Sunday, October 21, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 (Henry Joost, Ariel Shulman, 2012)

If there's one thing you need to know about Paranormal Activity 4, it's that there's nothing new in front of the lens, under the moon or anywhere else for that matter. There isn't anything in the latest installment of the Halloween season behemoth franchise that you haven't seen in the previous installments. The question is, did you like what you saw in the first three movies? If you did, the chances are pretty good that you're going to enjoy this as well.

It doesn't succeed in carrying the series mythology forward in a substantial way like the third film, and most of the scares are variations on things the first three films have already succeeded in using to cause a theater full of people to jump, yelp and sometimes scream in fright. At the same time, if you're looking for a fun time in a theater full of people who are anticipating having the crap scared out of them, and they enjoy that idea, you're in luck.

Let's face it, the Paranormal Activity series hasn't reinvented the horror genre with any of it's installments. It has succeeded because it's been like an amusement park ride. A large group of people get together, and agree it's perfectly acceptable to act in a way they would not find it acceptable to be seen acting under any other circumstances, like frightened children. Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman have succeeded in delivering that experience again. There are some seriously great scares peppered throughout the film.

I had the good fortune of seeing the original Paranormal Activity about a week before it was granted wide release, in Washington D.C. at a midnight screening full of college students. It was, without a doubt, one of the most fun theater experiences I've ever had. With parts two and three, they lacked a bit of the joy of discovery of the first, but they still delivered that crowd experience. It makes for a kind of shared experience that's extremely rare in today's day and age, and personally, it's been what I've loved about the films. If that's what you really enjoy about the franchise, like I do, you're not going to be disappointed, it's completely intact. Get out there and see the film with the largest audience you can find.

There's no doubt that this is the weakest in the series, but considering where it started and just how well the sequels were pulled off, that's not the kind of hard knock it might appear to be. The majority of the negative reviews have focused on the fact that there's a teenage girl and her boyfriend at the center of the story, and that they're annoying. What hasn't been mentioned is that it does establish something for the series that no one had thought to pay attention to before. Each film followed a couple in different stages of their lives. The first film dealt with a young couple, early their relationship, and the way the events effected them individually and as a couple. The second film dealt with two people who were already parents, with a new baby, in a much more settled place in their lives. Now, the third film is focusing on these horrifying events, during a very different part of life, and two peoples reaction to it as they trust each other in the attempt to figure out how to deal with it. Again, it's not a reinvention of the genre, but it is an interesting way to bring some variation to the perspective of each installment in the series. The argument can certainly be made that choosing a couple teenagers wasn't a good one, but it's also a somewhat small minded argument. Making the argument that these particular teenagers aren't a good window into this world, that the writing for their characters or the performances aren't strong enough to hold the weight of a feature length film is more sensible. Chronicle certainly succeeded in drawing a rich narrative from a set of teenage characters, so the age of the characters isn't necessarily the problem. It may also be a problem that the majority of writers reviewing the film are just too old to identify with kids the age of the characters in this film. Let's face it, there's a certain smugness with which a lot of film obsessed sites and writers approach "teenage audiences". (*Note: I'm definitely not immune to that short fall myself.)

From another perspective, that's part of what's been great about this series of films. The experience of sitting in a theater packed with teenagers who haven't yet developed the cynicism to be too cool to have fun getting the ever loving shit scared out of them is incredibly fun. The power of the Paranormal Activity series is also it's greatest downfall. It's meant to be seen in a theater, with a crowd of people who are looking forward to getting scared. None of the films in the series, including this one, are developed with the intent of creating great narrative art or pushing the boundaries of special effects or anything like what most critics and film writers are going to be looking for when they go into a film. I can sympathize with and identify with having a degree of disappointment in what passes for popular when compared to what's actually good. At the same time, I fully embrace the idea that film, as a medium is in part a beautiful and extraordinary form due to the fact that it's so incredibly diverse. There's nothing wrong with a film being made specifically to be fun, and designed to maximize the experience of seeing it with a crowd and playing to the kind of shared pathology that happens in that environment. Is there more fluff and empty headed junk being pushed into nationwide release than I'd rather see? Absolutely. Maybe it's my particular affinity for the horror genre, but I'm willing to give this franchise, and this particular installment a lot more leeway than many others. Part of that is due to the fact that these aren't film being produced for hundreds of millions of dollars. Another part is that Halloween itself has always meant a kind of shared experience, and by doing what they set out to so well, the Paranormal Activity films have contributed to that tradition and that experience. For that reason, if nothing else, I'd recommend hitting a crowded theater near you and looking forward to jumping out of your chair for 90 minutes.


  1. It’s a scary time at the movies, even though it’s not as inventive or original as the last three movies. Still, you got to give it to a series that still, surprisingly has a lot of fun with itself. Good review Alex.

  2. Thanks Dan. I appreciate it.


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