Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Historically-speaking, I have not been the biggest fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise. 

I disliked the first film for its lack of subtlety and nuance.  Paranormal Activity’s (2007) final reveal of a demonic close-up was a capitulation to lowest common denominator-style filmmaking, and an undercutting of the very “found footage” paradigm the film exploited.

I warmed a little (just a little…) to the second entry.  Some moments in the drama worked moderately well, whereas some effects -- exposed in too-revealing long shot -- actually played as funny.

I was surprised and impressed with the third film in the franchise, however, which I found, by-and-large, scary.   There’s a highly-effective sequence in Paranormal Activity 3 wherein a man (with video-camera) and a young girl seek shelter in a bathroom as an angry spirit attempts to break in. The scene escalates and escalates, and is as impressive as any “big” horror movie moment produced in the last few years.

So color me ambivalent about the franchise as whole.

But recently I had a reader here on the blog help me contextualize the PA movies in terms of horror movie history.  When I reviewed the found-footage genre for high-points in a recent Ask JKM post, Trent wrote the following in a comment:

I still think that you have to recommend 'Paranormal Activity' as a top tier found footage film. If The Blair Witch Project' is to the found-footage craze of the 2000's as 'Halloween' was to the slasher film craze of 1980s, (which I think is fair) then 'Paranormal Activity' is analogous to 'Friday the 13th.”

I suspect Trent’s point is spot-on regarding the comparison (if not the quality of Paranormal Activity).  Halloween and The Blair Witch Project are the gold standards of their respective genre formats, and demonstrate a zenith in terms of artistry and effect. The Friday the 13th films and The Paranormal Activity movies are much more mainstream and commercially calculated. 

Likewise, these series share in common the fact that they seem to vacillate wildly in terms of quality from entry to entry.  Furthermore, the next chapter seems to come out every year, without fail.

To continue the comparison, Paranormal Activity 3 may be the Friday the 13th (1980), or Friday the 13th Part II (1981) of the PA saga… a relatively “good” or strong outing.

But unfortunately, this comparison also means that the recent Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) is the Jason Takes Manhattan of the PA franchise, meaning, simply, that it is pretty dreadful.

In fact, Paranormal Activity 4 is so bad that it reinforces many of the common misperceptions about the found footage format: that the acting is bad; that the films are dull and pointless; and that the movies don’t make a lot of sense from a narrative or thematic standpoint.

 Paranormal Activity 4 continues the story of the demonically-possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) and the nephew she stole from his crib, Hunter.  The story is set in 2011 as Katie and a child named Robbie (Brady Allen) move into the house across the street from a tech-savvy teenager named Alex (Kathryn Newton).  Almost immediately, Alex and her buddy Ben (Matt Shively) suspect something weird is going on, and grow alarmed as Robbie befriends Alex’s little brother, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp).

When Robbie comes to stay in Alex’s house for a few weeks (while his mom is ostensibly in the hospital), weird disturbances occur at night, and Alex begins to suspect that someone or something wants her dead.  With Ben’s help, she sets up cameras all over the house, and monitors the footage, at least for a time, from her computer.

The first thing one might notice about Paranormal Activity 4 is that this is the only franchise entry not to focus on adults, but teenagers instead.  Unlike the Friday the 13th films, however, the characters who are supposed to be teenagers are actually played by teenagers, rather than by twenty-somethings.  And for all the film’s abundant flaws, the actress who plays Alex, Kathryn Newton is pretty strong.  At the very least, she’s better than the material she is asked to carry. 

But the important point is an underlying one. The franchise’s shift to teenage concerns suggests recognition on the part of the producers that the franchise is now aging. Therefore attracting certain demographic groups has become crucial.

Secondly, this is the first Paranormal Activity film that is girded with specific tributes or homages to the horror genre, which again suggests that the franchise’s appeal is narrowing, and that filmmakers are hoping to target some demographics more directly.

I don’t know how many general audiences will recognize the re-staging of a famous and scary sequence from Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980), or another moment that echoes Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), for example.  There’s even a moment here that deliberately recalls Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). I recognized these allusions, but they don’t add up to anything meaningful in terms of Paranormal Activity 4’s narrative or themes.

My biggest concern with the film is that it features almost no scares.  Even the jump scares are mild.  And because this film is longer in duration (nearly 100 minutes) than the other Paranormal Activity films, the almost total absence of frightening material is noteworthy and troublesome.  This film is a long, hard slog -- Paranormal Inactivity -- and with the possible exception of a visual gimmick regarding Kinect, there are precious few innovations in format.

In addition, Paranormal Activity 4’s finale violates a cardinal rule of the found footage sub-genre: we don’t know what kind of device Alex is recording on during her fateful, night-vision journey into the neighbor’s dark and sinister house.  She doesn’t seem to be using her laptop, and there’s little indication she picked up Ben’s video camera.  Instead, the entire final scene plays like a coda tacked on in post-production, after audience focus groups found the third act uninspiring or disappointing.  One minute, Alexa is in her own house, being attacked by an invisible demon, and in the next, she’s crossing the street, using an unknown device, and probing into the dark house alone.  Almost all the supernatural “action” of the film, at least in terms of effects, occurs in this brief denouement.

Further, Paranormal Activity 4 falls prey to a problem that has become increasingly common in the found-footage genre.  Specifically, cameras record overt, undeniable, dangerous supernatural activity, but the dramatis personae mysteriously don’t review that important footage.  Here, Alex is levitated above her bed one night.  Several days later, she still hasn’t reviewed the footage and witnessed what occurred.

If she did watch that footage, it would be evidence for her doubting Thomas parents, of course.  And yes, there’s a lame excuse in the movie that Alex can’t access the footage because she’s forgotten the password that enables viewing.  But if you really believed a malevolent entity was after you, would you wait days and days before attempting even a basic password recovery?  Most password encoded programs have a prompt that reads: forgot password? Click here. 

