OCTOBER 19, 2012
I was one of the first to champion the original Paranormal Activity; my review was up before the film even had an IMDb page, and the filmmakers used quotes from that review (without asking me) for two years until the film got a release date, at which point my thoughts were replaced by bigger critics. Yet, I've never been invited to a single press screening of any of its sequels, which is why I once again found myself in a regular audience for Paranormal Activity 4, where jaded critics are replaced by chatty teenagers. Maybe I should just wait for DVD from now on for this series.
The series is distributed by Paramount, who were also behind the Star Trek films, which became infamous for having a tradition of the even numbered movies being great and the odd numbered ones being... well, the ones that make those even ones look even better. It seems like this has been balanced with the PA series, as the first and third films are its best, with PA2 and this one being very underwhelming in my opinion. And since it's based around a thin concept and a particular novelty, I'm not sure that they can pull off a "good" PA5, as even PA3 suffered a bit from franchise fatigue.
To its credit, this is actually the first proper sequel in the series; PA2 was mostly a prequel about Katie's previously unseen sister and her family experiencing similar events about a month before the first film took place, with a "present day" epilogue showing ghost Katie killing them all and taking their infant son, Hunter. PA3 ignored all that for a story about the two of them as children, but now we're finally in the present day - after a recap of 1/2's events, we flash forward to 2011, where Katie and the now grown child live in Nevada. However, the focus is on a new, unconnected family that live across the street from them, and who get involved when Hunter keeps wandering over to their backyard to play in their treehouse.
From there it's the same old shit; the family's teenaged daughter is fond of filming everything she does, and after seeing 1-2 freaky things, she enlists her boyfriend to set up 3-4 Macbooks with webcams to record all day, provided no one thinks to close the damn things. They also set up what I think is a real camera (hard to tell; no one ever uses it or even notices its there, so it couldn't be a giant Macbook, right? But how does it record all day? Shit, I'm putting more thought into these movies than the filmmakers again) in the living room, and that one is used for the film's only real creative touch. Apparently, the Xbox Kinect sets off infra-red signals that register as little dots of light when filmed with a camera on night-vision (which turns off and on on the camera at will!), so when the lights go on we see this Matrix-y view of the room, and if someone walks into frame we can see the little dots shift around a bit. It's a typical element of this series; something is set up and we see how it "works", and then an hour into the goddamn movie they finally pay it off, as someone walks downstairs, followed by a ghost who ONLY appears via the shifting dots of light. Ooooh. It's actually creepier when we see the family's son Wyatt (who is Hunter's age, in fact - more on that in a bit) playing some sort of Kinect Boxing game against the ghost, and I couldn't help but wonder if it would have actually been a better use of the game system to see an on-screen Xbox Avatar moving around when "no one" was in the room, perhaps making "beating a guy to death" motions or something. Why not, it's not like the product placement is going unnoticed anyway - go all out!
But that's the only new idea. The 2nd film introduced the idea of multiple stationary cameras, and the 3rd had the awesome oscillating fan-cam... this one has green dots. At one point we see a Roomba, which I thought was foreshadowing the idea of setting a camera on the little guy and having a robot cameraman film all night, but alas. I guess the Skype/laptop thing is new, but when we're actually looking at it as the viewer, it doesn't look any different than a regular camera (maybe blurrier), and the girl's omnipresent phone-cam still shoots half the movie anyway. I'd say a full 15 minutes of the (not very long) movie consist of her using her phone to shoot her boyfriend's reaction (or vice versa) as they watch the previous night's footage. They do milk the idea for one scare - someone is using Skype and thus close enough to the camera to obscure anything that might pop in behind them, and that is exactly what happens (though, like the green dots, by the time it does you've already seen 5-6 false buildups to such a moment).
