Paranormal Activity 4

The more plot-heavy these Paranormal Activity films get, the less scary they are. I’m a big fan of randomness in horror movies, because horror in real life chills us by its randomness. It’s frightening to think that you could be standing in line at the store and get shot to death for no better reason than that you happened to be there. And it’s frightening to think that a demon might decide to mess with your life for no better reason than that you happen to be there. It’s not all that frightening to think that the demon might pick you out because you’re part of a family that’s had trouble producing a male child, and that you’re destined to be possessed and kill a lot of people and kidnap your sister’s baby son, and blah blah blah on into infinity. But that’s what the Paranormal Activity franchise has become, and the fourth and latest installment follows yet another family terrorized not because a demon just wants to mess with them, but because the same damn demon has moved in across the street.

Unlike the previous entry, which covered the early days of the demonic mischief in 1988, PA4 unfolds in the present day (well, 2011), bringing in such devices as laptop cameras and the Xbox Kinect to help sell the scares, which this time are in sadly short supply. The heroine is teenager Alex (Kathryn Nelson), who lives with her squabbling parents and her adopted younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Wyatt becomes friends with a strange kid from the neighborhood, Robbie (Brady Allen), whose mother, we’re told, has gone to the hospital for a few days. Alex’s parents take Robbie in — he seems to have no other family, and nobody asks why Child Protective Services don’t step in — and things start getting weird. Robbie toddles around in the dead of night, talking to people who aren’t there. Doors open and close. Alex and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) catch a lot of the weirdness on camera, but of course her parents don’t take her seriously.

There’s one neat effect, courtesy of the Xbox Kinect. I didn’t know that the way this videogame system works is by throwing off thousands of tracking dots visible only to an infrared camera in a dark room. The dots then “read” your movements, enabling you to play the games; apparently they also show up on otherwise invisible demons. That’s good for a spooky image or two. But it gets overworked, as do a lot of other tropes; a cat is in the house solely to pop up and startle the audience. Paranormal Activity 4 also feels like the most conventional film in the series. In the other movies, we were forced to stare at length at darkened rooms, waiting nervously for something creepy to happen. There’s really only one scene like that here; the movie feels far too “cutty,” moving from one camera to another, and most of the cameras capture the footage in bright clear color. The eerie inertia and starkness of the past films’ imagery are mostly gone here, and that style is what had set this series apart for me.

I suppose it’s no big surprise that Katie Featherston, the possessed young woman from the first two films, returns here. She’s scariest when acting like a normal smiling mom, but when she’s stalking around quietly and doing evil things we see why it was wise to use Featherston so sparingly as a boogeyman in the other films — she just seems like too amiable a presence to sell diabolical influence. (It’s a little like imagining Jenna Fischer, whom Featherston resembles, as the Bride in Kill Bill.) Katie’s presence muddies the narrative waters: we’re not sure if the child living with her is Hunter, the baby nephew she’d kidnapped, or if Wyatt is actually Hunter. We’re supposed to come back for Paranormal Activity 5 to find out more, probably. I think I’ll stop at four.

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