I know, it’s like why the heck are you writing about this movie. Can the Paranormal Activity films really be taken seriously? Scary movies, or movies in general from the horror genre, with climbing sequel numbers after the trilogy of three are usually of the been-there-seen-that variety. But the Paranormal Activity films have always been a tad more tangible in the sense most of it is from our point of view, as if we are there in the rooms of these suburban haunted mansions, right there with the characters, experiencing with them the boom of the paranormal hammer after every rumbling crescendo. And when we can see into the darkness, into the closets and hallways behind central characters as they talk into the camera, as if talking directly to the audience—there in the background, that figment of shadow moving across the lens—it is an atmosphere of fright given to us in short, addictive doses until we are shivering, goose-pimpled, hair at attention children seriously contemplating whether to run out of the theater in jittery fear or not. Like you just can’t take the terror anymore. I think that’s truly what they mean by activity…the activity within your nervous system as you sustain the blows and shocks of all of this nonsense.
The Story: A family of four take in a strange neighbor boy after the mother of the boy is stricken ill. The teen daughter, Alex, played by Kathryn Newton, looking as much an Elle or Dakota Fanning as you can imagine, wants to video record it all on her cell phone or laptop webcam just as frequently and diary-like as all of the other Paranormal Activity family members of the past. Then strange things start to happen and Alex and her male friend Ben begin to get a little freaked until the worst possible things you can imagine transpose a voyeuristic reality-TV-like escape at the movies into a caffeine-induced state of horror.
The Goods: It’s just a movie after all. Or is it? Listening to the white noise rumble of the bathroom air conditioning or plumbing that seems to carry over from the movie’s soundtrack. You were holding it in the whole time, I understand. Believe me. Then you walk to your car and look over your shoulder, haunted by the last images seen on the screen before the film cuts to black and the credits roll. You’re thinking about it the whole drive home, feeling fragile. And when you get home you look around your neighborhood and the darkness of your house and fear for a minute the process of going into your own home. That’s how powerful these films are. And what’s doing it? The ghosts, ghouls and demons? No. It’s the filmmakers that are doing it. They’re adding sounds and adding rumbling cues to the soundtrack to heighten your expectations and then giving you the visual equivalent of the “BOO!” when you most (not least) expect it. It’s masterful craftsmanship and manipulation that tugs and pulls at you like the best roller coasters. Suddenly going to the movies isn’t as passive as you thought. And that’s what’s special about these films.
Co-directed by Catfish (2010) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, you get the sense the two could banter their way into a decent set-up especially involving teens Alex and Ben (Ben is played by Matt Shively, btw, who is effervescently like a young Chevy Chase or Bill Murray). Part of the charm of this Paranormal Activity movie versus the others is what appears to be a budding teen relationship, and therefore a teen horror flick (there are none better). As we get into a second act (if you can call it that), we find the two possibly on to something when they place hidden cameras around the house. And Ben would like for nothing more than to be on to Alex. Here’s a sample of their dialogue in the scene, in her bedroom, sitting on her bed:
Ben: “The password is odd Robby.”
Alex: “I thought it was big Ben.”
Ben: “You don’t need a password for that.”
The Flaws: But what hints at something romantic and funny, and representational of our lives since we all sort-of go through these pubescent phases of our lives—the mutual attraction, the first boyfriend or girlfriend—is that we can see ourselves for a minute in these kids and remember fondly what it was like; of if we’re of the same age we can fantasize and socially compare. Regardless, it’s a powerful through-line for the audience to grab onto as we all explore the mystery of the events occurring in this house. The teen characters for the first time become an almost better function of narrative filmmaking than the gimmicky camerawork and editing than is to be expected. And for a split second we have the workings of what makes films like The Goonies (1985) or War Games (1996) or last year’s Super 8, special. That relationship between a boy and a girl in the midst of craziness. Heck, even Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) has it, as well as any Bond film. Only here it could be called paranormal attraction.
And so the one main flaw of Paranormal Activity 4 is that they didn’t stick with this relationship and deliver the scare through the adventures of Alex and Ben. Because without them the rest of the film is pretty much the same as all the others.
The Call: I can’t think of a better way to spend the ten during the Halloween month of October than with a Paranormal Activity film. It’s one of the few times at the movies, annually, that we can bank on for a spine tingling ride at the movie theater. Except too you could go to The Regular Guys’ Spooktacular at Wild Bills on October 27th and/or Brouhaha 2012 at The Masquerade also on the 27th, where at both events you’ll really be able to get your Paranormal Activity on.
PA4 is rated R for language and some violence/terror. Running time is a cool but predictive 1 hour and 21 minutes. On a side note, Kathryn Newton is essentially just a little girl but she could potentially be America’s next sweetheart if she follows in Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts’ footsteps.
Return to: Jon Lamoreaux's Movie Blog Blog