Yep, the Paranormal Activity series is still going, and it is way past its use-by date. I have made an effort to see every film in the series at a cinema. They are fun movies to watch with a large audience, but fun doesn't always translate to well-executed. After the surprisingly decent Paranormal Activity 3, I invested a little bit of hope for this one. I thought Joost and Schulman (they did Catfish - a documentary I think very highly of) were steering these films in the right direction, but this entry convinced me that the main (and perhaps only) priority in making these films is attracting teenagers to cinemas to give them a few cheap scares.
Paranormal Activity 4 is set in 2011 (a sequel to part 2, as part 3 is a prequel), and follows the strange events that befall Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her family once they take in a child called Robbie (Brady Allen). Robbie is Alex's neighbour, and comes to live with her family after his mother is taken to hospital. Alex's boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), owns a laptop that automatically records webcam chats, and this is how he notices the supernatural presence in Alex's house. From this point on, Alex grows suspicious of Robbie, and we enter the usual schtick of suspenseful long takes and jump scares galore.
Two things that really stood out were the film's sense of humour and its touch of modernity. In terms of the humour, there's nothing that will induce a belly laugh, but I think this instalment was written with a distinct audience in mind, which highlights an awareness of the filmmakers that most people just don't take these movies seriously anymore. A lot of the chuckles are due to the interplay between Ben and Alex. I found their awkward chemistry very endearing, and this is probably the film's greatest asset, if I'm being frank. There's some blatant product placement involving Xbox Kinect, and some parts of the film are saturated with vibrant colours, giving the series some much-needed freshness, and reinforcing that it's set in 2011.
For all this heightened immediacy, the series is simply running out of gas. The cues are too predictable. We notice the inanimate objects moving, and we don't care because we've seen it before. We know that exploring the creepy neighbour's house will never end well. We know this demon can lift things and drop them. You get the point. These films are now being pumped out every year, just in time for Halloween. We saw what happened to the Saw franchise. It just turned to shit. I don't think the Paranormal Activity series is at the unwatchable stage just quite yet. There's still an element of playfulness that underlies these movies, and if not for that playfulness, the series would be dead. In fact, I wouldn't mind if the franchise discarded all of its pseudo-mythology about witch covens and mystic symbols. I just don't care for the story when I go to watch a Paranormal Activity movie. What I do care for is that there are some characters to empathise with (there rarely are), and that I am scared out of my wits (not a guarantee anymore). I know this sounds strange coming from me—someone who values great storytelling in film. But that's the thing...I value great storytelling, not middle-of-the-road storytelling. These movies are just too convoluted for their own right, and I was shocked to learn that writer Christopher Landon also worked on the screenplay for D.J. Caruso's Disturbia (a riveting thriller). Will there be a fifth film in the Paranormal Activity series? Probably. Will I go to see it? Yes. Why? Because I'm an idiot, and also because those clever distributors sure know how to build hype.