This movie is exactly what you think it is, which is kind of a gift and also the worst thing that could ever happen. On the one hand, the mechanics are the same as the other films in the series, all allegedly comprised of found footage shot by the people in the film itself, the scares built in over time. On the other hand, it’s pretty much the same movie as the other three, and wouldn’t it be so much more interesting to see something new? Old grey mares not being what they used to be and all, the plot this time revolves around a new family and though the plot of the past three films will be useful in understanding the fourth entry — it isn’t necessary. Having eyeballs and eardrums qualifies you to be afraid, though you probably won’t be.
Fifteen-year-old Alex (Kathryn Newton), along with her boyfriend (Matt Shively), begins to notice and document bizarre phenomenon within her parent’s luxurious upper middle class home when a strange little neighbor boy (Brady Allen) must stay with their family for a while and begins to befriend Alex’s brother.
Paranormal Activity has trained its audience well, which is a particular kind of curse. When you anticipate what the format is, you know your cues. One’s eyes automatically search the screen for the slightest hint of movement, especially in the legendary night scenes, and even things that don’t seem scary begin to have an edge. The series has gotten quite adept at hiding the action, having characters stand too close to the camera, opening a door that hides the camera’s field of vision and so on. Even when nothing scary is happening, it still feels as if it is, and the lack of a sensationalist score adds volumes to the felt terror.
This entry is fairly amusing in a way the previous ones were not. There’s plenty of vaguely delightful humor that breaks the tension, especially between Alex and her boyfriend, and as such the scares stand out in a more visceral way when they do happen. There’s fake outs and false starts, red herrings and some rather red handed sleight of hand, but a few of the darker moments land with a vengeance.
The fact that no one interacts with people outside the family, never travel or appear to have lives outside the home worth discussing lends a certain air of desperation to the proceedings, as if the action takes place on an island. Fear is the ultimate island, so much of what makes us terrified is a solitary experience of phenomena, such as the worry that we may be alone, that we may end up alone, that we hear strange noises while alone, all of this gnawing at us, manifesting itself in a myriad of ways. Even one other person lends us strength, as evidenced even by our embarrassment as an audience of “falling” for the darker moments in the film or our pride at not being taken in by every moment.
A community built on trust could stand together against that darkness, but the family in the film is splintered — Alex begs her parents to listen to her but they are absorbed in their own hinted at troubles, her brother’s struggles go unnoticed, every solitary soul wanting to connect but is unable. As such, the family unit is rendered void and the participants are susceptible to the encroaching darkness. For how silly this movie might be, Alex is a capable young woman, an obedient and loving daughter and sister, and a grounded young woman who isn’t pressured by the sexual intimations of her boyfriend. Though she may be blond, blue-eyed and innocent, her demonstrations of concern and love go unappreciated by her distracted parents. Perhaps this is extending far too much credit, but in a genre where it’s easy to make women victims and simpletons, Alex appears to be neither.
There’s a few neat tricks this time around, a TV set that projects night vision green dots all over a room (presumably having something to do with the Kinect game sensing monitor device, which, speaking of Kinect, get excited for the product placement throughout the film. Paranormal Activity 4, brought to you by Pepsi-Cola! Drink refreshing Pepsi-Cola with every meal, take it on the go, share crisp, cool Pepsi-Cola with a friend or loved one), as well as Alex and her boyfriend’s natural and second nature use of technology to capture and explore their home.
If you liked the other ones, you’ll probably like this one. If you haven’t seen the other ones, it doesn’t matter. The same fairly low-budget production values remain throughout, the scares land mostly and except for the rather silly ending, the story of Paranormal Activity progresses nicely. Still, nothing is gained and nothing is lost, only a few hours of your time you were probably going to waste anyway.
Amanda Mae Meyncke is a member of the Online Film Critics Society, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Women Film Critics Circle, she writes for Film.com and Pajiba, and you can bother her here.