Sequels, by definition, are inferior films. At least, that's the general consensus according to Scream 2
, a sequel. For the most part, the feeling is correct; sequels are usually obvious vehicles to cash in on the wild success of an earlier film. Every once in a while, a film franchise's sequels are better than their originators - The Empire Strikes Back
and The Godfather, Part II
being notable examples. Horror filmmakers in particular are notorious for quickly pumping out continuing chapters to their films, usually with predictable results. Over the last few years, Oren Peli and Jason Blum's Paranormal Activity
series of films have been the exception to the rule, with each film being scarier and better than the last. With the fourth installment of their wildly successful franchise, an important question can't help but be brought up - how much longer can this trend last?
Paranormal Activity 4
picks up five years after the events of Paranormal Activity 2
(Paranormal Activity 3
, fans will remember, took the audience back to the eighties for a history lesson), with Katie and Hunter's whereabouts unknown. Paranormal Activity 4
centers on Alex (Kathryn Newton from "Gary Unmarried"), a teenage girl in Henderson, Nevada who lives with her unhappily married parents and her adopted little brother, Wyatt (newcomer Aiden Lovecamp). A new family has moved in across the street from Alex's family, one that includes a single mother and her creepy kid named Robbie (played by another relative unknown named Brady Allen). When Robbie's mother gets sick, the child comes to stay with Alex and Wyatt. Robbie and Wyatt become fast friends, but Alex notices that their relationship is not exactly normal. With the help of her boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively from "True Jackson, VP"), Alex sets up every computer in the house to record video and captures Ben and Wyatt wandering around the house late at night. After following the boys across the street to Robbie's house, Alex meets Robbie's mother, Katie (the Paranormal Activity
franchise's face Katie Featherston). After meeting Katie and seeing the strange footage that the computers have gathered, Alex and Ben realize that Robbie and Katie's interest in Wyatt is not just neighborly.
In any found footage film, the main basis for believability is the reasoning behind the recording of each and every moment of the participants' lives. The earlier Paranormal Activity
films establish this reasoning early on, explaining that the cameras are there to capture any weirdness in the act. In Paranormal Activity 4
, Alex is running around with a camcorder from the get-go, recording seemingly inane conversation and events with no rhyme or reason. By the time she and Ben set up the computers to record (a device that serves the same purpose as the security cameras in Paranormal Activity 2
), she had already been shooting unexplainable footage with her handheld camera. While there's nothing quite as inventive and suspenseful as the fan-cam from Paranormal Activity 3
, there is a cool technique where the motion capture beams from the kids' Xbox Kinect
are captured by an infrared detector on one of the laptops, and the effect is a hi-tech green glow shot that shows some eerie and creepy things that cannot be seen by the naked eye. The Kinect segments are fresh and new, but the rest of the film feels old.
If Paranormal Activity 4
was not a film in an established and frightening series, it would probably be more effective. As it is, it has huge shoes to fill as a chapter in the legendary Paranormal Activity
franchise, and it falls short of expectations. Much of the core creative team from the franchise is intact; Paranormal Activity 3
directors Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman are back, as well as screenwriter Christopher Landon. The story and writing is solid, and the execution is flawless. The problem is that the formula has become tedious, and the film looks too much like what audiences have been seeing from the franchise since the beginning. Paranormal Activity 4
tries to keep its formula fresh, even inserting a couple of references to The Shining
and The Changeling
for the astute horror fan, but overall, the installment is the biggest disappointment in the series.
Much of the scariness and suspense that is generated by Paranormal Activity 4
is due to the sound, or lack thereof. The silence that is present during the more tense scenes is practically deafening. When sound designer Peter Brown (who also did the earlier Paranormal Activity
films as well as several episodes of "Game of Thrones") does inject sound, it is purposely muffled and barely audible so that the viewer strains to hear, then blows up in a seat-jumping shock. It's the oldest trick in the horror sound designer's book, and it's one that Brown has exploited in the Paranormal Activity
films since the beginning, but it still elicits screams followed by uncomfortable laughs throughout the theater. The audience never realizes how quiet the film is until the silence is broken, and by then it's too late. Peter Brown and his team masterfully use sound to keep Paranormal Activity 4
as tense and suspenseful as possible.
Paranormal Activity 4
is scariest in the context of the other films in the series
; it relies on the reputation of the earlier films to generate scares. By now, audiences know the formula behind the films and they follow the lead. Viewers expect long periods of silent stillness to be broken by something creepy and unexpected that will make them either squirm in their seat or scream into the air. In Paranormal Activity 4
, the scares are not plentiful enough to generate any real sense of dread. Further following the formula of the earlier films, the last ten minutes of Paranormal Activity 4
is absolutely terrifying. It's the getting there that feels long and drawn out, and not in the good, Hitchcockian way.