Before reading further, please understand that I enjoy scary films. And horror films. And films made with targeted fear. Please also understand I do not enjoy films that are made just to turn a profit, a trait that the horror genre falls victim to all too often.
Now, on to “Paranormal Activity 4,” a Paramount release that comes with its heart in the right place but its execution someplace else. It’s a title I watched with a little optimism but a feeling in the back of my mind that I was somehow going to be let down sooner or later. Maybe it’s because I know the series pretty well and have seen the quality gradually decline since the first film, or perhaps it’s because the writers have backed themselves into a corner and are looking for an out. Heck, could it be because I have high expectations?
This aside, you have to applaud a series that still makes people jump with a door slamming, chandelier crashing to the ground or random small child popping up unexpectedly in the backyard play set. If you’ve seen any of the prior films in the “Paranormal Activity” series, you know the moments I’m referring to. My problem, simply put, is that now I anticipate these moments and find myself more concerned about whether or not I can pinpoint the scary item before it happens than I am with the plot. Thankfully, the plot here and in the prior movies is fairly bare bones, which means even the novices among us can watch, may be scared and enjoy a lot of really nasty language.
We open in 2006 with a possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) abducting her sister Kristi’s (Sprague Grayden) little boy Hunter (Jackson Xenia Prieto/William Juan Prieto) after killing her boyfriend the night before. Katie kills Kristi and her husband before taking Hunter. Then Katie and Hunter go away for five years, only to reappear just outside of Las Vegas, where a blonde, blue-eyed teenage girl named Alex (Kathryn Newton) lives within her unnecessarily large house and all sorts of neat twenty-first century gadgets. Her little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) is there, too, and her parents Doug (Stephen Dunham) and Holly (Alexondra Lee) pop into the frame every so often. Alex has a boyfriend named Ben (Matt Shively), who either doesn’t have a house of his own or simply never goes there if he does, and he rounds out the main characters that all too often come off as scattered and disjoined.
As we get to know Alex and Ben, they stumble on their neighbor’s little boy Robbie (Brady Allen) unexpectedly, and learn that his mother has been hospitalized. Being the good kind folks they are, Alex’s parents take Robbie in with no hesitation. Immediately, weird stuff happens, shadowy figures appear on recorded laptop footage and the players start to uncover something truly evil that is infecting their previously uneventful suburban lives.
Like the previous films, viewers are guided through a series of evenings and watch what happens when the lights are out. Alex is levitated during a peaceful night’s rest, Wyatt gets yanked underwater during a weeknight bath and Katie pops up periodically to creep everyone out with her dull footsteps and surprisingly convincing awkward persona. But those moments, mixed in with a knife falling from the sky and some casual demonic possession, aren’t really all that substantive. They’re in place to be scary, and they are…sort of. What’s really scary is the ending, so much so, in fact, that I won’t say another word about it. Except that you should watch it, of course. And that you should know it’s not scary because of what it shows, but rather because of the fact that it tries really hard to be scary, but isn’t. Have I given away too much? Darn it all.
By the time “Paranormal Activity 4” wraps up, we’ve learned very little about specifically why what happened did happen and even less about the men, women and children who were involved with said happenings. The good thing is that we don’t particularly care all that much because none of the characters are horribly interesting. Alex’s boyfriend Ben is probably the most attention grabbing of them all, and that’s only because he has a few one-liners that remind me of why young males across the United States really need to reemphasize education in their day-to-day lives. Nobody has depth beyond the way the look and the weird stuff they are or are not present for. Films like this believe the viewing audience is on a need to know basis, and apparently, we didn’t need to know all that much during “Paranormal Activity 4.”
I suppose the bright spot here is that Paramount has announced a fifth film will be released in October 2013, meaning more jumpy moments and a further plot deepening that will reference more things and people on a purely surface level. Given the financial success the series has enjoyed and the pretty minimal budgets, can you blame these filmmakers? Maybe they could teach Ben and Alex a thing or two about economics, given the fact that they’re not seen doing anything academic in “Paranormal Activity 4,” despite having lots of really expensive technology lying around at their disposal.
I left this film frustrated because I kept thinking back to the first “Paranormal Activity,” almost reminiscing about a simpler time when everything worked and it didn’t really matter how shallow or deep the writing, characters or plot were. These films have gradually become more superficial (and if you’ve seen the first film, you have to admit becoming more superficial than that is mildly impressive) and less scary, especially if you know what you’re getting into when you purchase your ticket.
Rumor has it that Oren Peli, the man behind the first film in 2007, will be back to write, produce and direct “Paranormal Activity 5.” Is this reason for optimism? I shudder to think.
Finally, something positive to talk about! The film, presented in its 1.85:1 1080p High Definition video transfer, is pretty sharp to watch on Blu-ray disc. The scenes where Alex and Ben talk via their computers are pleasantly surprisingly with their brightness and clarity. I was pleased with the absence of grain and the excellent contrast between colors, be they brights or darks. Close-ups are superior to long distance pans, however. You can count the pores on Alex’s face as she stares into her laptop, but it’s hard to tell what color her dad’s hair is as he drags himself upstairs for the night. This is a minor detail, however, in a viewing experience that relies on the picture as heavily as the “Paranormal Activity” films do.
The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio transfer is sharp when characters are cursing at each other or fighting about petty things, but it’s not as thorough when folks whisper at each other or when someone who appears to be a ways away from the camera speaks in a normal tone. The effects that are necessary for the jumpy moments to work effectively are all there, however, and they’re audible with no difficulty. The sound could sound better, but it could also sound worse, I suppose. Additional audio tracks include French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digitals. Subtitle choices are English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
The Blu-ray disc comes with a standard definition DVD of “Paranormal Activity 4” and also a digital copy. The film’s nine minute longer unrated version (which I did not watch) is also up for grabs, but that’s probably something only true fans will want to be a part of. You can also check out “The Recovered Files,” which offers 30 more minutes of found footage not shown in theaters, though this featurette is only available on the Blu-ray disc.
A Final Word:
Despite the disappointment I felt after “Paranormal Activity 4,” I will hold out hope that series creator Oren Peli will help to make the fifth film, and thus the series as a whole, better. Now might be the time to go for the jugular, unless he’s content with being mediocre.