Paranormal Activity 4 starts off a few years after 3, with Katie living in a house with a boy named Robbie, who may or may not be Hunter, the boy she kidnapped from her sister. Robbie and Katie live across the street from the Nelson family, consisting of mom Holly, dad Doug, daughter Alex and young son around Robbie’s age, Wyatt. Almost always around at the Nelson house is Ben, would-be love interest of Alex. Webcams on computers and the Xbox 360 are how we see the action this time around, with the coolest effect going to the motion detecting power of the Kinect, which sends out a field of tiny dots to keep accurate track of movements, and which are invisible unless you’re using night vision. The tracking dots even pick up some things that the rest of the household can’t see. Paranormal, probably evil things.
Robbie has borrowed a power from Ruthie of last season’s American Horror Story, in that he just appears places that he wants to be, with no explanation of how he got there. Sometimes the door alarm will announce him, sometimes not. He doesn’t talk much, and Alex labels him “creepy.” She’s not wrong, but she has no idea how right she is.
When Katie gets sick and ends up in the hospital, Robbie needs to come and stay with the Nelsons for an indeterminate period of time. He latches on to Wyatt, and the two become inseparable. Once Robbie is in the house, weird things start to happen. Alex gets Ben to set up the webcams on the various computers in the house to record anything weird that might be going on. Ben agrees, and he even shows her how to access the footage so she can watch it herself.
Much of the hauntings of Paranormal Activity 4 are familiar from number 3, with the new jump scare of people leaping into frame on the webcams. I liked this, because even though I knew it was coming the first time, I still jumped in my seat. There were at least two scares I didn’t expect, both of which made me jump in my seat. Sadly, the scares never reach a higher level, which I’d have expected in this movie, though there are plenty of homages to other horror movies in this one if you pay attention. There’s even a reference to the first Paranormal Activity: The reptile/dinosaur footprints on Wyatt’s wall look like the tracks that Katie found by her bed after Micah put down the baby powder to see if anything came into their room.
The parents seem wrapped up in their own issues, which are there to give them an excuse not to be around when noises and other weird things are happening. Sometimes the little kids seem to be home by themselves, without even Alex watching them, though I guess the parents might be around somewhere.
I think the first mistake the directors made in this film is that Alex is very likeable, which makes all the awful things that scare and bother her more terrifying but less fun to watch. Even though Micah from the first film was fun to watch, I never really cared what happened to him. The filmmakers manage to make me invested in Alex’s survival, if not the whole family’s, something that’s in great doubt given the fates of everyone else in the series. The developing romance between Ben and Alex adds a deeper layer to their characters in a series where most of the cast is just there for the supernatural to mess around with.
Their second mistake is less forgivable. In each of these movies there comes a time where the character that set up the cameras just stops watching the footage, which is exactly when the really weird shit starts to happen! Does the ghost/demon know they’re not watching anymore? I don’t think so. The increase in activity should actually have the opposite effect, and Alex should have been running to check the webcam footage at every opportunity.
I also feel like the empty house shots worked less well here because the tension that usually builds in these films was lacking big time. Maybe we’ve just seen this one too many times now, and we need something completely different.
You can tell when the movie’s starting to wrap up. People act differently from the way they did the whole movie, allowing the plot to progress towards Katie taking Wyatt without a lot of interference. Ben, a fixture in the house or on the webcam with Alex as she investigates, is suddenly absent from then middle of the film, with no explanation as to why, which makes it feel like the screenwriters needed him to be elsewhere and so he was. There’s not even any phone calls between the two of them, which makes no sense at all given their earlier closeness. Alex develops insomnia because of the weird things going on and her mom gives her a sleeping pill at a critical moment when she should be up and moving around.
Despite this, the movie dialogue is well-written, the characters are engaging and likeable except for the ones who aren’t supposed to be, though I did feel a bit sorry for Robbie because he was only doing what he’d been told to do and was under some sort of possession.
This movie doesn’t really push forward the mythology of the series, which I’d have liked to see happen, and the end kind of leaves us at the same place as Paranormal Activity 3.
I think that fans of the series will see this movie because they want to know what happens and see the setup for PA 5, which is already greenlit. This would be a hard movie for a newcomer to the series to watch as a first film, though someone who didn’t care about the overarching story and plot would probably enjoy it.