Retro Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012){0}

Are we really at the fourth chapter of Paranormal Activity already? Seems like only yesterday that Paramount grabbed hold of a great little indie horror flick, released it during the Halloween season, and made a billion dollars on what turned out to be a really smart bet. Speaking of smart bets, Part 2 and Part 3 quickly followed, and that brings us up to speed with Paranormal Activity 4: the fourth chapter of a simply-crafted but cleverly-presented series of movies that somehow manage to combine the quaint comfort of old-fashioned ghost stories with the novelty of shot-on-video “found footage” intensity.

If the first Paranormal Activity was a huge hit because it was a new approach to an old story, then what is there to say about the third sequel to a “new approach”? Basically, this: it’s not so “new” anymore. But is there still to fun to be squeezed out of this concept? Paranormal Activity 4 asserts that there is, and while I would agree (to a point), there’s no denying that we’ve reached the “established fans only” stage of this particular horror franchise. Much like the later Saw sequels, the Paranormal Activity flicks are now made exclusively for those who need a Halloween season tradition. Once this franchise starts to wane at the box office, we’ll have something new to sequelize every October.

But for now we have Paranormal Activity 4. I’ll leave the film’s surprises for you to discover, of course, but the basic plot focuses on a plain American family who (stupidly) decide to take care of a neighbor’s little boy after a mysterious tragedy strikes his mother. Our heroine this time around is a charming young teenager played by Kathryn Newton, and she’s the one who starts to realize that the new visitor, Robbie, is all sorts of bad news for her little brother, Wyatt. Of course her parents don’t listen, but her amusing boyfriend (Matt Shively) does, and together (with the help of several hard-working webcams) they start exploring the mystery of Robbie’s creepy mom. (Fans of the series probably know who this “mom” is already.)

Let’s be frank here: it’s all just a paper-thin set-up for the franchise’s established stars: the visual gimmick and our now-annual game of “who can spot the background ghost first?” To its credit, Paranormal Activity 4 does offer a pair of affable young leads, and it seems that first-time screenwriter Zack Estrin wanted to graduate beyond “haunted house” and bring the “creepy kid” trope into the series, and that does offer a relatively new diversion. (The little boy who plays Robbie is legitimately creepy.) But, as in all of the PA movies, there’s also a lot of set-up (down-time?) as we wait for the next series of jolts to hit the screen. Given that the latest chapter is a sequel, not a prequel, co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are able to employ webcams as the audience’s eyes and ears, and the new gimmick works, for the most part. (A living room that’s bring recorded by a video game system is neat to look at, if slightly less creepy than the webcam approach.)

It’s basically “more of the same,” truth be told, with only a few new wrinkles, some likable performances, and a small dose of “new mythology” to keep the fans happy. I barely remember anything of the Paranormal Activity films an hour after they’ve been ingested, but they still work as a slight and simple “turn off the lights and get mildly creeped out” horror franchise, and it’s nice to note that the producers are still trying out new stuff. Not a lot of new stuff, but something.