Saturday, October 20, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 - Theatrical Review

Release Date: October 19, 2012

Can the "Paranormal Activity" franchise survive its fourth year as the king of the Halloween movie season?

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange 
Time: 12:01 am October 19, 2012   
Projector Type: Li-MAX Digital 2D   
Film Rating: R  
Film Runtime: 1 hr 35 min
Studio: Paramount Pictures

Loves: Movies that scare me using my own imagination   
Likes: Paranormal Activity (the first one), Paranormal Activity 3
Neutral: Paranormal Activity 2
Hates: Neat gimmicks that are completely wasted
Is there any need to see these more than once?: Nope

WARNING: Possible spoilers for the entire series lie ahead.

Sister's Katie and Kristi have been plagued their whole lives by mysterious occurrences and unexplained events. In the year 2006, Katie went missing after her boyfriend was found murdered and soon after that both her sister Kristi and Kristi's husband were found murdered in their home. Kristi's newborn son, Hunter went missing along with Katie that same night and were never seen again. Fast forward five years and we find ourselves with a new family who just so happen to have some new neighbors across the street, a mother and her son...

The way this series has moved back and forth in time has become rather convoluted and more to the point, silly (albeit fun) . The first film took place in the  present day (for when it was released anyway). The second film took place before, during and after the events of the first film. The third film served as a prequel of sorts going all the way back to when the sisters were children. Now this fourth film takes us forward in time to see, "what the activity has led to". Any newcomers to the series will be hopelessly lost by this point, but even with that said, this fourth entry is probably the most accessible of the sequels simply due to all the fresh faces that get introduced this time around. None of that has any bearing on the film itself though, which unfortunately "Paranormal Activity 4" (PA4 from this point) shows signs that this franchise is starting to become a little too reliant on the same old bag of tricks.

Meet Alex, she is a teenage girl who can't remember passwords.

With each new "Paranormal Activity" movie comes with it a new gimmick. First was the standard single camera , second was a multi-camera security system, third was the oscillating camera (which was used to great effect) and this time we get two new items. In one of the greatest product placement gags in recent history, we have the Xbox Kinect and the advent of online video chat. As far as gimmicks go, this fourth outing takes the cake in both originality and being completely ridiculous at the same time. But unfortunately the film never uses either gimmick to their full potential despite them being our main source of imagery.

Both formats hold an immense number of possibilities for inventive uses to scare the audience. The Kinect was a rather surprising and ingenious addition to the series long standing tradition of stationary camera angles. The technology for the Kinect works by shooting out a near countless number of projected beams of light that detect a person and then easily replicate or read their movements. These can only be seen with an infrared camera (hence the large amount of green screenshots) so only the camera can actually see any sort of movement among all the light beams. It's a great effect that will likely have Kinect owners everywhere begin searching for ghosts in their own homes using Microsoft's motion detecting game platform.

The Kinect isn't used nearly as effectively as it could have been.

The effect is sadly underutilized however with only a handful of standout moments where an obvious figure is moving around the room (gone are the days where we had to use our imaginations in the "Paranormal Activity" films). Instead of seeing hints of "activity" by way of objects moving about or any sort of interaction with the environment, we either see nothing or something so blatant that the scare factor is nearly diminished. Equally as disappointing in its lack of use is the clever introduction of video chat where we see Alex (Kathryn Newton) constantly online chatting with her very witty and somewhat dopey boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) where we the audience are privy to Ben's point of view in real time which he can see and remark about everything we see that Alex does not.

Any fan of this series knows how important it is to scrutinize every single frame while on the lookout for any hints of activity in the background. The lack of any sort of evidence that something is there during those online video chats is saddening but most of all a huge missed opportunity to exploit this new vantage point. Any chances of Ben reacting to anything we might see in the frame around Alex's frame filling head never comes to fruition and instead we get a bunch of cheap scares with characters jumping into or out of frame or this new (and extremely overused) technique where the film jump cuts constantly making it appear as though characters are warping around the frame and is always accompanied by some loud sound effect. Those cheap ploys and tactics wear out their welcome well before they ever become effective. The disappointments don't end their either.

Beware of creepy children standing over you.

