Review: Paranormal Activity 4 sticks to the series' manipulative formula
It's rare that movie critics compare movies to games. Usually it's to decry an action film for being too much like a video game. That was such a common criticism that it became clear Hollywood was simply playing catch-up to the game industry. With the Paranormal Activity series, I think they may have finally found a formula that works.
Four films deep, Paranormal Activity has had an eerily similar trajectory to a popular video game series. Each film follows the same basic formula: a nice house, a typical family or couple, and a mix of mundane parlor tricks that culminate in some honest haunted house scares before the credits roll. Each film in the series iterates on the previous entry, improving the writing of the normal day-to-day build-up and the jump scares that follow.
I'd say the series has the most in common with stuff like Facebook games or MMOs. Much like a Farmville or World of Warcraft, Paranormal Activity is less about the journey and more about the quick endorphin rush you get from the end result. Clicking your way to your next goal in Farmville is a laborious chore, and in similar fashion, watching the lead up to the final moments in a Paranormal Activity film is an exercise in dull voyeurism.
Just like a shameful game addiction, with Paranormal Activity it can be hard to see the forest through the trees. As long as there's that drug-like hit at the end, the creators hope you'll forget the nonsense you went through to get there. It's something that with every entry feels more well-designed to grab audiences with the cheapest tricks and the lowest budget.
This year's version does feature a couple improvements over previous entries in the series, though. Paranormal Activity 4's cast ascends past tolerable and can even be charming and funny at times. For a while, the fact that it deals with a new family gives the series' some much needed levity. Previous entries were bogged down by characters that either felt like walking first-world problems or were simply boring to watch.
The scares, especially the cheap ones, are spread out more evenly throughout PA4, so you won't be waiting half the movie for something to happen. That said, they seem toned down compared to PA3. A floating knife is nothing compared to the contents of an entire kitchen falling from the ceiling. Still, just like every other one of these, it's all about the finale. PA4's is, just like all the others, kinda neat, but ultimately not worth the journey.
There are some other oddities that I think are worth mentioning. Namely, the prominence of a Kinect in the film. Each room in the house, just like in previous game...I mean, films, has a camera set up somewhere. In the case of the living room, it's a night-vision camera capable of picking up the Kinect's array of infrared dots. The story stops dead in its tracks so someone can explain how the Kinect works. Add to that a completely out-of-place poster for Project Gotham Racing of all things, and you've got a horror film in which the gross-out moments come from product placement rather than actual horror.
If you've enjoyed previous Paranormal Activity films, there's no reason to think you won't enjoy this one. It's really no different from any video game series that's four games deep. It's even bogged down in its own lore to such an extent that you need to follow the series to understand what's going on.
That said, I hope more people start to see these films for the cheap tricks they are. They are intelligently designed, I'll give them that, but there's barely an ounce of artistic vision to speak of. The horror genre offers so many opportunities to explore otherworldly, bizarre, and creepy scenarios, so why must we continually return to domestic bumps in the night? Are audience's imaginations so narrow that they can only be scared by possessed cutlery and malfunctioning flat screens?