When reviewing Paranormal Activity 4 one of my major complaints about the latest addition to the franchise—beyond it being frightfully dull—was the amount of plot holes that led to a string of unanswered questions. With Paramount already planning on Paranormal Activity 5 and set to unveil a Spanish-language spin-off next spring, I began to wonder where the franchise will go from 4, and where it needs to go to get back on track. Obviously, this discussion will focus on specifics of Paranormal Activity 4, so MAJOR SPOILERS lie ahead.
The Spanish-language spin-off Since it's coming sooner, let's begin with the unnamed Spanish spin-off. We know from early reports the film directed by Paranormal Activity 2-4 scribe Christopher Landon will focus on the same demon and will star unknown Latino talent. The after credits sequence of Paranormal Activity 4 gave audiences a teaser of this film with a brief 30-second clip. Carrying a handheld camera, an unseen but young-sounding male enters a bodega-looking shop, where various religious items (votive candles, crucifixes, porcelain saint figures) line the shelves. He focuses on a doorway where some sort of altar is set up and says, "Oooooh." An unseen friend seems to urge him to leave, and as they run out they stumble into a middle-aged woman dressed all in black who says something that Screen Crush translated to "This is only the beginning.” From here they bolt out of the shop and the clip ends.
On it's own, it left the audience I was with scratching their heads, but if you consider the overarching story the franchise has established, it seems clear that the coven that first appeared in 3 and is seen in the finale of 4 extends far beyond California and Nevada.
Personally, I find the coven (or cult or whatever) to be one of the least interesting elements of the Paranormal Activity franchise, especially since it's so vaguely realized. Apparently Katie and Kristi's grandma is a part of it, and this is what ties the sisters to the demon Toby. However, it's unclear what these women get out of their devotion—other than the horrific murder of their loved ones. Since Landon seems to have been integral to the introduction of this group, I expect the spin-off will explore them more, but the clip seems to add an intriguing element of Catholicism to the equation. As that's a major influence in many Spanish-speaking cultures, it's a smart move on Paramount's part. Catholicism also has solid roots in horror, most memorably in the possession classic The Exorcist, so could add some enticing new iconography to the story.
The spin-off could be fresh start of sorts, allowing Landon to take the franchise back to its gritty roots. The sure-to-be doomed protagonists of this pic might think the coven is the problem, and will be surprised by Toby's emergence. This could be an interesting device that would coat the whole narrative with a thick sense of dread as the audience would know more than the characters, waiting for them to realize too late what dark forces they are messing with. That could be interesting.
Paranormal Activity 5 With the Spanish spin-off seemingly carrying the torch of the coven plotline, Paranormal Activity 5 could attempt to fill in the missing years between 2 and 4 and answer some of the last film's most frustrating questions in the process. When and why did Katie give Hunter up? Who the hell is Robbie? The beauty of 3 was that it fleshed out the past alluded to in 1 and 2, where the girls recalled something that haunted them throughout their childhood. The filmmakers planted us in their past, showing us where all began, giving the demon a name and—unfortunately—introducing the coven. It enriched the world of the films, where 4 added nothing concrete and even seemed to ignore the rules it introduced, leading up to the confusing ending.
We're told that the final step of demon possession requires the subject to kill a virgin, which set us up in 4 to believe that Wyatt/Hunter would need to kill his sister, Alex. But the final moments of the film show Katie killing Alex, so where does this leave the plot? Frankly, I found Toby much scarier when he was solely a disembodied beast of destruction, rather than that and a creepy kid, and a killer Katie and possibly a tiny poltergeist? But now that all this has been set up, will Paramount dare abandon it? Opening at $30 million, the $3 million budgeted Paranormal Activity 4 is undoubtedly a success, even though it had the weakest opening of any of the sequels. So even though this last one got a Cinemascore of C and was panned by critics across the board, will Paramount be interested in changing it up—or back?
Ultimately, whether the filmmakers choose to push on with coven plots, move back into Katie's shady past, or find a new happy home to terrorize with Toby, I think there's one thing they absolutely must do: bring back the slow-burn scares! I vividly remember watching the first three films, and with the first and the third especially, the tension that strung out as weird noises built up to inexplicably moving objects to terrifying late night attacks. I was bound up into a ball with my fists to my mouth, wanting to scream but unable to as the tension wound tighter and tighter. This is what made the finales—which in of themselves are sort of lame—so impactful. It was like letting go of a tightly stretched rubber band that when finally released zings so fast and hard it hits you right in the face. So wherever the chronology of this franchise leaps to next, let's ditch the silly false alarm jump scares and return to brewing atmosphere and gut-churning suspense as that's what made these movies such a standout in the first place.