The Kidd here...
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman brought a work-in-progress print of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 to Fantastic Fest last month (you can read Quint's take on the early cut HERE), offering up a first look at what could be frightening audiences next week when the next sequel in the series arrives in theatres. However, half of that duo didn't even attend the festival as they were still in the process of putting together the final product for Paramount.
But it seems that picture is now locked in with the studio showing the finished PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 earlier this week to a select audience in L.A. One of our spies, Ace Rimmer, just so happened to be in the house on that particular night, and he's written up an early review of this chapter of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series.
It's relatively spoiler-free, except for his description of the post-credits tease, which is to lead into the Latino spin-off Paramount has been planning. However, if you've been a fan of the previous installments of this franchise, it looks like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 will be right up your alley from the sound of it.
Take it away, Ace...
Before everyone and their mother weighs in on Paranormal Activity 4, I caught a preview of the finished cut last night in LA after the so called "mostly finished" version had been doing the rounds. It included the post credit Spanish tease which I'll get to.
Paramount had setup a screening for execs and fans, but sent the latter to the wrong theater. Only the brave, inquisitive few made it on time and we ended up watching PA4 10 days early surrounded by empty seats. Still, everyone was rowdy and the free T-Shirt's raised our spirits.
Onto the flick.
In short, I liked it and recommend it for a fun October night out with friends and loved ones. Few horror movies nowadays will give you the same ride for 90 minutes and if you're a big fan of the series, you can rest mostly easy, albeit some niggles. For serious horror fans, we're long past genuine terror but we're still in shockingly strong territory for a franchise four films deep.
Having said that, you're enjoyment/tolerance of PA4 will depend on what you bring in to it. By that I mean, how you feel about the first three films. This is a key component and I predict long post-film debates about the changing successes of the franchise for all.
To be consistent with this, a short recap.
For me, Paranormal Activity 1 is by far the strongest horror film in the franchise. It's lightning in a bottle, lacks the self-conscious studio aesthetic of the others and so by default is the easiest to get completely sucked into. It plays simple tricks and has a cold, brutal edge that leaves you afraid to sleep with the light off. Or on.
The second film mostly lost me. I found the characters dull and the plot served the studio's veiled attempts to see if they could replicate that lightning formula. To their credit, they kept things afloat, but for my money missed some key ingredients. A big one being characters with character and the motivations of the demon (why does it give a fuck about a pool cleaner?!?)
The third was in my mind the masterstroke by Paramount. Catfish's Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman are fine filmmakers in two senses of the word. They know their craft and they respect their audience. To bring in a documentary team after the Joe Berlinger Blair Witch 2 debacle completely buried that series was a ballsy move but it paid off. For my mind, the tangible sense of horror was long gone and they smartly turned PA3 into a big, funhouse of a movie where rules were made to be broken. The characters came back too. It also showed that Joost & Schulman understood what made Blair Witch work (for me, the high pinnacle of the found footage genre) so we got witches and a third act in a creepy house made to vaguely resemble a forest indoors.
Having said that, plenty of fans felt betrayed by the liberties they took with any real suspension of disbelief and were perfectly happy with the steady evolution of PA2.
Bottom line, this is Joost and Schulman's continuation of their take on the genre while juggling the stories overall arc, the studios cash cow expectations and perfectly reasonable desire to branch the franchise off in new directions.
With that I'll dive as spoiler free as I can into 4.
We get a decent amount more of Katie Featherston here then we have in the last two films combined, which is still not enough for my money. But she makes good on a lot of setup after PA3 took us back and it's very satisfying to see what present day Katie is up to. The two young boys play innocent and creepy with effective if predictable results. Ultimately the series is now about Hunter's journey and the events successfully take us from A to B. As long as you don't mind going to B. Nothing we haven't seen before but a journey is still a journey.
Where PA4 shines is in the teen cast who turn in really great performances. Kathryn Newton as Alice is a hugely likable presence and not in the way that shameless jailbait poster would have you fear. Her easy back and forth chemistry with the excellent Matt Shively's Alex give a lot of laughs in the early going and you genuinely want to see these two kids make it out alive, skip town and road trip to Vegas. A testament to smart casting, strong writing and sharp directing, it's a big help to a film carrying so much baggage. Newton also shows a little Ripley-esque grit late in the game that former protagonists have lacked.
The laptop cam setup shakes things up a bit but not in the way the oscillating fan did in PA3. If you don't like looking at close ups of faces carrying laptops around the house you might tire. I thought it worked fine. With static shots around the house on top of a hand cam for Alice and Alex, we get more variation in camerawork and montage then we have before. This gives the filmmakers more to play with but the claustrophobia and disorientation of PA1 is well and truly gone. It's a fair trade and I give the filmmakers credit for not abusing the tools at their disposal. A lot has been made of the XBOX tracking device. I found it more interesting then effective but the action around it will offer good material for those trying to piece together the internal logic of the 'activity'.
Even in a theater half full, it's hard to argue that PA4 doesn't still knows how to grab the audience by the balls and squeeze til they gasp. The palpable tension and anticipation is present and erect, with less cheap jump scares and more 'reveal awful thing you didn't realize was already standing there' moments if you know what I mean. The visual pleasure of watching PA4 is almost akin to the intellectual workout of Inception. We know the rules and try to anticipate the story/aesthetic twists while the director works overtime to defy expectations and take you for a ride. I approve of this style of storytelling.
What really sets the film back is that it loses the balance between these intellectual games and the narrative thread of our protagonist Alice. As the film goes on, she becomes less and less involved and with her, the films heart. It's a bit like Iron Man 2. Her journey grinds to a halt while the larger workings of the franchise kick into gear and take center stage. Not as bad as IM2, but the balance was off and to me, this explains why the otherwise perfectly decent ending leaves you a bit underwhelmed. Alice got shortchanged. And it's a perfectly decent ending as long as you don't mind going from A to B. Or rather D to E.
What will perhaps annoy more people is the white elephant in the found footage genre, which is less successfully handled here then in previous entries. Why do they keep filming? How is she still holding the camera? Biggest of all, why aren't they grabbing everyone and anyone and forcing them to sit down and watch the damn footage already. Here the filmmakers dropped the ball and no excuse is ever given. If this bugged you before, there's no escaping it.
It will be interesting to see when Paramount allows this particular story to end. My money is on PA6. The in the works spinoff gives me greater confidence in it's impending conclusion. I think they can pull it off. As long as Joost and Schulman are allowed to take a sharp left turn next time instead of just keeping her steady.
As for the post credit scene, it bares no immediate relationship to the main story and is no more then a small tease. If you're curious here's a SPOILER breakdown.
An unknown person enters a convenience store on what appears to be a street in Mexico. He calls out in spanish and is surprised by an old woman who talks quickly and urges him back out the door. That's it. The implication is, witches are elsewhere and creepy activity can't be far behind.
I'll leave you with my favorite line of dialogue from a found footage movie, which to me represents the single greatest excuse for characters filming scary things.
JOSH: I see why you like this camera so much.
HEATHER: You do?
JOSH: It's not quite reality. It's like a totally filtered reality. It's like you can pretend everything's not quite the way it is.
Roll on PA 5.
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