(Testing the Reverse Star Trek Theory) Paranormal Activity 4 Review

Paranormal Activity 4 (aka Live Free or Paranormal Activity: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ghost)
by Bret Dorman

I don’t know much about Star Trek. I’ve seen bits of some episodes of one or some of the shows. I’ve seen some of the later movies (First Contact, Nemesis, and whichever one has the Borg and that guy saying “Assimilate this!” which may or may not be First Contact or Nemesis). I also saw the J.J. Abrams reboot and thought it was pretty good. But apparently there’s a thing where the odd numbered Star Trek‘s aren’t so great and the even numbered Star Trek‘s are awesome. The “Kahn!” Star Trek is one of the good ones, although the way I’ve seen most people spoof it I could have easily believed it’s one of the bad ones. But I don’t know much about Star Trek.

The point is, I thought Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 3 were great. I thought Paranormal Activity 2 was boring and dumb. I thought maybe there was a reverse Star Trek numbering thing going on. So I’m happy to report Paranormal Activity 4 is decent fun and slightly inventive, but wish like PA1 and PA3 it (kind of) had more to add to the mythology of the PA Universe.

Classic ghost shape PA poster M.O.

The Story: Doug and Holly (Stephen Dunham and Alexondra Lee) are the parents. Alex and and Wyatt (Kathryn Newton and Aiden Lovekamp) are their daughter and son. Alex’s best (boy? tehe) friend is Ben (Matt Shively) who is good with computers. Katie and Robbie (Katie Featherston and Brady Allen) just moved in next door. Stuff gets haunted. Things move on their own. Footage is found. Also, they like to play Xbox Kinect.

Okay, I’ve only seen each movie once. So forgive me if I get some stuff wrong.

PA1 – I went into this movie as a challenge. I was told (by the advertisements) that it was one of the scariest movies of all time. Okay. Let’s see what ya got! I looked at this movie from a filmmaker’s standpoint, but I really dug it. Like a magician who can see what another magician is doing but appreciates the craft, I walked out feeling pretty good about the movie. Plus I love/hate horror movies dealing with demons/The Devil. That shit’s scary.

PA2 – Ugh. Really? This is the only one I didn’t see in theaters, but later just so I could see the third in theaters. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like it. But for the most part it was just a retread of the first one. No new info was given to add to the mythos. Very few scares. Mostly boring.

PA3 – Loved it. I thought they handled the prequel aspect really well (the second was a ‘side’-quel, happening in tandem with the first basically?). I loved the oscillating fan gimmick. I also loved how much they ratcheted up the craziness right away. Violent things start happening pretty fast. I liked the addition of Toby (whoever he is) and some of the malevolent demon imagery. But really plot wise it furthered the story very little.

So let’s get on with PA4. At some point in my review for PA3 I noted that the PA series could potentially have a long shelf life since their M.O. seems to be to have a bunch of scary scenes then a big finale that barely adds to the story of PA. But they do that right at the end so it makes you want to see more. PA4 does just that.

She looks like she is about to be scared!

I think it should be noted that the PA series generally has really great actors. For what they are doing and how it is filmed, its really hard to act natural but everyone does a really great job. The real highlight of the series though is how it approaches the found footage aspect. Here, the big thing is laptops and Xbox. Sure in a found footage you’ve always got that character (or characters) that always want to film everything. Okay. It’s part of the genre. I get it. In my opinion we really don’t need other characters pointing it out.

The laptop gimmick allows characters to talk to the screen and engage the audience. It also means that they will miss anything that happens behind them, which is good for a jump or two. Anytime a character stands and covers a lot of the background, assume something will appear behind them. Also anytime there is an open door assume it will open more or something will run by. Also anytime there is a slightly creepy thing, assume a big sudden scare will come out of left field. I also dug the Xbox Kinect gimmick. Using the night vision tracking dots allows you to see actual ghosts or strange movements while the other people have no idea what is going on. It looks cool and provides many shout at characters to turn around moments.

Cult Symbols? More Please!

While I like the acting and attempt to strive for new approaches, two things are really lacking. Firstly, there’s less malevolence and demonic presence here. There are some door things, sheets being pulled, characters popping into frame, but I like the really evil stuff. There’s a small moment of symbols being drawn/researched but it never really adds to the story. Some of the scares really never amount to anything. A character or knife will float, but why? In PA3 I got the real sense that the Toby dude or whoever was really trying to go for some damage all the time.

