Paranormal Activity 4

In the 40-or-so minutes following the credits of Paranormal Activity 4, I was left in a daze. Walking around the house aimlessly, shaking my head and muttering incomprehensibly, I resembled the victim of a brain hemorrhage. I am astounded, astounded, that this has made it into theatrical release at all, let alone earned the $50 million it has to date. I have never been an enormous fan of the Paranormal Activity series, but this entry into the franchise takes a running leap into a foetid pile of detritus. Some decent performances aside, there is very little to sustain either the horror-buff or the average movie goer.

The film picks up after the events of Paranormal Activity 2, at the end of which (Spoilers! I’m not sure why you’d want to save this surprise) the character Katie is possessed by a demon, kills her family, kidnaps her baby nephew and hits the road. Cut to 5 years later, an ordinary mid-western family begins to experience paranormal activity (ahah! Now  I get the title!) when a single mother and her young son moves in across the street. The protagonist is 15-year-old Alex (convincingly played by Kathryn Newton), who quickly gets suspicious of all the weird ghostly antics around the house and decides to secretly film her family with the help of her likeable boyfriend Ben (played by an equally likeable Matt Shively.)

From there we get the usual structure of the modern horror film: quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet, BOOM, quiet, quiet. Except Paranormal Activity 4 stretches the quiet far, far too long, to the point where the viewer ceases to feel any build up of tension and simply feels impatient and abandoned. These lingering silent spans might be worth bearing if the scares were a decent pay off. They are not.

If the found-footage style of film-making has one flaw (it has many) it is that the lack of a score completely hampers any sense of rhythm, suspense or surprise. What made Jaws such a terrifying movie, to take an example, was John Williams’ understanding of the ebb and flow of a scene, using music to captivate the viewer into understanding when they are meant to be tense and when the release of a jump-scare happens. The makers of Paranormal Activity 4 understand this disadvantage, but their solution is to either ignore the problem and have a completely lifeless moment when it should be terrifying, or to clumsily add odd sound effects at the moment of a jump-scare, so it sounds as though someone has dropped a cello.

The worst of the supposed jump-scares are actually artifacts of the editing of the ‘found footage’. There are many long pauses where a character just stares blankly into space as though they have just realised what they’ve done to their career by being in this movie, then they’ll jump to the other side of the room with a BOOM! What were the film-makers trying to do? I’m at a complete loss. All this achieves is to desensitise the audience to any future jumpy-outy-scary moments.

There are a few genuinely decent scenes. Alex is a likeable girl we can identify and sympathise with, although she’s oddly absent for a good 20 minutes in the last quarter. The major new gimmick, the laser-grid that the Xbox 360’s Kinect uses for motion detection, provides a few silly-but-fun paranormal moments, but fades away quickly to being just another feature of the wallpaper. Most of the criticisms of this film are simply the same leveled at any found-footage horror films. They are worth mentioning again here, because they are just so much more obnoxious in Paranormal Activity 4. To be fair, the fourth iteration of anything is tough to make fresh and original, but that is why this film should simply not exist. It has run this genre into the ground.

Paramount are now shoveling these joyless films out as fast as they can make them, banking on their cheap development costs and guaranteed profit. This is why Paranormal Activity 5 has already been confirmed for next October, and why there are rumours of a Latino-based spin off from the series. The commercialism and cynicism of the studio is palpable here. This film cost $5 million to make. That’s over 300 times the budget of the original Paranormal Activity. I can only assume they spent the majority of it on rohypnol into order to suppress the overwhelming guilt they must feel for inflicting this upon the world.

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