After purchasing Paranormal Activity, a simple-but-scary horror film ostensibly made from home surveillance and camcorder footage of unnatural events within a suburban home, Paramount Pictures found it had a clear money-maker—and better, a clear money-maker that didn't cost much money to make. Sequels followed as surely as fall does summer, but the biggest surprise in the Paranormal films wasn't in any of the movie's jump-scares or depth-of-field tricks. Rather, the surprise in the franchise was in how it stayed good (or, less optimistically, barely declined) as the series progressed. Paranormal Activity 2 moved the events of the first film forward; Paranormal Activity 3, a pre-quel set in the VHS-only days of 1988, also built backstory and structure for the series. And in Paranormal Activity 4, which picks back up in the present day there are both plenty of bumps in the night and also a scary-smooth slow unveiling of what the films have built to all along. Audiences will react with rabid enthusiasm for what is, bluntly, the best name in modern horror franchises, even if this fourth go at squeezing the juice out of the series' methods and madness runs a little dry.
The good news is that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who return along with writer Christopher Landon from PA3, also seem to know this, and add in plenty of in-jokes that often also work as legitimate scares. In a Nevada suburb, a family—mom and dad and 6-year-old Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) and 15-year-old daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton, good as she is game), with the occasional presence of Alex's kinda-boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively)—live normal lives, but when the creepy neighbor kid Robbie (Brady Allen) has a family emergency that puts his mom in the hospital, the well-meaning fools take him in. And then, as in all the Paranormal films, we watch as things move and creak and groan for no apparent rational reason, until the irrational reasons become terrifyingly apparent.
You can feel Joost and Schulman kicking a bit at the constraints of the film's device—at one point, an aggrieved mother being recorded as she cooks sighs "Oh, again with the camera?" The audience laughed with the giddy good humor of people who want to be tricked. The film is tied to the mythology of the other films—Wyatt is adopted, and we've seen him in the series before—and it also gives us new and scary moments as Katie (Katie Featherstone, in a recurring part that runs through all the films) shows up to play her part in the vast and otherworldly conspiracy unfolding in the well-tended streets of Nevada.
Again, it's hard to not like this series. I'll always take a horror film franchise motivated by imagination and trepidation over one washed lazily downstream by a torrent of fake blood, and while Alex and her family are set up like lambs for the slaughter, that still doesn't mean we don't gulp when the time comes for the finale. The cast is excellent, again with the caveat that they're working within the constraints of both a franchise film and a film with a predetermined shooting style, and while Newton and Shively are an appealing lead couple, Allen and Lovekamp are also strong as kids in touch with—and in thrall to—something strange and unknowable. Paranormal Activity should be the last in its brand. But if we have to endure Paranormal Acti5ity, which according to the teaser footage at the end we do, let's hope the film makers find some new form to play with beyond found footage, and definitely some scare-making tricks beyond Wes Craven-style dark shapes moving in the background. Paranormal Activity 4 may mean more of the same, but in a modern horror landscape too often made up of equal parts of gore and boredom and resigned straight-to-video, it's a chiller designed to be seen in a crowded theater, and that alone makes it superior to its peers.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Aiden Lovekamp, Brady Allen, Katie Featherston
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Screenwriters: Christopher Landon, Chad Feehan
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Pelli
Rating: R for language, and some violence/terror.
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: October 19, 2012
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