(This review is based on an in-progress work print that still needs some VFX and sound work done. The finished version opens Oct 19. Keep that in mind as you read this review.)
Few contemporary horror franchises – actually few horror franchises in general – have been able to maintain the same level of quality control throughout as the Paranormal Activity films. While most sequels take astronomical leaps downwards with each subsequent entry, turning into even more inept, pandering nonsense, the PA films have subverted expectations, remaining as solid and consistent with each subsequent entry as the last one. Granted, that means if you hated the first one, there’s nothing in the rest of them that will actively blow your you mind, but for the longtime fans, that also means a solid collection of comfort food/found footage/haunted house films with a deepening mythology and a decent amount of jump out of your seat scares. That holds mostly true for the latest, Paranormal Activity 4, an efficient and effective fourquel of the popular series – though the signs of wear and tear have begun to show.
One is loath to spoil much about the plot of a Paranormal Activity film, whose success largely hinges on the surprises hidden by a obfuscating marketing effort by Paramount. Suffice it to say, the new film avoids the prequelizing of the earlier efforts, returning the action to present day and following a new family in Carlsbad, Nevada as they take in a neighbor boy while his mother is sick and…
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman encore from part 3, and like the makeshift oscillating camera in that film, get great mileage out of finding new and unique ways to record the supernatural goings on. Here modern tech like Skype and Xbox Kinect get in on the action, which both frees up the visual pallets and allows for some arresting and heart-stopping images to unfold.
Joost and Schulman allow their movie to meander into teen flick land, using as their protagonists a 15-year-old girl and her boyfriend, though the directors are smart enough to at least make their characters a likable pair rather than the obnoxious brats that oft pass for teens in horror movies. And the film often ends up funnier then expected, often due to the amusing and naturalistic reactions of that boyfriend.
The directors also play funny homage to classic haunted house movies of years past, and assume audiences are now so familiar with the Paranormal films that they can play off expectations in ways that are both laugh out loud and shiver inducing. However that boon can also become a bane at times. Series stalwarts will begin to easily predict just exactly where this is all going to end up, and the chilly tension prevalent in previous entries dissipates more into funhouse shocks here than ever before. It’s just getting harder to derive scares from increasingly familiar material, though that doesn’t stop Joost and Schulman from delivering some great audience-favorite moments – including a killer final shot that expands the Paranormal mythology into epic new dimensions. Still one begins to wonder, like every year, just how much the filmmakers can keep this particular Activity going.