'Paranormal Activity 4' Review: The Horror Franchise Finally Loses Its Way

All of the disappointments of Paranormal Activity 4 boil down to one thing: This is a franchise that's forgotten what made it so special in the first place. The original Paranormal Activity was terrifying not because it had expensive special effects or excessive amounts of gore, but because director Oren Peli expertly stretched the tension to the point where the softest creak of a door hinge could make us jump. 2 and 3 dialed the scares up a notch and expanded on the mythology, but that delicious suspense at the core remained the same.

In contrast, I don't think I've ever been as relaxed during a horror movie as I was during Paranormal Activity 4. The scares are theoretically bigger and badder this time around, but sloppy storytelling from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman undermines any impact they might've had. After three great installments, the little low-budget horror series that could has finally lost its way.

To be sure, Paranormal Activity 4 isn't actually painful to sit through. Though it feels longer than its 88 minutes, it never drags long enough to inspire true boredom. Scenes involving the green, glowing motion sensors of an Xbox Kinect are impressively eerie the first time around, though the effect loses its impact by the end. And there are some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout, thanks mostly to the comfortable, flirtatious chemistry between Netwon and Shively.

If Paranormal Activity 4 maintains some semblance of tension in the first act, it's mainly because of the edginess left over from the first three films. Since all of them spooked me, I waited on edge the edge of my seat for this one to do the same. By about twenty minutes in, however, it was clear I was dealing with a different beast. Part of the problem is simply that, being the fourth installment of a franchise, much of the mystique is gone. We know that the nice, clean-cut family will ignore the unexplained bumps and mysterious shadows until it's too late, and that we'll get to see their grisly ends through found footage.

But the real issue is Paranormal Activity 4's storytelling, which is downright insulting in its laziness. Robbie's otherworldly creepiness is telegraphed from the moment he appears, and from there events proceed exactly as you think they would with nary a twist to be found. Yet, all the while, none of the characters seem properly terrified. The urgent fear that made the earlier films so enjoyably unbearable has been replaced by a vague concern. Even Alex, the only person in the household who realizes that something is seriously off, can't be bothered to fix her cameras when they stop working.

And speaking of those cameras: A frequent complaint of the found-footage subgenre is that too many of them rely on characters continuing to shoot long after any right-thinking person would've put the goddamn camera down. Paranormal Activity 4 makes an attempt to explain part of the footage: Some of it comes from recording software that Alex and Ben install on all the computers after the weirdness starts, and other scenes are pulled from saved video chats between the teenagers. But Alex also carries around a camera with her at all times for no apparent reason, whether she's talking to her mom on the kitchen table, walking into the garage, or climbing a ladder.

To make matters worse, she continues this obsessive documentation while entering into situations that, again, any half-conscious human would go to great lengths to avoid. One key scene sees her trying to escape a dangerous situation that she willingly walked into, and never once thinking to put down her iPhone — or indeed, even use her iPhone-wielding arm — during the ordeal. Most horror films, and indeed most films, require some suspension of disbelief, but Paranormal Activity 4 puts the entire burden on the audience.

Not helping matters is the shoddy character work. Alex and Ben at least have their relationship with one another to help flesh each of them out, but the rest of Alex's family merely wanders in and out as dictated by the plot. When Alex's mom gives her sleeping pills, it's not because she seems like the type to slip her daughter prescription meds, or because Alex seems to particularly need them, but because Joost and Schulman really needed to set up a cool shot of the ghost messing with her while she's conked out.

By the time the big climactic showdown rolls around, Paranormal Activity 4 is well past saving. Not that it doesn't try; on paper, the ending of this sequel sounds like the most terrifying one yet. But special effects and splashy setpieces have never been the franchise's strong suit — the endings to the first three work as well as they do because they pay off the tension that's built up over the previous 70 minutes. After two limp acts, Paranormal Activity 4's third one comes across as more laughable than frightening.

The directors' failure is especially surprising, and disappointing, given that they also helmed the spine-tingling Paranormal Activity 3Paranormal Activity 4 feels less like a fresh installment of a beloved series and more like a beloved ripoff of same. The lo-fi shaky-cam aesthetic, middle-class suburban setting, and doors that shut themselves in the middle of the night remain the same. The devotion to relative realism, believable characters, and simmering tension have been tossed out the window. The ending of Paranormal Acitivity 4 is indeed pretty frightening, but not in the way the filmmakers might've hoped. It scares me because it suggests that 4 has set us on an entirely new path that I don't care to follow.

/Film rating: 2 out of 10