Silver Screen: Paranormal Activity IV *
Who needs an atomic clock when we have horror-movie sequels? If you need something to set your watch by, just use the convenient and predictable stream of scary-movie franchises rolling out their latest low-budget cash-in just in time for Halloween. Used to be you could mark the changing of the seasons with the release of the latest Saw. Now Saw is deposed, and the latest replacement for the sundial and Stonehenge is the inevitable new installment of Paranormal Activity. (Hey, it's better than the bad old days of Saw-- you can't say nothing has gotten better during the Obama administration.)
By this point, we all know pretty much what to expect when we're introduced to a pleasantly generic, white suburban family with a love of audio-visual equipment. This time around our haunted heroine is Alex (Kathryn Newton), an almost supernaturally well-behaved teen living with her mostly absent parents and adopted little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). A single mother with a strange little boy move in next door, the mother goes missing, and our friendly family decides, against what must certainly be every legal statute imaginable, to take in the spooky little boy, Robbie (Brady Allen).
It isn't long before things start going bump in the night, prompting Alex to wrangle her conveniently tech-savvy boyfriend (Matt Shively) to rig what seems to be the fifteen computers in their house to all constantly record video. They capture footage of Robbie wandering the house at night alone, whispering secrets to Wyatt, and also some strange sounds and shadows. When the wayward mom next door returns home, surprise surprise, it's Katie Featherston (played by the non-haunted Katie Featherston), and the incidents intensify.
The genius of the original Paranormal Activity was to render squeaking doors and swinging chandeliers genuinely terrifying at the apex of torture-porn cinema. Oren Peli's original bucked just about every trend imaginable, and in doing so conjured up a real sense of dread not seen in a horror movie in years.
But now the Paranormal Activity formula has become rigidly codified, and those creaky doors and loose chandelier chains have gone right back to seemingly, hopelessly antiquated. The tension that mounted in the original, when almost nothing happened but seemingly anything could, has been replaced by the tedium of waiting for the paranormal to get truly active. It was an hour into the original before something started to pull the sheets of Katie Featherston while she slept; half an hour into the fourth installment, some unseen force physically lifts Alex out of bed and levitates her. To say the effect is diminished would be an understatement.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the series is its stupefying insistence to stay with the Katie Featherston story when the real star of Paranormal Activity was the gimmick and the aesthetic. The particulars of the demon that haunted Katie and her sister weren't terribly unique or interesting. Yet rather than craft sequels that use the successful techniques but create new characters and mythologies that could pack some surprises, we're still dealing with Katie, who's not so much scary anymore as a pretty brunette actress who only appears on movie screens in October. Meanwhile, codirectors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman fail to come up with any nifty innovations like the fan-mounted camera in Part III-- their big idea here is to use the motion-capture lights from a Kinect to form creepy shapes in the dark. It's as lame as it sounds.
The closing-credits sequence, set in a botanica and spoken entirely in Spanish, at least promises some kind of potential change in the next one, though I'm not confident La Actividad del Fantasma will be any better. Time to give up the ghost.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.