'Paranormal Activity 4': Normal Activity
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"Paranormal Activity 4" probably won't drive you deep into slack-jawed boredom. This latest foray into found-footage, home-movie horror is far less annoying than the jumping-jack "edginess" of "Sinister." Still, this particular style of storytelling has run out of juice. Audiences fondly remember their first "Paranormal Activity," which scared them out of their bloody skins, and, like Pavlovian puppies, keep coming back for more of the same. But the franchise's frissons always depended on the long tease punctuated by sudden ambush. It's a formula that can turn you on only so long. Fourth time out it's pretty much like waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting until an old pal gets to the point -- or the director applies the cattle prod. One is not riveted.
For those who have long since lost track of the thin story line meandering through these movies, a quick recap: As a child, Katie (Katie Featherston) attracted the interest of a malevolent stalker. Possessed, Katie offed her boyfriend and kidnapped her sister's kid Hunter. All four chapters are captured in mostly low-tech illuminations, courtesy of surveillance cameras, webcams, smartphones, etc. Our visual access to "PA"'s venues of horror is limited, largely static, often grainy. Action, such as it is, comes bathed in irradiated black-and-white; color looks toxic, overexposed, as unnatural as Skype light. The franchise was most provocative when it hinted that humans were just ghosts in a camera lens, prisoners of spaces nauseatingly vulnerable to invasion by demonic techno-glitches.
"Paranormal Activity 4" introduces a brand-new family, living in a big, open-plan house in Henderson, Nev. Young Alex (a very appealing Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) stay in constant touch via webcam, while mom and dad (Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham) have reached that point of marital estrangement where they refuse to even look at each other. Preoccupied, they mostly don't "see" or hear their kids, let alone the warning signs that something evil their way has come. The evil arrives in the form of a creepy little "Omen" kid (Brady Allen) they take in while his mother, a neighbor, is hospitalized. This dead-eyed troll mesmerizes Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), Alex's 6-year-old brother and causes chandeliers to fall, a kitchen knife to whisk up and away (to slam down at a later date), and all those hollow-sounding thuds and crashes we're used to in haunted homes. Alex and Ben aren't just fear fodder or hormonally deranged horndogs. Strategizing survival, these smart, attractive kids turn detective, setting up webcam surveillance all over the house, and Googling info about witchy symbols. (Seems like the house across the street might be hosting some of the devil's minions ... like Katie, for instance, inexplicably searching for Hunter.) So long as the teens are using their heads, our attention holds. Their idiosyncratic flesh and blood stands against the cold techno-pointillism of a dark room -- and a ghost -- punctured by dots of sickly white light, produced by an Xbox Kinect. (The first time out, the effect is snazzy; the second, third and fourth times, not so much.)
"PA4" fosters the usual heebie-jeebies about what might slither in through a closed door, down a staircase, into a darkened room. Mining terror out of the pregnant emptiness of familiar spaces, the nasty potentiality of ordinary things, is the stuff of nightmare. This movie semaphores low-brow scares, lifted lifeless and deformed from movies like "The Shining," "Poltergeist," "Rosemary's Baby." Its favorite flourish is to use foreground forms -- say, an open refrigerator door (at least three times) or someone leaning down into a computer screen, to block our view of what's potentially looming behind them.
I loathe literalism in the horror genre, but, really, at long last, don't we have to ask why these demons go to such elaborate lengths to work their evil ways? Their behavior is comparable to a very long, tedious con mounted by an idiot. Why waste time levitating Alex, submerging Wyatt, dropping ominous little trails of toys to nowhere? Are the devil's minions so small in their malevolence that playing silly pranks and infecting their victims with low-level dread is their idea of grand metaphysical assaults against the innocent?
Perhaps "PA" poltergeists have a new gig -- as feature-filmmakers killing just enough time to make a scary movie.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.