Here's the official disclaimer. I recently attended a film event that was publicised as a screening of Paranormal Activity 3 with a few clips from the latest film in the series. The surprise twist of the evening was that the screening was actually a rough cut of Paranormal Activity 4 in full: complete save for some effects tweaking and a final sound mix. It's also worth mentioning that the pre-screening party was in a bar that had a swimming pool in the centre of it. Either that or I got lost and wandered into the local leisure centre by mistake.
Therefore, this is a review of more-or-less Paranormal Activity 4. If they spontaneously added in a last-minute scene for the theatrical release where Martin Lawrence storms in on the back of a camel and saves the day, then don't blame us for neglecting to mention it.
Those unfamiliar with the Paranormal Activity series need not worry too much about joining the series this late; the relevant events from Paranormal Activity 2 are recapped from the beginning and since the film starts fresh with a new family and a new setting, you probably won't have too much trouble following the plot. The found footage set-up is the same as it has been in all previous films – albeit with some intriguing new innovations this time round – as the family experiences strange goings-on that move them to set up cameras around the house to provide a wakeful eye while they sleep.
In Paranormal Activity 4, the surveillance is put in place by the teenage daughter of the family, Alice, with the aid of her boyfriend Ben. Together they program every Mac in the house to record a constant video feed from the webcam. The most significant of the aforementioned "new innovations" is the use of a night vision camera recording in a room with a Kinect, which makes visible the many thousands of infrared motion detector sensors being projected over the room. It looks cool and is exploited well for a couple of scares, but overall is disappointingly underused.
To place this latest episode in a kind of context, I should mention that I consider the Paranormal Activities to be overall quite a mediocre series of horror films, and had yet to be particularly impressed by any of them. With that in mind, Paranormal Activity 3, which was helmed by Catfish directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, is probably my favourite in the series due to the clever ways in which they combated and even exploited the limitations of the found footage shooting method, and a frankly brilliant scare near the end of that film. Because of that, I was interested to see what the duo would bring to the table on their next outing in this universe.
As it turns out, what they brought to the table was a big basket of loud thumping noises. Plus the odd cat-related scare.
One of the reasons that cheap jump-scares plague modern horror is that, as the audience reaction videos in any Paranormal Activity trailer will show you, breaking a long silence with a loud noise and a sudden movement makes people jump, scream, and throw their popcorn in the air. It looks a lot like fear, and perhaps in some cases it is, but more often than not it's a simple fight-or-flight reflex that, if triggered too frequently and cheaply, is more likely to leave an audience annoyed than terrified.
Such is the case with Paranormal Activity 4, which is best described as a thesis built upon a flawed equation. Joost and Schulman execute every variation of thumping-noise-plus-sudden-movement imaginable, even going so far as to simply jump cut from a shot of a character doing something quiet in the distance to a shot of them doing something loud very close to the camera, all based on the assumption that a brief spike in heart-rate is synonymous with fear. The formula is cheap, it's tacky, and unfortunately it undermines the film as a whole. There are a few genuinely decent scares, but by the time they roll around you'll likely have stopped investing long ago. Probably around the time they resorted to throwing a cat at the camera to wake you up.
The casting is a brighter area for the movie, with Kathryn Newton convincing as the determined heroine hampered by a frankly shocking grasp of modern technology. Scene-stealer Matt Shively's performance as Ben is easily the stand-out role, providing a breath of fresh air and genuinely funny and natural banter whenever he's onscreen. Unfortunately, plot contrivance requires his character to more or less disappear for about forty minutes in the middle of the film, since Ben is apparently the only character in the entire movie capable of playing back a video file on a computer. You see, Alice's parents refuse to believe her when she describes the strange happenings in the house, but the concrete evidence of supernatural activity begins to appear quite early on and she could very easily prove everything she has been saying simply by showing them her night-time recordings. Therefore, it is established that Alice doesn't understand how her own computer works (in a scene that seemed oddly familiar somehow), and the boyfriend who had previously been dropping in as frequently and casually as Sam from Clarissa Explains It All just sort of disappears from the picture for a few days.
It's one of a number of plot holes and contrivances which plague a story that has essentially been put in place as a framing device for a series of individual scare set-ups. What makes this all the more tragic is that the number of these scares that are legitimately scary could (and inevitably will) be compacted down into a five-minute long compilation on Youtube.