What does the blockbuster Paranormal Activity series have in common with European art cinema? The willingness to bore the audience.
Found-footage films in the Blair Witch Project tradition distinguish themselves from regular ol’ scare flicks by establishing a baseline of normality so numbingly mundane that the smallest deviation is terrifying. When they work, these movies create a mood of existential dread through sheer monotony. We know the director wouldn’t extend this shot of a teenage girl’s empty room for a full minute unless something bad was going to happen there. So when?
That’s essentially the same principle that drives Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse toward its dark conclusion — albeit much, much, much more slowly. Not all horror fans are as patient as art-house goers: When I saw the first Paranormal Activity, the theater was full of grumbles of “That’s it?” when the credits rolled. Yet here we are, five years later, witnessing the release of Paranormal Activity 4, and nothing much happens in this installment that didn’t already happen in Nos. 1 through 3. Existential dread, it seems, is a cash cow.
The fourth film in the saga of the Demonic Presence That Stalked Some People Incredibly Slowly opens with footage from the end of Paranormal Activity 2, in which possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) abducted her sister’s baby and vanished into the night. In Paranormal Activity, it was clear that the demon wanted Katie, but not why; the sequel gave her the job of snatching a firstborn son, per a deal her forebears had made with the supernatural entity. Those threads are drawn out further in PA 4, but not in terribly logical directions.
After the recap, we launch into footage shot five years later by a suburban teenager in Nevada, Alex (Kathryn Newton), who notices untoward things happening after a strange, sullen neighbor kid (Brady Allen) comes to stay with her family. The newcomer introduces Alex’s little brother (Aiden Lovekamp) to his imaginary friend Toby (the demon’s alias throughout the series), and soon things are going bump in the night. Alex enlists her boyfriend (Matt Shively) to set up laptops in each room for surveillance, and the usual shenanigans commence.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who took over the series with PA 3, seem to be nearly out of ideas for their low-tech scarehouse. Among this installment’s innovations are the frequent use of webchat footage and a clever lighting effect involving an Xbox Kinect console, but neither yields more than a few scares. Meanwhile, the filmmakers waste a golden opportunity to do something disturbing with recurrent, annoying close-ups of an open fridge door. Series originator Oren Peli was no great storyteller, but he knew how to sneak things into the margins of mundane images like that one.
Joost and Schulman coast along, recycling suburban-haunting motifs from Poltergeist, with a touch of The Omen thrown in. The dread that should be smothering is merely an intermittent itch, especially when Alex and her parents begin acting as stupid as people in slasher films do.
The plot twists merely serve to cement Toby’s reputation as the world’s least efficient villain — more of a demonic performance artist than an evil poised for world domination. That would be fine, if only he could still scare us. But in this franchise, the existential tedium of empty rooms is feeling more and more like plain old boredom.