded video of her sleeping, and caught the little creep up to no good. The teens turn all the family computers into surveillance cameras in hopes of proving to Alex's self-involved parents something strange is going on.
First off, teens toting cameras is a red flag for the found footage genre, as it's generally a lazy screenwriter device to justify why the camera is always around at pertinent moments that should seem innocuous to the characters. Because all young people record every inane moment of their life, right? But this is only the beginning of the plot holes that riddle Paranormal Activity 4, many of which I can't get into without spoiling the film's final act. Suffice to say, key characters eventually abandon their acquired knowledge and established motivations in service to the plot, making for an ending that is as senseless as it is frustrating. Between the found footage convention and the established rules of this franchise, the climax is a foregone (read: predictable) conclusion. So getting attached to this brave girl who is fighting valiantly to save her family from this evil is not only sad, it's a little boring.
To their credit, Joost and Schulman start off strong. They deftly establish the geography of the family's home so that the action and camera work that plays out later is easy to follow, and the audience is likewise primed for where to watch when things get worrisomely quiet. They also prove savvy at setting up shots, including open doorways and peppering the frame with idly moving objects like a swaying bead curtain, making us nervously scan the background for a possible threat. However, these setups payoff less than one would hope with some missed opportunities and a barrage of false alarm scares that are fun in the moment, but ultimately kill the brewing tension. There's more downtime here than the other movies have. As the nights plod along with more and more bizarre events, they peak at an insane supernatural event, cut to black and then pick up in the light of day with no lasting impact. Rather than building a prolonged and deepening anxiety through slowly mounting these attacks with no sense of relief as the first three films did, Paranormal Activity 4's stuttered structure is episodic, and at 88 minutes the film still feels long.
Ultimately, it seems Joost and Schulman lost track of what made this franchise work. They overstuff it with monsters, not just the unseen entity we've come to love to fear, but also killer Katie and creepy kids, a device that between this, Sinister and Possession has already worn out its welcome again. This three-pronged assault dilutes the menace of the franchise's central villain and does nothing to enhance the series' mythos. At the end of the film we know little more about this invisible evil spirit or what his plans are for Katie and Hunter than we did at the end of the third or second film. Then instead of innovation, the directors give into jump scares and false alarm gags to keep the audience invested, and in doing so lose the mounting suspense and dread that set the earlier films apart from their imitators. In short, Paranormal Activity 4 is more startling than scary and does more damage to the franchise than good.