Some movies just aren’t made for typical running times. Watching Paranormal Activity 4, I found myself wishing that there was a way to monetize the concept of a 45-minute-long feature. (Technically speaking, a feature film need only be more than 40 minutes long, but when was the last time you saw something that short in a theater?) The fourth film in the extremely profitable Paranormal Activity franchise works largely along the same lines as the earlier ones: An admirably tense buildup effectively utilizes the films’ found-footage gimmick, before a lot of dithering around waiting for predictable, repetitive scares reveals the concept’s limitations.
The film follows up on the occurrences in PA2, in which a girl named Katie abducted her baby nephew Hunter from his father and mother (her sister) after killing them. Now we’re in the happy suburban Nevada home of Alice (Kathryn Newton) and her 6-year-old brother Wyatt. Their life starts to take a creepy turn when Robbie, a shy, odd boy from across the street, comes to stay with them after his (unseen) mother mysteriously has to go to the hospital. Could this boy be Hunter? Well, he certainly seems weird. Soon enough, Alice and her boyfriend, Ben, who were already into Skyping, are rigging up computers and their cameras around the house to monitor the strange things little Robbie does at night.
These early scenes work reasonably well, in part because the characters have an easygoing, unscripted feel to them; they feel like real suburban kids. The film was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, who also made PA3 and who came to prominence with the offbeat indie documentary hit Catfish (which had enough of a thriller/mystery vibe that some felt it was staged). They gleefully get plenty of horror mileage out of the sound of random objects and/or wind hitting the microphone, and they also display a fondness for the unmotivated jump cut as a source of cheap scares. As usual, there are lots of open doors and barely visible corridors in the background. And yes, this family does own a cat.
But after a while, we start to get bored at seeing the same locations (the same bedrooms, the same living room, the same kitchen) used in the same ways (a creeping shadow here, a thud on the ceiling there). This happens around the point where other horror films would start to get busy explaining the plot — letting their characters discover what kind of demon is following them and/or ways to defeat it. To their credit, the Paranormal Activity films tend to keep this type of expository drivel to a minimum (though there’s the usual brief bit of business here about some ancient Hittite demon), but it also means that the stories, such as they are, don’t have anywhere to go after a certain point.
But the real problem behind Paranormal Activity 4 is that its entire raison d’être has gotten old; producer Oren Peli, who directed the first one, even included some gentle digs at the found-footage genre in his superior Chernobyl Diaries, released earlier this year. This time around, the reasoning behind the gimmick gets tossed after a certain point, but the gimmick itself remains: We’re still seeing things through handheld devices and built-in laptop cameras, even though nobody seems interested in looking at the footage the cameras were supposedly recording. (This wouldn’t be so distracting if the characters hadn’t spent the first 40 or so minutes of the film incessantly looking at said footage.)
In other words, we’re basically just waiting to get to the end. Because we know that, despite all the profound gaps in logic and the regurgitated thrills, the PA films have a tendency to rally in their final moments. Sure enough, this one picks up as it reaches its climax, finally delivering the kind of in-your-face, fuck-you ending these films have now become known for. Anyway, I’m going to hope against hope that Paranormal Activity 5 clocks in at under an hour. Then we might have something.