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Built on a history of neglect and family secrets, the
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise has, until now and however unintentionally,
managed to question why exactly we move to the suburbs. Peace, and quiet and
family and freedom? The freedom from worry, from our childhood scars, from neurotically checking on the
kids and from believing they might be getting into trouble when out of
sight. Of course, kids get into trouble everywhere and in this series, they do
it with demons.
Thus, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4’s shift to a new brood and its
subsequent conceit of how we keep an eye on them at first feels refreshed,
until refreshment gives way to laziness and missed opportunity. Continuing the
disappearance of Katie and baby Hunter, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 plants itself in
2011 as Alex, her young brother Wyatt and their parents welcome the creepy
kid across the street whose mom takes ill. Of course, creepy kid Robbie’s mom
is Katie and it seems they’ve both got an agenda.
Alex (Kathryn Newton) is constantly accompanied, physically
or via iChat, by her pseudo-boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), and together they
aren’t the grating teen twosome you’d expect. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel
Schulman previously managed to turn the third entry into the best of the series
(and make me uncomfortable on a whole other level outside of funhouse ghosts), through
fine scares and knowing how to work with actors. Much like the family in that
entry, Alex and Ben are funny, spontaneous and inquisitive throughout. It’s too
bad they find themselves in a sequel that shares none of these traits.
Joost and Schulman are playing in the same sandbox, with the
same toys. And while their commitment to the series’ humble beginnings as a
low-key spookshow is admirable, this time it feels entirely too well worn. Even
Robbie, whose menacing stare and heinous pants could’ve elevated him to
legendary evil kid shitheaded-ness, finds his arc cut short. Another kid
neglected in the PARANORMAL universe.
Once Alex gets hip to the strange goings-on, she and Ben use
the multiple MacBooks around the house as makeshift surveillance, the core of
4’s problems. While the method is inspired, it fails to capture anything we
haven’t already been privy to (even in other movies! There’s a one-two punch of
SHINING and POLTERGEIST references). And while the bits in the living room are
neat, the constant, “look what the Kinect can do,” leaves a seriously sour
taste of product placement.
Essentially, three partnerships form in the house: Mom and
Dad, who are broken and absent; Alex and Ben who, much like the parents in part
3, are too tight knit and functioning to go un-menaced; and Wyatt and Robbie,
best friends in demonhood. The sets of youngsters are clearly supposed to
parallel each other and give a shine to just how unfocused and misguided the
parenting is. Wyatt and Robbie are up to weirdness, but Mom’s only pointed bit
of authority comes in the form of reminding Alex not to be alone in her room
with Ben, and the like.
Midst levitation and missing kitchen knives, the film
could have pushed both its atmosphere and already-present themes into
skin-crawling territory by not only capturing the paranormal, but the—with
always-on laptops—surreptitious activity of parents who are done with each
other and only pay half-a-mind to the kids. Instead, another series of “Night
#_” plays across the screen with no sense of build or escalation until the
audience is square in the middle of what we guess is the finale. Even if
PARANORMAL 4, content in its mindlessness, had provided a lone scare as
memorable as 3’s sheet-ghost, it’d be a worthy Halloween divergence. Instead,
much like PARANORMAL 2, the film is as fleetingly effective as its jump scares
and wholly forgettable.
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