In short, it's status quo, but without any ambition or novelty to it. It's as if the filmmakers (same guys who did PA3) forgot that they not only have three full films of this stuff to live up to/top, but also the 587 other found footage movies that have come along since the first PA blew up in 2009. I mean, I don't expect to be scared too much at these things anymore (two good jolts), but even the crowd didn't seem to be too impressed, laughing more than screaming at the scares and not reacting at all to the "Night #_" title cards. I remember in the others, people would murmur and mutter "Oh no...." when those cards came up, but here there was nothing. To be fair, it wasn't a very packed house (I went at 5:30, hardly a "prime" showing), so maybe some of the energy was diffused, but apparently the film only got a "C" Cinemascore, which doesn't bode well.
It also frustratingly expands the mythology once again without answering any questions. It's interesting that they are following the Saw model with the yearly releases, but going about it in the opposite way; each Saw entry tied elements together from previous films while hinting at bigger threads to come - it was a fine give/take relationship with the audience that would keep us coming back. But here, they don't even try to resolve anything - we get a half-assed explanation for why a young male is needed, but nothing about the cult at the end of PA3 (is that even them at that one key moment?), or why Katie can appear as a normal (more attractive than ever, in fact) woman to the hero family, or why Toby can seemingly haunt the neighbors when Katie isn't even around.
But the most obnoxious subplot is the midway suggestion (SPOILER!) that Hunter is not the kid with Katie, but Wyatt. We learn that Wyatt was adopted, but otherwise there isn't even the slightest bit of explanation of how this could work. So Katie kidnapped Hunter, gave him up for adoption where he was taken in by this family, and then she kidnapped another kid and just happened to move across the street from them? What the hell sense does that make, even for a horror movie? Again, it's another example of the writers of this series just pulling shit out of nowhere, and then likely not bothering to explain it in the next one. The cult stuff worked because it was creepy as hell and came at the very end of the film ("Oh cool, the next one will be about the cult!"), but there's nothing creepy about Katie being an indecisive kidnapper, and it's just obnoxious to set up the possibility at the halfway point without following through in the finale.
Then again, perhaps it WAS explained and it got cut. As always, the trailer had footage we didn't see in the movie, but there are noticeable jumps in the film itself. The family cat makes its first appearance when it runs through the frame quite a ways into the movie, where it's so fast I wasn't sure if it was a cat or a dog - and he then disappears for the film's third act. Why set up a cat and not use it for a scare? The parents are having marital issues that are never explained/resolved, Alex seemingly has no life outside of her home (for someone who films everything she does, why no footage of school, hanging out with her friends, etc?), and despite making a big deal out of recording everything, after a while they don't even bother checking the tapes, or else Alex would be pretty terrified at, say, footage of the night the ghost lifted her above her bed while she slept. There's also a bit where a character is being dragged around by Toby, and then there's a cut to them running around outside, still filming, and asking for help. How did she get free? Did the ghost let them go?
See, when you have this much indifference to simple things like character and plot, it makes it even harder to get into the series' reason for existing: scaring people. Sure, the occasional jump scares work, but there's no inherent creepiness, no building sense of dread or anything that would make you think twice about being alone in your house that night. And that's because screenwriter Christopher Landon and filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman don't give us a single reason to care about any of these people (are the parents even named on-screen?), and present a plot that relies heavily on theoretical ideas for next October. Worse, the movies are so cheap to make (the entire series combined cost less than the opening weekend of any of them) that Paramount has no reason to try harder next time; if those budgets stay in check they can pretty much go forever banking entirely on people like me who just go see any horror movie that's playing (unlike the Saw films, which got more expensive as they went on because the filmmakers actually gave a shit about doing something new - and also had an actual story that eventually ran out of room). My advice, if they want it - aim at making PA5 a finale (or at least, one that COULD be) and take a page from Lovely Molly, where the "found footage" aesthetic is mixed with traditional filmmaking. If there's one studio in the world that knows how to keep a franchise going after its finale, it's Paramount (Friday the 13th The Final Chapter, anyone?) - so it sure would be swell if they let their audience dictate if they even WANT another one by rewarding our patronage with an actual movie next time.
What say you?
P.S. If you stay after the credits (not a big commitment, they're only like 2 minutes long) you will see a teaser for a Latino-themed spinoff that they are planning. Hopefully the finished film will A. have the subtitles this teaser lacked and B. be better than this thing.