What was shown at Fantastic Fest this year was labeled as a “Work Print.” One of the two directors on the film introduced it and said that they’re still tinkering with some of the sound cues and a few digital effects. Aside from that though, it appears they showed what is going to be the final cut of the film.
It’s hard to believe that the Paranormal Activity franchise began in such a modest way. Word of mouth buzz and guerrilla marketing made the first film an overnight success among the online community which quickly triggered a rapid expansion to city after city of midnight screenings. Though the budget of each of its sequels may have changed quite a bit, one reason to applaud the now annual horror series - regardless if you’re a fan of the films or not – is that the simplistic aesthetic and scares of the first effective film have not changed a lot. After three films, the audience still gets their heartbeat going once they see the time stamp count up on the bottom of the screen and feel paranoid once the clock slows down to normal speed causing them to wait in anticipation of what’s to come. It should come as no surprise than that the fourth film continues the trademarks of the series while throwing in a few new tricks as well. Fans of the series won’t be shocked out of their seats with this routine and predictable story like they might have been with the third film, but there may be enough scares to warrant a watch for die-hard fans only.
The “found footage” events kick off with a quick recap of what happened at the end of the second film (SPOILER ALERT): Katie nabs her nephew Hunter and kills her sister. Flash forward five years from those events, we now follow a family, complete with a high school daughter, Alice, and younger brother, Wyatt. When the new neighbor across the street falls ill and has to stay for days at the hospital, her son, Robbie, is taken in by our new family. Things begin with weird phrases and sudden appearances by the odd young boy in random places like the outside playhouse. Alice, who web chats with her boyfriend into the late hours of the night thinks that there might be something wrong with the boy. After her boyfriend plays back the online conversation he recorded with her the next morning, she conspires with him to rig all the computers in the house (even the X-Box) to record what may be going on.
What Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman brought to the third film was several clever gimmicks and a new level to the mythology that invigorated what could have been another repetitive sequel after the lackluster second film. The duo aren’t nearly as successful in their recent outing. Never do you feel in the fourth film anything as original as what they were able to achieve before. From the kitchen objects sequence, to the floating sheet, to the husband’s friend and daughter locking themselves in the shaky bathroom, to the girl talking to a hidden stranger at night; much of what made the third film work was the effort that was put into creating real thrills and a story structure that could be expanded upon in future films. A lame attempt at something new is brought to the table in the form of the X-Box Kinect with this new one. Just listen to how sad that sounds in comparison to the scenes I just described. Investors may see it as a brilliant piece of product placement, but the grid-like green dots are not in the slightest bit scary. Unless you find a Pink Floyd light show creepy or having a green bulb on a disco ball scary, I doubt you will be frightened by this year’s “camera on an oscillating fan” gimmick. A couple of scares exist as good jump scares – like when a knife disappears and suddenly reappears or when a character gets pulled into a back room- but nothing will stick with you as long as some of the images from the first film or the finale of the third.
On the positive side of the spectrum, writer Christopher Landon gives the audience main characters that you care about. One of the biggest complaints about the second film was that not many people were too compassionate for a husband who acted like a jerk-off. Although it may seem like an easy choice given the young adult audience of the films, the main protagonist this time is a high school girl who spends most of her time either chasing around her younger brother, her creepy new neighbor, or her greasy boyfriend who has a talent for lightening the mood quite often (being that she’s a young and attractive female, I really don’t understand where all her friends are either). Matt Shively plays Alex, the typical goofy and sex-driven boyfriend with an endearing smile and a light-hearted energy. His comedic banter with Alice is actually quite funny. It’s a shame that more attention isn’t paid to Alice’s parents who come off as bumbling and as mindless as the police officers or authority figures in an 80′s slasher film. Robbie’s cryptic messages which lure Wyatt in are nothing new in the “creepy kid” film genre. He’s no Damien, but the character itself seems more like a play on a horror stereotype than a real person. He is never shown acting like a normal boy. The nods to horror classics continue with a laugh-out-loud moment that more well versed horror fans will no doubt find amusing. Younger audiences might miss it.
My major complaint with this sequel is it’s inability to add anything new to the mythology of the series. We have consistently seen the story progress and gain depth to the point where I actually found the sequels worthy of a watch. Paranormal Activity 4 finally feels like the film that its critics have been hoping for: the sequel that triggers the downfall of the series. Little to no payoff is given to the audience after testing their patience for over an hour with scares that feel neither inspired nor fun. If you come away with anything after the fourth film it’s an appreciation for the stellar third film. So many original ideas could have been used to push the story forward stemming from the reveal at the end of the third film of who or what is behind the paranormal activity. Yet, nothing is ever brought to the table. The only reasonable explanation for this has to be the disappearance of Oren Peli‘s hand on the project. Sure, he is given his “producer” credit on the film, but where the original film’s creator lent a hand co-writing the the scripts on the previous films, here he is strangely absent. This doesn’t seem like a coincidence. At the end of the screening at Fantastic Fest, two chairs were brought forth in front of the screen but were ignored as Katie Featherstone took to the mic, thanked everyone for coming, and then just as quickly vanished. I wonder if the star of the franchise and Oren Peli will both disappear altogether from the series someday like how originality has disappeared from the series with this latest installment.