I have to admit, there was a moment near the end of Paranormal Activity 4 that had me rolling my eyes and considering a quick exit to beat the crowd. As a character with a handheld camera frantically chases impending doom, I get the feeling that I've seen this a few times before.
I didn't walk out, of course, partially because I'm old now and have to pay for movies, but mostly because you just never know exactly what's around the corner with the Paranormal Activity franchise. The formula repeats itself - and in this case, loses some touch with logic in the process - but the result of the formula still seems to be a surprise more often than not.
Moving forward following the events of Paranormal Activity 2 - and leaving numerous questions from the prequel Part 3 hanging in the balance - Paranormal Activity 4 is the first film in the series that is set in the 2010s. Moving forward five years after the events of the first two films, this one follows a family of four in which the fifteen year old daughter seems to be obsessed with filming whatever is going on around her. She also enjoys video chatting (Skype didn't offer to pay the producers, I guess) with her boyfriend, who sets up all the computers (and the XBox 360 with Kinect sensor, who must have paid the producers) to record what is going on in their house. These recordings are deemed necessary after a strange boy from next door moves in for a few days while his mother (Katie Featherston, returning as the tie that binds these four films together) is (conveniently) in the hospital. Oh, and Toby, the unseen force that talked to young Katie and her sister in part 3, is back too. Which is bad news for this seemingly random family.
What follows is the same thing you expected from the first two sequels. We're shown the camera of an empty room, and we wait until something surprising happens. The people who watch this kind of movie and complain about things like "Why were they even filming this?" will surely shake their fists over the lack of logic shown by these characters, and rightfully so at times. I probably spent too much time asking myself questions like "Why would she walk around with her laptop all the time?" or "Why did they start recording all of this to investigate events and then stop checking the footage for events?" myself. This time around, it seems that the filmmakers - including directors Joost & Schulman, who return from Paranormal 3 - put less of an emphasis on involving the characters in the investigation and more of a focus on showing the audience what is going on in the house. This takes us out of Paranormal Activity 4 slightly, but not enough to take me out of the film.
Despite the reliance on computers following characters, the film pulls off several scares because - like the other films in this subgenre - control over the timing of the film is taken from the viewer. Most traditional films move with the camera and cut to the action, but these films leave their mark on us by making us sit there with the camera and wait for the action to come to us. The tension that's created is just as real this time as it was in the other films, even if our interest in the characters and our involvement in the found footage gimmick is a little less evolved. We get a little bit of a laugh when the camera conveniently makes its way to places it usually shouldn't be, but at the same time the scenes that follow are worth the trickery. My favorite example of this was probably a moment where the camera ends up next to a bathtub, because what we witness through this camera is one of the most intense moments in the series.
Which brings us all the way back to where I started these ramblings - the ending. The ending of Paranormal Activity 4 is exactly why I can't get enough of these movies. I'm sitting there and I'm thinking that I know the film and know that the camera is herding me toward a scare - and yet I'm still completely in awe of the scare that was presented to me. It's a wonderfully abrupt ending that builds on events from the previous films while leaving more questions about where the film will go next.
A lot of people write off this franchise as just a gimmick and the lowest form of horror, but I really like what creator Oren Peli and the writers/directors that have been brought in have done so far to keep this series moving in an interesting direction. They've taken a simple haunting tale and turned it into a mythology that has shown us action from three decades and implied that the tale really could go anywhere in time. This time out they seem to slam the door on one storyline, but at the same time have opened up a lot of possibilities - including one that is teased in a post-credits sequence at the end of the film. There's no sign of this storyline slowing down, it's only the gimmick that may go stale.
Though this one shows some obvious flaws and seems destined to be far less memorable than its predecessors, Paranormal Activity 4 still has enough tricks that work up its sleeve. If you've enjoyed the series thus far, then you might as well head out to the theater and see this one with a raucous crowd while you can. The Paranormal Activity series has become a horror tradition that's as old as time (or at least as old as this blog), and I've got little doubt that we'll be checking out another piece of this demonic puzzle next October.