Friday, October 19, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 / **½ (R)

Alex: Kathryn Newton
Ben: Matt Shively
Robbie: Brady Allen
Wyatt: Aiden Lovekamp
Holly: Alexondra Lee
Doug: Stephen Dunham
Katie: Katie Featherston

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Written by Christopher Landon and Chad Feehan. Running time: 88 min. Rated R (for language and some violence/terror).

How many times and how many different people can record the same supernatural manifestations and there still be an audience for it? Paramount and the producers of the “Paranormal Activity” series seem to think this pattern could continue to infinity. Perhaps they’re right. I’m not so sure that’s an incredible statement about the American public’s need for diversity in entertainment. But, there it is. In four years, they’ve given us four “Paranormal Activity” movies. The results have become predictable.

I was a huge fan of the first “Paranormal Activity”, which was made on a micro budget and became a mega success. It wasn’t necessarily original so much as it was innovative in the way it told a very scary story within the constraints of a very specific format. In it, a couple begins to notice strange things happening in their new condo, so they purchase a video camera to record what is going on. What they discover is very disturbing.

The two films that followed filled in some of the background, giving the events of the first film more definition while following the same basic premise as the first film. I argued, in my review of “Paranormal Activity 2”, that knowing more about what was happening might also erode some of the mystery and power of what they had achieved in the first film. It seems that power is fading fast as more and more is revealed about the mysterious events of the first film.

This movie finds a new family to focus on. While the first three films focused on Katie—who disappeared after the events of the first film—her sister’s family, and the two sisters’ childhoods; this film introduces us to entirely new characters. It does make a point to remind us that at the time these events take place in 2011 Katie and her nephew, Hunter, are still at large.

Alex is the teenaged daughter who first notices strange things happening once a neighbor kid, Robbie, moves in with them. Robbie is a little strange, his mother is never home, and has been hospitalized for mysterious reasons. Alex’s brother, Wyatt, is Robbie’s age and the two become inseparable. Their parents are going through a rough spell, but nothing really out of the ordinary by today’s family dynamic standards. Alex’s boyfriend, Ben, helps her investigate the strange activity.

Like the previous movies, this one is inventive in coming up with ways to use technology as recording devices for the activity. Video chatting becomes a factor as Alex and Ben spend much of their time on the computer with each other. This practice of finding new ways of recording and tracing the paranormal phenomenon is beginning to feel gimmicky, however. Using an X-Box 360 Kinect system this time out, the filmmakers create an original effect of making the laser system of the hardware visible through night vision lenses. While this looks cool, it seems an easy way to make the effects of the earlier films visible. This just isn’t as scary as no being able to see the entities at all.

There are some pretty good pay offs in the final act of PA4, though. We do learn a little bit about what happened to Katie and Hunter. No real questions are answered, but there are some pretty satisfying jolts in the end. For people who are already acquainted with the series and are in it to get pretty much the same effects they did before, it is successful.

Like the previous films in the series, PA4 is also very well made. The filmmakers, who are pretty much the same team responsible for PA3, are very efficient with their storytelling. Every element has a purpose. They are willing to take their time to build the tension of the story. And, they don’t make many of the mistakes that destroy so many of these “found footage” style movies that are being made today. Their screen continuity is great and they find good and plausible ways to keep the filming going, for the most part.

The problem they face is that the mythology they’ve built up for these characters is too deep to pull in any new viewers at this point; and for those that are already involved, the structures of the films are too similar to each other. There doesn’t seem to be anything left to be culled from this franchise. That won’t stop ‘em from making more, though.

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