What Saw has become for “’torture porn”, Paranormal Activity has become for found footage. Both made a mark because they put a unique twist on the horror film (the former has a serial killer who never killed, and the latter used a Internet campaign that built hype and actually asked audiences to demand its release), and oddly enough, both franchises have attempted to create a complex multi-movie storyline as well. In this sense, one cannot deny both franchises’ sizeable success – as evidenced by the sequels actually being made. But does that mean the latest additions to the series are any good? In the case of Oren Peli’s film, sadly not.
If you’ve seen one film in the Paranormal series, you can probably guess 90% of the plot already. Like before, the story largely centers around one location: the house of a content family, with one individual aware of something unusual and everyone else expressing denial to an extreme fault. Set a few years after the events of the first two films (which I will not spoil, largely due to habit), the daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) notice that a young boy named Robbie from a neighbor’s house is hanging around theirs fairly frequently. Eventually, the boy starts to befriend her brother Wyatt, and as events begin to spiral out of control, the teenagers attempt to discover why staying home has suddenly become the ultimate risk.
In terms of characters and overall atmosphere, there is some improvement from the original. This is a film largely built on two performances: Shively effectively strikes the balance between hormone-driven mischief and tech-savvy seriousness, while Newton displays noteworthy versatility as her character becomes increasingly unraveled when circumstance grow more dire. In turn, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who have previously worked on Paranormal Activity 3, know how to set proper atmosphere and are able to create a few scenes of effective atmosphere and suspense.
However, the central problem of the film is too much to overcome, revolving around a basic difficulty of sequels: knowing what needs to change and what should stay the same. Trying not to give too much away, what made the original so good was that there was a set time at night for the supernatural to occur. As unusual as its sounds: the expectation built up the fear (unlike many other horror films), since you knew it was coming and you knew it would only get worse. If nothing else, it preyed on a very basic vulnerability: how safe are you when you are asleep, even in your own home?
Paranormal Activity 4 largely does away with this, overlapping the times when supernatural events occur and thus making it much more implausible when family members act like nothing out of the ordinary is occurring. Because of this, its most unique trait is wasted and the series no longer feels any different from all the other “demon in the house” films that are a dime a dozen these days. In this clichéd world, any contemplation on psychological breaking points are done away with, jump scares become the norm, and it’s no longer about if something evil is near but when will it show up.
If that is the sort of thrill you are looking for, if nothing else, at least this film will be enjoyably familiar to see with friends. But it does nothing to bring in any new fans, and ultimately loses its chokehold that it once held on the sleep cycles of audiences past.