Paranormal Activity 4 – A Review

In keeping with the theme I started yesterday with American Horror Story, last night I went to a screening for the latest installment in the Paranormal Activity franchise. While there were a few moments that made me jump, the fourth movie is the weakest of the series. I still enjoyed it, but it is a case of diminishing returns.

I generally do not get scared during scary movies. While some of my friends watch horror movies from behind their fingers, I am not fazed in the slightest. When an old roommate and I watched the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she was so freaked out that she had to go spend the night at her boyfriend’s house. Left alone in the house, I slept like a baby without any indication that I had just watched Leatherface in action. The serial killer/boogeyman/ torture porn genre of films have the least amount of impact on me; while people are freaked out by movies like Saw and Hostel, I’m usually impressed with the creativity the writers have in coming up with new and innovative ways to kill people. I remember being particularly awestruck with the French movie Haute Tension (High Tension), where a man is decapitated with a bookshelf. Now that’s inventive. I’m far too rational for these films to mess with my head; I know they are not real, so I never feel like I’m in peril. They are just too over the top to be taken seriously (though I am not above pretending to be scared if the situation warrants it).

It’s the smaller, more nuanced horror movies that have the best chance of impacting me. I’m still not scared, but they do occasionally garner some mild uneasiness during the course of the film. I may even jump once or twice. The films don’t stay with me – once the credits role, I’m no longer nervous – but they are also the ones that I enjoy the most. The Paranormal Activity films fall into this category. While some people dismiss them as being too slow and not having much happen, I think that they are far creepier than movies where a masked madman leaves a trail of dead teenagers in his wake.

Told using found footage, the Paranormal Activity franchise follows the creepy occurrences that follow two sisters. In the first film, which I think is the most effective, a young couple begins to notice strange things going on in their house. While the woman believes that something mysterious is going on, the man does not take her concerns all that seriously and sets up surveillance cameras to disprove her assertions that something has been haunting her since childhood. The cameras capture the unusual things that have been going on – strange noises, closed doors opening, shadowy movements. The tension slowly builds in the film and the events escalate until the dramatic ending. The latter chapters of the series use the same basic formula – found footage, weird occurrences – and also build a bit of a mythology around the two sisters and their backstory.

Some people dismiss the Paranormal Activity films as boring, but I appreciate the way that they take their time and create a mood. There may not be a crazy man with an ax chasing people around, but just because the films are methodical does not mean that nothing is happening. I find the Paranormal Activity films to be much more relatable – who among us hasn’t felt slightly uneasy at some point or another for some unexplained reason, or thought the worst when there is an odd noise in an otherwise quiet house? The Paranormal Activity films are much for psychological than visceral. They operate under the same premise as a haunted house- you know that someone is going to jump out at you at some point, but you don’t know when and where. It’s the anticipation that is terrifying. The Paranormal Activity movies play fear small ball; they may not be as flashy as some other horror movies, but they quietly get things done. I imagine that they are even scarier if you believe in ghosts and spirits (I don’t).

The problems that I had with Paranormal Activity 4 is not in concept – as I said, I find this films much creepier than most horror movies – but more from the repetition. One of the reasons that I think that the first film is the best is because at the time the premise was innovative and unexpected. But after 4 movies, they have run the premise into the ground. The element of surprise is gone and while the other films benefited from moving the mythology forward (or backward, since they were prequels), this latest installment doesn’t add much to that component of the films.  I did appreciate the introduction of some new characters, but it wasn’t enough to prevent me from feeling like I had seen this movie already. Again – there were still moments when I jumped or otherwise reacted, but I felt that there was no forward motion with this movie.

Some other thoughts:

  • This is the first time seeing any of the Paranormal Activity films in the theater; I usually watch them at home on DVD. It was a very different experience than I was used to. I personally think the films are creepier when watched in private as it amplifies their quietness and subtly. It puts you closer to the experiences of the characters in the film and if you hear an odd noise in your house while watching, all the better. Watching with a crowd, I found it was much easier to be taken out of the movie by the reaction of others. It was fun, however, to see how freaked out people got. Wimps.
  • We sat in front of a young couple that refused to shut up throughout the entire movie. It was like watching the film with director’s commentary on, if the director was a not very insightful skater guy whose vocabulary was primarily comprised of the F word. It was extremely annoying.
  • However, I did have to laugh from one comment that I overheard. In the midst of all their inane chattering, the couple had the following exchange:

Girl (scene shot in the foyer of the house): That is some really nice flooring.

Guy: It is. My parents have the same thing in their office.

So out of place and random, I couldn’t help by giggle. And it was nice flooring.

  • There is a cat in the film that looks like my cat Pumpkin, so I was irrationally concerned about his/her safety. I was probably more worried about his/her livelihood than I was for the humans.
  • I’ve mentioned this before, but Paranormal Activity 4 falls right in with the other horror movies this fall with the focus on creepy kids. That seems to be the trend right now (Sinister, The Possession) and it is pretty effective. You want really creepy? Use Albino/pale children with British accents; that’s like the horror movie trifecta in my book.
  • These films definitely reward people with good observation skills; in addition to subtly of the paranormal activity, there is some attention to detail in what is going on in the background as well.
  • I think this was the funniest entry in the franchise; there were some legitimate laughs amidst all the creepiness.
  • If you are putting the films in chronological order of the events that take place, it would be 3,2,1,4. I don’t think you need to have seen any of the other films to get something out of it, but #1 is probably the most relevant as this film picks up several years afterward.
  • The film is pretty short – it clocks in at around 88 minutes.
  • The one nice thing about this franchise – there isn’t a whole lot of blood. I know excessive blood and guts is a big turn off for some people, so this allows those people the chance to be scared without being grossed out.
  • For those that are so inclined, there is a scene after the credits. However, it will be helpful if someone in your party speaks Spanish to understand it. Even then, it’s pretty vague.
  • Never fear – Paranormal Activity 5 is already in production. Even though I didn’t love this latest film, I’m glad because it left me with some questions. I’d like some closure to the mythology.

So while I think that this franchise is running out of steam with the latest installment, Paranormal Activity 4 definitely does have its moments that will inspire some apprehension. If you like these movies, you will probably enjoy the 4th film to some degree. It’s not the best of the bunch, but a fun movie for this time of year.