Friday, October 26, 2012

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 Has a Few New Tricks n' Treats


It's hard to objectively review the Paranormal Activity films these days, if only because so much of the experience involves the funhouse effect of being spooked in a theater full of jumping and shrieking audience members. In terms of movies-as-haunted-attraction, the PA films still have some seriously scary mojo going - and Paranormal Activity 4 is proof of that. In the theater, people cringed, gasped, jumped, and screamed - and it made seeing the movie an incredibly fun experience, even if the PA formula is, by this point, a well-worn one. Now, talking about this one as a movie ... there's still gas in the tank, but it does feel like we're inching ever-closer to self-parody territory here. There's a lot of cutesiness in the movie, and less hardcore scares than in the previous films. And the attempts to further the expanding mythology of the franchise don't add much to the storytelling. But hey, there are still some great moments, some innovative gimmicks, and some good fun to be had.

After flashing back to the 80's with Paranormal Activity 3, Part 4 picks back up in the present. We're introduced to a new family living in suburban California. As it turns out their creepy neighbor is none other than series star Katie Featherston, who was last seen abducting babies while seemingly possessed by evil demon spirits. Katie's got a creepy son, Robbie, and seems to have sinister designs on the neighbor's similarly-aged kid, Wyatt. But - our main POV character is Wyatt's older sister, teenaged Alex. Through Alex, and her tech-savvy boyfriend Ben, PA 4 gets some of its best visual gimmicks.

Now, I'm not sure if there's anything quite as creepy-awesome as PA3's use of a rotating fan-mounted camera to create crazy amounts of tension. But there are some good little tricks used by directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who are back for their second PA outing. The most prominent tactic is the use of webcams / videochat. The directors make clever use of the fact that the rectangular screen of Alex's laptop is almost entirely filled with her head while chatting with her boyfriend. This lends itself to big scares when Alex moves and we realize what's been lurking behind her. But PA4's coolest idea is to use the XBOX Kinect, of all things, as a scare tactic. Ben suggests turning off the lights and using the Kinect in its laser mode, where all of its tiny green laser-lights - used to detect movement- are visible. This works great, because it turns out that the Kinect is a perfect mechanism for ghost-detecting. Seeing the neon-green laser lights reveal a previously unseen apparition is pretty badass indeed.

But like I said, there's too much here that feels cutesy rather than scary. Too many scares turn out to be fake-outs, and there just isn't quite the same great sense of escalating horror that the early films - particularly the first - utilized so effectively. It doesn't help that the story isn't quite sure what it wants to be. On one hand,  PA4 has heavy ties to the previous films, given the large presence of Katie Featherston. It even has a short prologue that recaps the ending of PA2 to set the stage for this one. On the other hand, there's very little plot here, and a lot is kept ambiguous. There's really not much meat to the "mythology" in the film, except as a tie to the previous films. It makes things feel a bit muddled, and it feels like a lot of stuff is thrown at us without much underlying purpose. We've got ghost kids, angry spirits, a coven of witch-women, demon-possessed Katie ... it doesn't really add up to much. The end result is that ... even though there is a lot going on on the surface of PA4, it ends up feeling like an oddly plotless movie.

The film also is harmed a bit by the escalation of Katie to Big Bad. What made the actress work so well in the original was her everywoman quality - and that doesn't translate as well to the role of fearsome femme fatale. That said, what helps the film work as well as it does is the likability of some of its other main actors. Kathryn Newton is endearing as terrified teen Alex, and Matt Shively is amusingly dorky as boyfriend Ben. Those two give the movie a lot of its charm, and creepy kid Robbie, meanwhile, is appropriately eerie thanks to young actor Brady Allen.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with PA4, even if there was plenty of evidence that the series, as a whole, is losing some steam. But I still love how these films are a triumph of the most fundamental principles of horror. You've got to admire that, even as budgets have inched up and box-office grosses have soared, the PA movies have remained low-frills, bare bones affairs - always sticking to the basics, never getting caught up in crazy CGI or overblown f/x. The soul of the series is still intact, even if the scares aren't quite as scary as in year's past. But I hate to be too cynical about these films - seeing them in a packed theater is, still, a frightfully good time.

My Grade: B

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