Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Cast: Kathryn Newton, Brady Allen, Matt Shively, Aiden Lovekamp
Plot: When their mysterious neighbour falls ill, Alex Nelson (Newton) and her family look after her creepy son, when strange things start going on around the house.
It only takes a few minutes before we realise that Paranormal Activity 4 is going to be a lot better than the other two sequels. There is something more confident about the story-telling, smooth about the pace. It is the little things that let us know this, like our protagonist, fifteen year old Alex Nelson, cutting her home movie away from her bickering parents and to her young brother, instantly challenging him to do some cartwheels. That quick moment has told us that the parents are in a rocky relationship, the daughter is aware of this and is mature enough to know that she needs to overcome her own emotions about that and protect her little brother from the possible effects of arguing parents. In a heartbeat, we have just been given more characterisation that the last two Paranormal Activity films put together.
Most of Paranormal Activity 4’s quality comes from having a lead character that we actually care about. Since Katie Featherston, there hasn’t really been a strong actress or character holding the movie together. We have been given lifeless chess-pieces for the supernatural presence to carry out its usual routine of possession and butchery with. However, the story is so much stronger with Kathryn Newton grounding the movie. We know how Paranormal Activity films play out by now, but surely this one will be a different story. The writers cannot kill off the likeable teenage girl. Strong performances aren’t really something we come to found footage movies for, especially ones in the horror genre, but Newton makes a good point that perhaps a little bit more of the shoestring budget should be going into finding someone of a higher calibre of acting. Admittedly the script seems more willing to help out with nailing the principal character, possibly realising the pitfalls of the last two movies. One scene in the family garage might just put Alex Nelson into a list of contenders for the most badass horror movie heroine in the last five years. Credit must also go towards the younger cast, especially Brady Allen’s creepy kid from next door, Robbie. He will be your source of creepy going-ons for the first half of the movie and his vacant stare hits the nail on the head perfectly.
There is also less of a reliance on scares this time around. In fact, it takes a while before the jumps begin becoming a regular occurrence in the fourth instalment. A lot of this is the directors knowing that the tone and mythology of Paranormal Activity will do that for us. We have the knowledge of the supernatural being ticking away in the background, providing the unsettling atmosphere, while the writers can focus on building up a character for Kathryn Newton to act with. There are clever little jump cuts and false alarms to keep the horror fans happy, but no one seems in any rush to get to the terror of the ending, which helps the pacing profoundly. For the first time in the franchise, the same directors make it to the following movie and the creativity that made Paranormal Activity 3 worthwhile helps again here. For a lot of the movie, there is a break away from the regular structure of the Paranormal Activities, creating a more playful side to the series. Most of the found footage is done from laptop screens rather than CCTV, which creates some new jump scares. Quite often, a character leans close to the laptop, their face covering the entire screen, occasionally blocking out a shadow that just stirred right behind them. There are a few scenes where Newton carries her laptop to the next room, so she can continue a Skype chat, the tracking shot giving a natural flow to the found footage. There is also some pretty eerie shots of the night vision camera, as the webcam picks up the laser sensors fired from the Nintendo Wii. Sometimes, something moves in between the lasers…
All of these positive points make it quite frustrating that the fourth movie can’t quite finish the deal. Sure, the pacing and characters are better than they have been in a long time, but there are times when you miss the scares. This movie is going to suffer from a lack of cult moments. Paranormal Activity 2 and 3 were worse, but they had little moments of brilliance tucked in the running time that you couldn’t help but admire. Paranormal Activity 4 has very few of these moments and most of them are tucked into the last two minutes of the film (which includes a neat ‘Shining’ reference and a very chilling final frame). As a result, Paranormal Activity 4 is the most forgettable yet. It isn’t even bad enough to talk about in an overall discussion of the series. The ending is also a little unbalanced. It rocks a neat little twist, but also keeps the story ticking over for a little too long. It ends rather abruptly and you cannot help but wished that the final showdown was a little more focused.
Final Verdict: The characters and story is better than we’ve had it before, but the scares are sacrificed. It almost was the best yet, but not quite.