With Halloween rapidly approaching, it seems inevitable that Hollywood would release another low-cost, high-reward “found footage” film — so “Paranormal Activity 4” was no great surprise. While no one was expecting it to be cinematic genius, it would have been nice if it was at least a little scary. Unfortunately, the “Paranormal Activity” series has fallen victim to the curse of the too-long continued horror franchise: It has run out of ideas.
The film begins with a brief flashback to the second installment, which ended with the ever-creepy Katie Featherstone, played by the actress of the same name, abducting her nephew, Hunter (now Robbie in the fourth installment) (Brady Allen), before returning to the (almost) present day. Here we meet Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), who start noticing that there’s something a little off about their next door neighbor, Robbie.
Surprisingly enough, the relationship between Alex and Ben is one of the best things about the film — they manage to be flirty and funny, plus have excellent chemistry. They were even absurdly likeable, which is a rarity for teens in a horror movie (though Alex does carry around a handheld camera long past the point at which any sane person would have put it down — a pet peeve for many fans of the “found footage” genre). However, a teen romance in a horror movie is kind of like finding a French fry in an order of onion rings — a nice bonus, but not why you bought the food. What would have been really beneficial would have been some genuine horror.
That’s not to say there weren’t any startling moments. To be sure, there are a few times when only the bravest of individuals wouldn’t have jumped out of their skin. However, these moments don’t come until about two-thirds of the way into the movie, and even then it’s nothing that will keep you up at night. The creepiest thing was probably the use of Xbox Kinect infrared dots (used to show some invisible figure moving around), which was a genuinely clever concept, but even that was only truly startling the first time. Honestly, this movie is not even frightening enough to scare the characters — for most of the film they seem more mildly concerned than anything else. They may as well have had a leak in the roof for all the alarm they show.
Even worse than the lack of heart-pounding moments is the complete disaster that is the storyline. There are no twists or turns — from the moment Robbie arrives on his neighbor’s doorstep, everything proceeds exactly as you’d imagine. Originality isn’t the strong suit of these home-video type films, but this goes from unoriginal to plain old derivative.
Each installment of the “Paranormal Activity” series has had something to offer until now. The first was a surprise since no one knew what to expect (thanks to the brilliant marketing scheme that showed absolutely no part of the film in the trailer). The second rode the high of that first and mastered the art of building tension. The third tried to show the origin of the curse haunting Katie and her family, but the fourth holds absolutely nothing of interest.
Allen radiates that certain spook-factor, but the era of eerie children in the horror genre is dead (at least temporarily), and one disturbing child is not enough to keep this film afloat. Word is that a fifth installment of “Paranormal Activity” is in the works. With the way the fourth turned out, let’s all hope that’s not true.
Howard is a member of the class of 2013.