For the first time in the series there is almost zero actual paranormal activity. That's right, the ghosts take second fiddle to either the creepy kid next door, Robbie (Brady Allen) or his possessed mother Katie (Katie Featherstone). With either one or the other constantly entering Alex's house at the dead of  night or the middle of day, the film suddenly becomes less of a psychological horror film and instead becomes just another movie with people hurting or killing other people. The ghostly figures still pop up from time to time with either the series trademark loud thuds or, in one of the best scenes in the film, come into actual physical contact with the demonic apparition.

That's not to say there aren't any scares to be had because there most certainly are, but they just don't carry the same impact they used to. How many times can we be expected to be frightened at the sudden appearance of Katie in frame slightly off-centered who is just standing there lifeless before it starts to become silly? How many times can we leave a room only to come back and see items in different places before it becomes yawn inducing? How many times can we see objects move on their own in a still frame before we start checking our watches? To sum it up, the series has had a great run and it is honestly quite amazing how long it has managed to stay fresh as long as it has, but the well has run dry and we are now entering the moment when old ideas are recycled and repackaged to appear new again when they clearly aren't.

No imagination needed this time around, you see practically everything.

Likewise with the characters who up til now have mostly reacted to their hauntings in semi-realistic fashions during semi-plausible scenarios now act in completely unrealistic ways and often appear simply dim-witted. Somehow an attractive teenage girl seemingly has no friends other than her dopey boyfriend and that same girl who is actively on her computer and plays video games doesn't know how to write down/remember/use a simple password to create a video file on her computer. Her parents are on a completely different level of stupidity with their unbelievably laid back reactions to everything happening to their daughter. A chandelier almost crushes her, she is locked in a garage with a phantom car that tries to suffocate her and she repeatedly hears Robbie talking to thin air in the middle of the night. When they hear her explain herself they just blow it off, even the dad who is almost killed by a phantom knife that drops from nowhere never gives it a second thought as to what is going on.

 Better yet is that Alex has all this, EVERYTHING, recorded on the many computers lying about the house spying on everyone but can't show them anything because SHE DOESN'T REMEMBER THE F**KING PASSWORD! Throw in the baffling late film disappearance of the boyfriend (who later appears just to be dealt with), a person who just found a loved one dead that doesn't run to the neighbors for help or call 911 but instead runs across the street to the creepy house or other trademark conceits of the series such as people refusing to leave their house when they are clearly in danger or literally being lifted from the ground by an unseen force and what you get is a film chock full of the dumbest people to show their faces in a horror film in a very long time. Seriously, how can you possibly take any character seriously who drugs their daughter so she can go to sleep just after she almost dies?

This should have been creepy but it just wasn't.

Even the loosely constructed mythos behind the films is somewhat lessened here by a confusing series of events surrounding the "chosen one", Hunter. When we last saw him he was in the custody of a demon possessed Katie, then when that five year jump happens we find that Katie is living with a different kid named Robbie and the two of them are scoping out this new family for their youngest child named Wyatt for reasons that are revealed much later. The problem is that when we do discover why Wyatt is so important it makes little to no sense when trying to connect the dots between the events of the last film and this one. Out of the four films, this is the only time where the carefully crafted story that has been cleverly linked between the films has stumbled and lost a significant amount of its credibility. Even the finale is lame as all hell and is probably the weakest ending to any of the four films.

Nobody expected this franchise to last forever but nobody ever expected the bar to drop so drastically in such a short amount of time either ("Paranormal Activity 3" was a series high point all things considered). "PA4" feels like a mess of ideas mixed with an inconsistent script written by someone who only glanced at the scripts for the past three films and a director who was content to rest on the series laurels without feeling the need to push the boundaries of what has already been done multiple times, and done much better (even the dam IMDB page for the film is a mess with two key cast members not listed with two other actors listed in their place that appear NOWHERE in the movie!).

While the other films may have been extremely derivative of each other, at least they delivered the scares and a fun spooky atmosphere. "PA4" will most likely frustrate long time fans and affirm to newcomers that they weren't missing out on anything. The "Paranormal Activity" films have always catered to a certain crowd and the success of the franchise is reliant on keeping that crowd appeased. "Paranormal Activity 4" doesn't work for fans, newcomers or anyone seeking a spooky good time this Halloween season. It may have a few worthwhile scares and a couple new visual tricks but when those scares are more "normal" than "paranormal", it can only be seen as a failure, which it most certainly is.





Xander Lawson said...

True, the movie does have its unavoidable downsides. Still, it's one of the scariest movies of the year and definitely worth going to see.

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