Reviewing a film like “Paranormal Activity 4” is an oddly difficult task. Leaving the theater this past weekend, I felt both very assured of my opinions and even more assured of their irrelevance to anyone planning on seeing this film. That may seem like an incredibly condescending remark, to think that a certain film’s audience has no interest in critical evaluation of movies, but I don’t mean it as an insult in the slightest. Many people tend to assume that films like “Paranormal Activity 4” (and some would argue horror films in general) are inherently stupid movies designed for stupid people. This is an utterly ridiculous opinion. Yes, “Paranormal Activity 4” is kind of a stupid movie. But that’s not where it fails. In fact, the movie’s best moments are those where it abandons logic and pretense. The only moments where the film trips up are those when it tries to be something more, weighing down the intentioned structure of its design with a momentary dose of ostentation.
“Paranormal Activity 4” is a specific type of horror film, designed for a specific purpose and a specific audience. Every October, as Halloween approaches, groups of people who otherwise have very little interest in the horror genre flock in droves to scary movies out of respect for the season and the spirit of the approaching holiday. As such, studios have learned to churn out shallow and utilitarian horror films for these audiences. Their narratives move from scare to scare, employing standard tropes and techniques that prove incredibly effective on those who don’t frequent the genre. These films are not interested in much more than giving their audiences a generic adrenaline rush and maybe a few residual starts in the hours following the closing credits.
To die-hard horror fans, these films seem soulless but can easily be written off. They come to town, make their money, and head on their way to DVD, where they can be forgotten about until someone needs a horror film for an at-home marathon in the subsequent years. Anyone who goes to see “Paranormal Activity 4” in this mindset will be absolutely fine with it. As tends to be the case, even those who leave the theater thinking of the film as “bad” won’t be offended enough to actually complain. What good would it do? No one disagrees with you and, let’s be honest, we all heard you scream there towards the end.
The plot of the movie is almost not worth mentioning. There’s a house with people in it. Some people start seeing/hearing/feeling/tasting some paranormal activity and get scared. They talk to other people about it. Other people start seeing/hearing/feeling/tasting some paranormal activity, which gets more intense as the film goes on. And of course, all of this is framed via the found footage technique (which, yes, is getting obnoxious, but you bought a ticket to “Paranormal Activity 4,” so you knew what you were getting into). Just like the other three films in the series, this one has a very defined set of techniques and parameters. The jump-scare. The “Holy shit, did I see something in the corner of the frame? If only this camera were more focused!” The only new addition is a creepy child, but at this point it was bound to happen sooner or later.
On the whole, the film weaves these elements together quite well, producing a flavorless but enjoyable thrill ride that, at only 88 minutes, gets right to the point and doesn’t drag (a virtue when it comes to movies like these). Really, the only mistake the film makes (at least in the context of what it wants to be) is its insistence on creating a larger mythology for the series.
As anyone who has seen the previous three films knows, they all sort of revolve around a specific set of characters, primarily the female lead of the first movie. While the last two films focus on these characters pretty centrally, “Paranormal Activity 4” only brings them in for the third act. The choice to do so, while not a massive misstep, is a little bit annoying. Most of the audience really doesn’t care about the overarching universe of “Paranormal Activity,” and revealing the connections within that universe does little to deepen the effect of the film. All that it ends up doing is making us aware that the creators of this film are trying to make something more than what they’ve actually presented us with (which is, itself, perfectly enjoyable). In the end, this just reminds us of the film’s calculation and its failure as an act of storytelling. We see the men behind the curtain and the fun dissipates. Those familiar with horror remember what a good horror film feels like, and from that point on, we can only ruminate on all the ways in which we’ve been manipulated.
Again, I don’t think that I’m going to dissuade you from seeing this film if you were already planning to. If you want a good jump-scare this Halloween, go see it. You’ll get your jump-scare, though not much else. But no one really expects anything else and that’s totally fine. For the most part, people in the audience for “Paranormal Activity 4” know what they want, and they shall receive. And if there are a few moments of annoying overreach, so what? By the time the movie ends you’ll likely have forgotten all that. And even if you don’t really enjoy yourself, at least you didn’t see fucking “Here Comes the Boom.”