Tuesday, April 08, 2014

From the Archive: 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 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:24 PM

    You know, sometimes I read movie reviews and wonder if there are two different films with the same title, and the reviewer saw the OTHER one. I didn't find PA4 that bad. Not great mind you, but still effective and what I paid my $7 to see. I am not saying you are wrong, or in any way diminishing your opinion, just wondering if we saw the same movie.


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