A new "Paranormal Activity" movie coming out has now become a season tradition, like bobbing for apples, carving pumpkins, or wearing itchy sweaters. The first "Paranormal Activity" was a no budget chiller made in 2007 but not released theatrically until 2009, almost as an afterthought, even though, the story goes, it seriously spooked Steven Spielberg (it was originally acquired by DreamWorks and Paramount as remake fodder). Since then we've had a new sequel every year, all built around the same found footage scenario and less-is-more aesthetic – who needs buckets of blood when you have creaky footsteps, mysteriously opening doors, and blurry shadows? It's had a surprisingly good run, possibly peaking with last year's '80s-set "Paranormal Activity 3," but all good things must come to an end, and "Paranormal Activity 4" is listless, dreadful and boring, an almost painfully inert and superficial ghost story that lacks specificity or scares. Time to turn the camera off, guys.
By this point in the series, the "mythology" of the movies is getting needlessly complex (and just as dull). The original film, which had uncomfortably misogynistic shadings, concerned a couple whose bland house was haunted. It was eventually discovered that the haunting had something to do with some childhood trauma inflicted upon the wife, Katie (Katie Featherson). At the end of the movie, she's seen murdering her husband and disappearing, supposedly possessed. The second film was a kind of sideways sequel, taking place around the same time as the first film but concerning itself with Katie's sister, Kristi, and the supernatural activity around their equally bland home. At the end of the sequel, Katie goes into Kristi's house, murders most of the family, and abducts the family's baby, Hunter.
With "Paranormal Activity 4," the setting is contemporary (more or less) and it concerns itself with a whole new family, who, it turns out, is now living across the street from Katie. Instead of security cameras or camcorder footage, the format of choice is mostly the Skype conversations of the family's teenage daughter, Alex (Kathryn Newton), who is freaked out by her new neighbors, in particular the ghostly little kid who befriends Alex's brother, Wyatt. There are lots of sequences with Alex Skyping with her boyfriend only there's something… scary… moving… behind her! AHHh!
Except this time around, nothing's really scary, and the reasons for Alex to be photographing everything are even less concrete. At some point she decides to link her family's computers and record everything that their cameras see, all the time, which is a huge leap in logic given the amount of bandwith and storage space that would require (this is hours and hours of footage). And while there are a couple of nifty new flourishes – like seeing the night vision reflection of an Xbox game, which carpets the room in a sea of twinkly green dots – this is the easily the least compelling set-up in the bunch, and the fact that they have to stretch to make the "found footage" conceit work is a testament to the series' exhaustion.
What's even more criminal is that this is a ghost story devoid of symbolism or thematic depth. Early in the movie, Alex tells her boyfriend that her parents are barely speaking. So after Alex sets up all the cameras, which record all the activity in several rooms of the house, she is going to catch one or both of her parents fooling around, talking on the phone about some kind of divorce or separation, or generally letting us into the nuts and bolts of their relationship, right? Nope, this idea is barely touched upon. And the psychic trauma of divorce, which Spielberg so aptly mined in many of his phantasmagorical tales, remains untapped.
This is part of what made "Paranormal Activity 3," which, like the fourth part, was directed by "Catfish" filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, so much fun – it was set in the '80s and used the soullessness of the decade to amplify the power of the demonic goings-on. It also didn't hurt that the setting gave them license to more freely reference Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist," still a haunted house classic. ("Paranormal Activity 4" is loaded with a "Shining" reference that is painfully obvious and dumb.)
Without any deeper thematic heft, the movie feels more cynical and calculated. At some point it kind of becomes a numbers game – if they can set everything up in the first thirty minutes, dole out some spooky nonsense for the next forty five minutes after, and climax with a series of cheap, excessively violent scares, then they've done their job. There is one really great sequence that involves young Wyatt in the bathtub. This sequence actually has some resonance and is deeply unsettling, but going into it would ruin some of the few fleeting moments of pleasure "Paranormal Activity 4" provides, so we'll refrain.
By the time the movie concludes, they've added just enough to the movie's tangle of wonky, witchy mythology to probably justify (in the eyes of the producers and studio, at least) another entry. But without some major reinvention, it's hard to imagine anyone will care. The first three films floated by, unchallenged, mostly because of their technical invention and the fact that, after nearly a decade of "Saw" films (which essentially saw the characters wading around, ankle-deep, in bloody innards), its subtlety was refreshing. But now the charm has faded, the invention become passé and easily replicated, with the film now coming across as toothless and not-at-all scary. "Paranormal Activity 4" feels like the violent discovery that the emperor has no clothes; perhaps he didn't have any from the beginning. [D]