When Paranormal Activity 4 (PA4) opens, five years would have elapsed since a possessed Katie Featherston went on a killing spree and abducted her nephew Hunter. Perhaps I should have begun the review with “spoiler alert”, but I doubt viewers would spend their entertainment rupee on the fourth instalment, without a pretty good idea of what went before.
Finally after two prequels to the original found footage horror franchise, the story is moving on in part four directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Or is it?
The bad news is that plot advancements happen in minute increments, insights into the horror mythology behind the PA series are minimal, and the scares are the same.
I frighten easily and did jump in my seat, even when live people crept up on one another onscreen. But I have to admit the scare quotient in PA4 is on the low side, so you can get a bit bored watching the same living room, darkened corridor, jittery cat and doors swinging shut.
The good news is we have a cute new heroine, young teen Alex (Kathryn Newton), nicely set up in American suburbia with disconnected parents (Stephen Dunham and Alexondra Lee) and young adopted brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp).
Alex is the only one who really gets the heebie-jeebies when the neighbouring little boy, Robbie (Brady Allen), comes to stay with her family; Robbie’s mysterious mother Katie (Katie Featherston) is apparently taken sick and he has nowhere else to go.
Things start to get weird in Alex’s home with missing knives and crashing chandeliers. Along with her, we also want to sit up and shriek warnings at Alex’s parents when Robbie seems to be engineering some sort of powerful connection with Wyatt.
Newton is a lot of fun — nice, bright-eyed — and there’s some sweet, fresh chemistry between her and 15-year-old Ben (also well played, by Matt Shively). The two are on perpetual Skype mode; it’s a logical extension for them to set up computers and cameras to figure out what exactly Robbie is up to, when everyone else is sleeping.
The most effective part of the film continues to be the ability to linger long on an unchanging domestic scene with nothing happening — until the viewers nerves are at fever pitch, waiting for the scare to materialise. The way to create such clever scenes continues to be via the movie’s principal stylistic invention: showing action unfold via found footage from computer, security or movie cameras.
And, in PA4, also via the motion capture sensors of the living room Xbox. An initially cool — but then overused visual motif — is how beams of light from the video game console create the horror story version of a discoball in a dark room.
While you will continue to squeal at the fleeting shadows and shadowy figures, the novelty value is largely gone. Even the characters don’t seem that interested in actually viewing the footage from the recording devices they have set up. Mostly, PA4 is busy setting up, you guessed it, PA5.
Paranormal Activity 4
Genre: Found-footage horror series
Director: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Cast: Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively
Storyline: A suburban family’s life goes belly up when they charitably invite a neighbourhood kid to stay over.
Bottomline: The law of diminishing returns also applies to Things that go Bump in the Night.