‘Paranormal Activity 4’: More Ambiguity, Fewer Scares

Paranormal Activity 4 starts out reminding us how Paranormal Activity 2 ended: Possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) kills her sister and brother-in-law in order to abduct her one-year-old nephew, Hunter. Katie and Hunter have now been missing for 5 years. A new family is introduced, including two very distant parents (Stephen Dunham and Alexondra Lee), their teenage daughter, Alex (Kathryn Newton), and 6-year-old Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Protagonist Alex starts to take notice of the odd neighbors across the street, a young mother and her son, Robbie (Brady Allen). After Robbie’s mother is suddenly hospitalized for a mysterious illness, Alex’s family takes Robbie in. Lo and behold, creepiness ensues when little Robbie enters the house. Alex is most attuned to the new “presence” and enlists her tech-savvy pseudo-boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) to help her set up laptops around the house to record footage.

If we’ve learned anything from the Paranormal series, it’s that demons don’t like to be watched, so the thrills escalate from here. The tension builds quite nicely, with the stakes of the demon’s antics getting higher every scene. However, momentum is lost in the conclusion of the film, with the scary parts being not so scary and often very similar to things we’ve seen in other Paranormal films. Additionally, the motivations of the characters become muddled in the final action.

Many questions are addressed, like the truth about Robbie’s mysterious mother and the identity of Hunter. But many more questions are left unanswered. For instance, what’s up with the coven of witches at the end of Paranormal Activity 3? Having been thrown off by that addition in the last film, I was hoping for an explanation this time around. The coven is brought into play again in this film, but the motivation of their presence is still unclear.

Similarly, it is hard to determine the demon’s motivations, especially with more and more complex, ancient witch and demon mythology being thrown at us. The best villains are those that have distinct rules and codes they operate by, and getting to know what those rules and codes are is part of the thrill of good horror films. In this fourth installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise, I would have liked to see more of the demon’s motivation exposed, but since I didn’t really know what it wanted or why, I often experienced confusion instead of fear.

I’d like to see a Paranormal film take its protagonists deeper into the mythology of the demon and gain a better understanding of its motivations and weaknesses. As it stands, the series’ common formula is this: 1.Strange things start to happen; 2. People set up cameras to record those strange things happening; 3. Demon escalates its antics because it doesn’t like to be watched; 4. (Mostly) Everyone is killed. The formula has worked in the past, but needs refreshing. A cleverer and more investigative character capable of shedding more light on the demon would be a great development. To me, this film is a testament to a stale franchise. Almost all of the scare tactics have been used before, and nothing is quite different enough to make this film stand out.

A truly missed opportunity in Paranormal 4 is that, due to Alex having technical difficulties, the characters don’t get to view most of the footage of demonic happenings in the house. Had the footage from the laptops they so painstakingly set up around the house been viewed, it would have promoted more informed characters rather than characters oblivious to the severity of the danger in the house. The result is that the audience can anticipate their fates long before the characters even know they’re in danger, which does not make for great suspense. The scariest parts of the Paranormal films are when the characters know something is threateningly close to them, but they (and we) don’t know what it will do.

Lending to the family’s lack of understanding of the danger is the fact that they are extremely uncommunicative with each other. The parents are distant from one another and ignore each other’s concerns. They also ignore the fearful pleas of their daughter once she realizes that there is a deathly entity in the house. This lack of communication makes it undeniably easier for the demon to exploit the family. Additionally, I cannot help but connect the abundance of technology in the house with the lack of human-to-human interaction. Alex and her boyfriend mostly communicate via Skype. Every character spends more time staring at a screen of one kind or another than they do interacting with others. Even six-year-old Wyatt has his own laptop. If this familial disconnect was an intentional addition to the film, then it acts as a very strong warning for families against using too much technology: Talk to each other face-to-face, or else a demon might completely turn your lives upside down.

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