This movie gave Judge Patrick Bromley paralytic activity.
All the activity has led to this…
I can only assume the use of the word "activity" in the tagline is ironic.
Facts of the Case
It has been five years since the events of Paranormal Activity 2. The whereabouts of Katie (Katie Featherston) and her nephew Hunter are still unknown.
A family living in the Nevada suburbs discover a neighborhood boy, Robbie (Brady Allen), living in their treehouse. His mother is missing. They invite the boy to come stay with them. Once he does, weird things start happening in the house. The teenage daughter, Alex (Kathryn Newton, Bad Teacher) decides to investigate further, enlisting her friend Ben (Matt Shively, Noobz), to figure out what's going on. The pair set up every computer and laptop in the house to start recording everything that's going on, and what they discover is unlike anything they've ever seen.
Ok. Bear with me.
2009's Paranormal Activity is by no means a great movie, but it's good at being what it is—a low-fi ghost movie, exploiting its gimmick to maximum effect and mixing creepy tension with a lot of good jump scares. Yes, it's more like walking through a haunted house than it is a last work of art, but it does its job well. Paranormal Activity 2 is a big drop off from the first movie for a couple of reasons: first, it just tries to repeat a lot of the same moments, making it less a sequel than a re-do of the original. Second, its only novelty is that it tries to build a "mythology" for the series, which is not only stupid but limits the story to an almost paralyzing degree. This is a series that could have run on indefinitely had the producers just been willing to release a movie every year with "recordings" from different houses. But no; this is the 2000s, and everything has to have elaborate backstory and endless continuity (see also: the Saw series), so now we're basically stuck with the same small group of characters in the same two houses. The possibilities on that run out pretty quickly.
That's what made Paranormal Activity 3 such a pleasant surprise. Not only did it have the novelty of being the first "narrative" movie directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the team responsible for the 2010 documentary (???) Catfish, but also improved vastly on Part 2 by being inventive both in the concept (it goes back to the 1980s) and in the execution, offering more good scares than maybe even the first. These two, it seemed, were on to something. That's what makes Paranormal Activity 4 such a disappointment. It's made by the same two guys who figured out how to reinvigorate a franchise that had grown tired after just two movies, but manages to be the worst installment yet. Every lesson that Joost and Schulman learned on Paranormal Activity 3 is abandoned here, resulting in a movie that basks in every worst instinct the franchise has displayed. It is very mythology-focused, and confuses "minimalism" for "boredom."
Seriously, nothing happens in this movie.
The big addition to Paranormal Activity 4 is computers. That's it. It's the first installment that's basically set in the present (the first movie, released in 2009, was set in 2006 [but shot in 2007]), taking place in 2011. So instead of the "home security" cameras set up in the first two movies or having a character be a wedding videographer obsessed with filming everything (another testament the third movie's cleverness), this one just has characters filming everything with webcams. Ok, sure. I can disregard the logistical problems that introduces (like running out of disk space almost immediately, for one), because I've had to accept characters that never put down cameras even when there are ghosts in past installments. My problem isn't that everything in the movie is "recorded" on computers, but that the movie does nothing with this idea. There is no commentary being made about the constant presence of computers in our lives, or our need to document everything. Nothing is said about living our lives online, or in a virtual public space (the characters don't upload any of the footage to YouTube, because that might have been interesting).
But the computers aren't the problem. They're just the conceit, and we have to do our best to at least accept the conceit. The problem is that the movie is deadly dull—an endless series of empty rooms and faces looking directly into camera, then maybe hearing something. Maybe. Screenwriter Christopher Landon (who has written all three sequels) tries to up the creepy factor by centering so much of the story on children, but to little end. I guess it's scarier to watch a young boy stand and stare at nothing than it is to watch an adult man, but that assumes it's scary at all. It is not. There is one kind of neat innovation in the movie, where the young kids use their Xbox to fill a dark room with illuminated pixel dots. It's cool once. The film goes back to it again and again and again. The surprise "reveal" in the movie, which occurs about two-thirds of the way in, is neither surprising nor revealing. It is telegraphed in the first few minutes. It adds nothing to the story nor to the overall mythology, which remains the weakest part of the series.
It's also kind of heartbreaking that Joost and Schulman completely ignore every single thing about Paranormal Activity 3. Not only do they abandon the hunger that drove them to be creative when approaching the series, but from a narrative standpoint the third movie might as well have never happened. Paranormal Activity 4 starts right where Paranormal Activity 2 left off, conveniently skipping over the best movie in the series. Yes, Paranormal Activity 3 was a "prequel," but it did introduce a few ideas (especially in the very effective final minutes) that opened up the series' insular universe a little and could have been built upon here. No such luck. We need more time devoted to two teenagers goofing around and bickering and sometimes sleeping.
Paranormal Activity 4 arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Paramount, in a slick and good-looking 1080p full HD transfer that's true to the movie's origins. The series has always had a low-tech aesthetic, so it's hardly the kind of thing that's going to show off your home theater to the best of its capabilities, but Paramount has been consistently true to the filmmakers' intentions when releasing the movies on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 widescreen transfer has as much detail as the "webcam" gimmick will allow and no visible flaws in the presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is much more effective, because the Paranormal Activity movies are always about atmospheric sound more than they are about the visuals. It's pretty inactive for the most part—again, nothing happens in this movie—but the dialogue is always clear and the surround effects kick in when it matters most.
Hardly any bonus features are offered on the disc. There are two versions available: the 87-minute theatrical cut and a 96-minute "unrated" extended cut, because such is the standard business practice these days. The longer cut adds nothing of the usual "unrated" nature (or, at least, what "unrated" used to mean). It's just extra footage. In case you haven't had enough extra footage already, there's a "recovered files" section that includes nearly 30 minutes of additional scenes, which is a lot like watching someone's home movies and about as interesting. A standard def DVD copy and a digital copy are both included as well.
Beyond the disappointing gimmick and the nonexistent characters, the greatest sin of Paranormal Activity 4 is that it is not scary. Not in the slightest. It has no tension. It has no jump scares. It isn't fun. It doesn't work on even the most basic level that all three of the previous movies at least attempted (yes, Paranormal Activity 2 is no good, but it did feature one really good scene involving kitchen cabinets that almost makes it worth watching), and suggests that there is no life left in this franchise. Of course, it cost nothing to produce and made over $100 million, so there's little doubt that we'll be getting another one come October. I will no longer be looking forward to that.
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