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Skyping with Toby: “Paranormal Activity 4”

October 19, 2012

Okay, since I saw this opening weekend, I’m not gonna spoil Paranormal Activity 4. This review, however, will spoil the previous three, but if you’re checking out the review of the fourth installment before even watching the previous one…well, that’s on you.

Hey, Toby’s back! Hey Toby! Remember Toby? He’s the demon-thingee from the Paranormal Activity franchise that was finally named in part three (which was actually the earliest of the series…but let’s not get into the convoluted timeline here). Yeah, you know it’s kind of hard to take an invisible, malevolent entity seriously, when it has the name usually reserved for a schnauzer. Throughout this movie it’s impossible to watch some act of otherworldly weirdness and not think, “Ah, Toby’s at it again!” Maybe it’s just me. Anyway, Paranormal Activity is back, and it gives me no pleasure to say that with this one, the solidly-performing series hits a bum note.

So, this movie picks up where the second movie left off, which, as you may remember, was Katie (Katie Featherstone) killing her cuter sister (Sprague Grayden) and stealing their baby, Hunter. PA4 pick up five years later (November of 2011), and Katie and little Hunter—now named Robbie, and having grown into a doughy little boy) have moved across the street from a rapidly-unraveling suburban family, which consists of a largely-absent dad  (Stephen Dunham), a bitter mother (hottie Alexondra Lee), their teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton), and grade schooler Wyatt (Aiden Lovecamp).

The movie wastes no time establishing a couple things right off the bat. 1) Alex is working double duty as a parent figure for Wyatt and shielding him from their real parents’ barely-disguised animosity toward one another. 2) The people across the street are really freaky. They rarely see Katie, and little Robbie (as they know him), just watches them owlishly and sometimes just hangs out in Wyatt’s tree-house at inappropriately late hours.

It’s bad enough to have little portly little weirdo next door, but when Katie is hospitalized mysteriously, mom decides to take care of Robbie for a few days. Great. Now the evil, little bastard has the run of their house. All this plays out under the gaze of the family’s various laptops’ webcams, rigged by Alex’s boyfriend Ben (Ben Shively). Seriously, he’s got most of the house covered. It’s like the least-interesting recreation of William Baldwin’s voyeur-cave from Sliver. So, for an interminable middle-act we get a lot of low-key weirdness, mostly involving flickers of human-shaped forms being caught on camera at the edge of the frame.

Well, Alex gets wise to the hinkiness pretty quickly, but mom and dad, naturally, don’t buy into any of it. When the house shudders and one of the chandeliers crashes down, nearly killing Alex, dad just shrugs and bitches at the contractors who installed it. There’s a lot of this, and, uh, well, it’s not really suspenseful.

Ratcheting up the tension a little is Wyatt’s increasing remoteness from Alex, and his attachment to Robbie and Katie. I’ll stop here, since saying much more would ruin the movie’s scares. So, instead, let’s just get to the analysis. Yeah, this movie just doesn’t work as well as the previous installments. A lot of the problem, I think, stems from the fact that the script from Christopher Landon and Chad Feehan is more plot-heavy than the rest.

The original Paranormal Activity was basically a series of escalating acts of weirdness caught on camera. It had a wafer-thin plot, and damn-near-insufferable characters, and yet it worked, because Oren Peli knew how unsettling it was to show the safety of home repeatedly violated by an unseen menace. Parts two and three did more or less the same thing (with more sympathetic characters), but still hit those buttons. They also pulled off a neat screenwriting trick of making each installment lock into the activities of the other films.  But, see, then we had that dumbass ending to PA3, which took the franchise into Rosemary’s Baby territory, with demon cults and child-brides of the demon. Shit, it was almost a shaky-cam Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Paranormal Activity 4 builds heavily on the end of three, and sacrifices a lot of suspense in service of working that ending—and the ending of the second one—into the storyline of this movie, and as a result the jarring effect of one’s home being violated gets repeatedly left behind so Alex can run around the neighborhood with her camera. It also requires some extra-stupid plot machinations, like the demons first attempt to kill Alex, which is so laughably slipshod, you just want to lament, “Aw, Toby, what happened to you, man?”

Also, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost upped the ante in the last film with the oscillating-fan camera , which was a devilishly-clever way to build suspense. Their follow up here—involving the infra red capture dots of a Kinect—is visually-impressive, but only works once or twice, and Joost and Schulman just keep going to that well.

The acting is all pretty solid, but Joost and Schulman have no real interest in these people, and we don’t get any personal moments that might make them realistic. Yeah, Micah and Katie were such a boring couple in the first film, that I kinda sided with the demon, but some thought had been put into their interactions. As with everything else in this movie, family dynamics get steamrolled by the need to set up the plotline of demon-Katie’s eeeevil plan. What’s the source of tension between Alex’s parents? Dunno. Hell, we hardly see them.

There are few real scares in PA4, and those are mostly startling noises (the sound design of this film makes everything sound like a grenade going off). The movie’s final scenes–typically the payoff in these movies—are a retread of the third film, and don’t have the same doomy coda of the previous films. Ultimately, this franchise feels like it has run out of gas, and with so many other found-footage movies out there, that’s fatal (so to speak).

Man, they should have never named that demon Toby.

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