Secondly, Ben also has access to the footage.  That footage includes his hot, would-be girlfriend going to bed every night in her skimpy jammies and shorts.  So wouldn’t he at least check in for lascivious purposes?
Basically, the entire last act of Paranormal Activity 4 is predicated on the ridiculous notion that Alex is filming tons of footage (so we in the audience can see it), but not watching a lick of it (so she can remain in danger).  It’s contrived in the extreme. 

Of all the Paranormal Activity movies, I would count this one as the worst, and also the most disappointing given the surprising quality of the third film.  There’s not even one good scare moment in this sequel, or one legitimately great visual composition, or scene set up. It’s all a slow, meandering trip to nowhere, with a tacked-on ending that exists only to grease the wheels for the inevitable sequel next year.

Perhaps that no-doubt-upcoming effort will be more Jason Lives! or The Final Chapter than a A New Beginning.  One can hope.


  1. And yet (sad to say) of the four, this film received the most visceral reaction yet from its (mostly teenaged) audience, at least in the theaters I've seen them at. But I question how long that fickle enthusiasm will last. As the box office for the sequels slowly dwindles, the films are skewing younger because their audience is becoming progressively younger, the older crowds who attended the first film or so having become tired of the cheap, unadventurous thrills. Creatively, pandering in a deliberate manner to such a young audience (loud, boisterous, mocking) is a losing proposition in the long term, as they'll inevitably abandon the property for whatever next looks new and shiny (perhaps a partial explanation for TCM3D's huge success, after the flop of the previous entry? Six years allows a whole new generation of teens to grow up). As a dedicated and sometimes forgiving horror fan, PA4 was my first experience with the series in which it was clear that an audience member like me wasn't even in the back of the filmmakers' minds.

    A New Beginning might be the way to go. Most of the trouble with PA4 can be sourced back to its unwillingness to abandon the established formula and history, resulting in a film that desperately obfuscates its own basic story in order to leave more for next time. But, especially if the composition of your core audience is changing, why not try something new? Perhaps we won't see this happen until the box office for future entries start coming up far shorter than expectations.

    P.S. I've made the same connection between the FF and slasher genres that you and the commenter have, but have found their major difference (the ten year gap before the artistry of BWP was commercialized into the F13-like chewing gum that is the PA series) the most intriguing. I believe the reason for this lies almost entirely in the advent of cheap HD camcorders, the absence of which in 1999 made the notion of a mass-appeal FF film a hard sell.

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      I think your observation about pandering to teenagers is spot-on. The move is blatant, and poorly conceived, because that audience will shift to the next Hunger Games/Twilight/I am Number Four effort anyway, so why re-parse PA in that mode? It's a shame, and counter-productive.

      I agree with you that PA4 suffers from a lack of invention. Nothing exciting or fresh happened. It was just PA...with teenagers, and there's not a lot of appeal in that for wider audiences.

      Great comment!


  2. Interesting. I feel these films got less and less interesting as they went along. They all had their moments, but I still think the first one holds up fairly well. Yeah, the final shot at the end was a bit much, but I gotta admit, I jumped. :) I don't know if you've seen the original ending on the DVD, where Katie walks up to the camera and cuts her throat. That ending seemed a bit more in line with the film.

    I've only seen the third film once and enjoyed two thirds of the film. The final third just didn't quite click for me.

    What's funny is that my wife and I watched the three PA films over the course of three nights in October - and then followed it with "Blair Witch Project". Wow, the gap in quality was obvious. "Blair Witch" still holds up wonderfully well. Still one of my favorite horror flicks from the 1990s.

    1. Hi Roman,

      The original ending of PA seemed more in line with the rest of the film, and had the advantage of not spoon-feeding the audience "the answer" about the paranormal activity.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you about Blair Witch vs. PA. The BWP is a great horror film, and the PA ones are okay time-wasters. Art vs. entertainment, perhaps.


  3. There is no bigger compliment than to be named in a review of yours....Thanks.
    I have been a defender of this franchise and in turn, this genre for quite some time. But PA4 was a sea change for me. This film was bad, real bad. First, in America, people do not just bring totally strange children in to stay with them for a few days. When you think about the possible liability that this causes for any family, short of Hurricane Katrina, this does not happen. And if this does not happen, the movie does happen. This narrative destroyed my suspension of disbelief for me for the rest of the film.
    I could not get by that fact that the house looked palatial. The ceilings looked as tall as the ones in Kubrick's Overlook Hotel, meanwhile the house across the street looked totally middle class.
    The genre is at a crossroads, I juxtapose it with mid 80's slashers. Over-saturation plus mediocrity = death nell for this genre. I look forward with much anticipation to Eduardo Sanchez's (Blair Witch Project/Lovely Molly) return to the genre with 'Blair Witch 3', but it's still just a sequel. I actually think that the inevitable PA5 will be a hybrid, more of a 'Lovely Molly' style that features both found footage and traditional filming techniques.

    1. Hi Trent,

      I appreciated your comment so much, vis-a-vis the historical context here. I think how you describe it really makes tremendous sense.

      I also agree with you about the ridiculous premise here. My wife and I looked at each other and said..."they're just going to take the neighbor's kid? But those neighbors just moved in..." It's nutty.

      I also agree with you that the format is at a cross-roads. The slasher format ultimately revived because of the introduction of "Rubber Reality" templates (courtesy of Wes Craven and Freddy Krueger). It was a sea change in the knife-kill films, transforming them into something slightly different. We'll see what forces "mutate" the found footage film, but I agree with you that the REC3/Lovely Molly "partial" found-footage example is out there to be emulated, and could be the wave of the future.

      Great comment!