The second thing is part of the first. There is no story advancement. We get a new family. A reoccurring character or two. And an ending that insinuates a larger picture. But we are strung along until the last minute. What’s the point? I really like horror movies that seem to build up their own sort of mythology and character one uppery. It’s why I love the first two Hellraisers (and don’t like the other seven, yes, seven). I’ve seen a couple Saws and appreciate the effort but found Saw 4 just way too chaotic and trying to be confusing for the sake of being confusing. Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street all get more and more ridiculous while going in crazy paths but at least there’s some Soap Opera-esque storytelling going on. Do I like them all? No. But I like dissecting them and thinking of where the series could go or should have gone. It’s part of the fun, to talk and joke afterwards. But PA4 offers very little in the after movie conversation:

“So what do you think the story is going to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know… move to another family and maybe kinda show another ritual at the end insinuating that the more people get possessed the closer some group is to something.”
“Really? I think they are going to focus on a different gathering of relatives and maybe sorta show another spooky ceremony at the end alluding that the more people that turn evil the closer some gathering is to something.”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
“Hmmm. I don’t think so…”

See, there’s no specifics to fill in the what-ifs with. And that’s all the fun of Soap Operas. Playing what-if…


Anytime a horror movie ad or poster promises answers or finality, don’t believe it.

Okay. So I really dug how the movie seamlessly melds from Alex being the main person of interest to Wyatt. At least that’s how I took it. Robbie comes in and sleeps with her and it seems like everything is happening to her, like the spirits are interested in her. But then we learn that Wyatt is Hunter from the end of PA2. A good question of how did Hunter leave Katie to join this family only for Katie to come back for him has been brought up. I’m sure this is part of the mythology that hasn’t been answered… yet. I don’t have a problem that the movie has unanswered questions, I have a problem that the PA series seems more interested in bringing up more unanswered questions than trying to at least move the story in some direction. This could be that the series is jumping all out of order (which I don’t mind) or that they keep writing some things then wanting to go back and do something else. The Fast and The Furious franchise seems to have this problem too, but at least they go somewhere with it. Every one of those films is more concerned with undoing what the previous ones have done and using dead or forgotten characters by playing with timelines that it just doesn’t make sense anymore (although I’m not trying). On the other hand, Metal Gear Solid, the video game series, has ALWAYS stated whatever one is the current will be the last. Yet the eventual sequel manages to build off and escalate the MGS world. It’s pure brilliance. It’s one of my favorite stories. I love MGS.

Why does Alex get lifted up only for nothing to happen? Why does the knife fly up then later drop when the dad is walking away? Why do the boys talk to the TV? These are all scary or creepy, but don’t really add anything. If it happens in the first 30 minute I’d be more accepting (like the chandelier drop). But after the first 30 the movie needs to get it’s act together. That’s why I liked PA3. There were so many Toby moments or truly malevolent things happening. Here the movie pitter-patters between mundane (chairs moving!) and bigger picture stuff (Alex finding the crawlspace type door or Wyatt almost drowning).

Why do the spirits try to kill Alex with a car? Meh… to make it look like an accident? I don’t know. Why does the Toby thing kill the mom while Katie kills Ben (also, neck snaps are hardly ever scary, mostly they are funny)? I don’t know. What happens to Robbie at the end? I don’t know. Why are there so many evil ladies en mass? I don’t know. What does Toby want? I don’t know. What is the end goal? I don’t know. Is there going to be a PA5 AND a latino spinoff? I don’t know. Again, I don’t mind unanswered questions but we know just as much now as we did before. There’s some secret covent that likes to abduct children and do possession things. Things like Toby killing mom and Katie killing Ben just don’t add up. We don’t have enough info to know why.

In Conclusion, I really admire the technical skill that has gone into the PA series. Each one (well, maybe not PA2, sorry) is a great exercise into what makes an individual scene scary and how to keep some of the gimmicks slightly fresh. But as a series of connected films the movie really amount to nothing more than “some scary things happen to some people.”

Final Grade: C+ (giving it the slight benefit of the doubt for having some good tech skillz in spite of the lackluster story approach)

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