The line in the sand was drawn three years ago with the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Either you enjoy what the films in this series bring to the table as far as haunted house movies are concerned, or you aren't affected by them at all. I've long held that what you believe, as far as the paranormal world, really affects where you stand on these films. If you're one who believes in ghosts and spirits and demons and supernatural occurrences, then you're more likely to saddle up at the plausibility that something nefarious is slamming doors and banging on the walls and terrorizing these people with other tricks of the trade. If you don't buy into any of that stuff, then obviously these movies aren't for you. I've been an unapologetic supporter of the PARANORMAL series since that first film. I've often said they terrify more than anything, because while jump scares don't really fit into this model, there's a much more unsettling and far lingering feeling that comes along with the idea that a demon may be lurking in your house with possession within his powers. That doesn't change much with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, and, as a fan of its predecessors, this one is right up my alley.
Look... you know what you're going to get here. Shot in a found-footage style with handheld cameras and, in this instance, computer cameras typically reserved for video chatting, which help it feel a bit more 21st century, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 picks up on telling the story of another family caught in the path of some creepy things happening around them as the result of some greater force in the spirit world. Things start to get strange once this loner kid Robbie (Brady Allen) shows up, who we get the sneaking suspicion might be the disappeared Hunter from the second film. After all, he was carried off by his Aunt Katie in demon form, so there's no telling what that child would be capable of now.
The teenaged Alex (Kathryn Newton) is who we're following this time, her being the most technologically advanced member of the family. As a result, we're finally matched up with a likable innocence that none of the previous film's protagonists carried with them. While we were initially drawn to Katie in the first film, it was her dick boyfriend Micah that kept pushing us to maybe want some bad things to happen to him, even if it meant our pulse raced a little faster in anticipation of what those things were. However, paired with her funny high school boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), there's enough personality between the both of them to raise the stakes just a bit in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, because no one wants to see bad things happen to nice people, particularly kids.
But Toby (the name of the demon established in the last film) doesn't really care what you want, and, while the motives of who and what he wants this time seem a bit up in the air, he'll substitute answers for those questions with some pretty chilling moments that will have your goosebumps having goosebumps. There's a slightly different buiild to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 that breaks from the rest of the series, in that a lot of the smaller instances of the spirit world appearing have been reduced. I get it. How many times can you show a door moving on its own before it really starts to lose its impact? I would have liked to see directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman fill in that void with something else, something that slowly escalates the tension we've become accustomed to. There are certainly some visually interesting things they've done this time to expand the world of the paranormal a bit - you'll see once they incorporate the Xbox Kinect into the mix - but it doesn't have the same feeling of foreboding of some of their better tricks.
Schulman and Joost use quite a bit of sight obstruction this time in order to build your terror, as it's easier to create fright for yourself at what you can't see, whether it's behind someone who's position close up on the computer camera prevents you from seeing what may be behind them at any given time or with a line of sight blocked by an open refridgerator door that won't let us have a glimpse at what might be waiting in the background. It's a tactic that doesn't alway deliver scares, nor should it, but when the directors do decide to pull the trigger on it, you'll be letting the screams fly with reckless abandon, including one of the better moments of the overall franchise that uses your expectations and basis of knowledge from the previous films against you to get your pulse racing. It can't be safe for a movie to make your heart beat that fast.
There is no game-changing gimmick this time out, like the oscillating fan of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3, but as PA4 builds towards its conclusion, you're locked into a 20 minute sequence of events so intense, it'll leave you shaking. To me, that final night in the first film has been the gold standard of how terrified these films can make you feel. And while I'll always hold it in special regard for being the first, the ending to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 comes pretty damn close to matching it. It is absolutely terrifying.
I think the film gets away from Alex for too long towards the end, which is a shame as Newton really commands that you root for her to make it out of this unfortunate situation okay, something that her parents or even her little brother can't quite do when things turn more in their direction as Schulman and Joost haven't established them strongly enough as people we should care about. The film also misses Shively for a good stretch, as he's able to create many of the film's lighter moments, which then allow the scares to arrive with more intensity.
This chapter in the story also creates more unanswered questions than the other films. The mystery that comes with trying to figure out the source of the movie's misdirection is a nice addition, but it would have been nice for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 to give me something I could hold onto moving forward, something a bit more concrete in explaining a possible expansion of the coven mythology rather than my own speculation that may or may not be what is actually happening in the film, just what I perceived to be.
However, the mark of a good horror film is how it makes you feel, and, in that light, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 delivers the goods. I've been frightened by the previous three films in the series, and I was frightened by the fourth just the same. You'll be gripping your armrest in fear as the film picks up steam, and there's no question that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 continues to do what the PARANORMAL series does best: it chills, it scares and it terrifies... and that's plenty enough for me.
"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"
Follow me on Twitter.