Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Written by Christopher Landon
By the time that A Nightmare on Elm Street spawned a third sequel, that series had degenerated into gory farce; once Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (ha!) was released, audiences were rooting for inventiveness in the slaughter more than any one character. So give Paranormal Activity 4 credit: aside from continuing Paramount’s cash-cow horror franchise for millions of dollars more, it is also a suspense film to be taken seriously, and on its own merits. It carries the whiff of sequelized formula, but that never becomes a stench.
Kathryn Newton is impressive as Alex, a 15-year-old girl whose tech-savvy boyfriend rigs her family’s computer webcams to record the supernatural activity going on in her house. She plays “over-dramatic teenager” well but without overplaying it, which already puts her in a high class among young actors. The webcam aesthetic means Newton is delivering her lines directly to the camera, often at extremely close range, which is an additional challenge that she meets well.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3) have a fine grasp of limits and advantages of the webcam approach, and they are able to create real compositions within that limited format. Alex’s house is not a wide canvas on which to play, but they master it so well that one could draw a blueprint of the house from memory. They’re clever enough to insert a direct reference to The Shining, and confident enough to put a nice twist on that reference later on.
The formula that they are following should be clear by now: camera sits in the same spot for several minutes, showing nothing much of interest, and then something creepy happens. The formula is called back often, using title cards (“Night #5”) as every movie in the series has done, and re-using specific tricks that the haunt has used in the previous films. The interesting part – the reason this series works – is that the formula is successful every time. The jump-scares always bring a jump. Where most horror franchises become stale because the audiences knows what is coming, this one sustains itself precisely because the audience knows what is coming, and Paramount employs filmmakers who are experts in making the wait unbearable.
Still, strains are beginning to show around the edges. The running joke with the series is, “who’s the fictional editor of this fictional footage? He’s kind of messed up, isn’t he?” On a few occasions the film employs jump cuts for no reason other than to get the audience to jump, which the series never did prior to Joost and Schulman taking over. Many sequences look just like a movie, intercutting between the various cameras with the purpose of heightening tension, where earlier films in the series had at least pretended not to look so professional.
It’s not only the issue of the editor, as there are some strains on the story as well. The central issue, that Alex’s brother Wyatt is somehow connected with baby Hunter from Paranormal Activity 2, is poorly resolved. If Wyatt is Hunter, as the film implies on occasion, then who’s the other creepy boy? If Wyatt isn’t Hunter, which would make more sense, then what does the haunt want with Wyatt? All of these questions are left to hang until a future sequel, making the movie as frustrating as Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man in that area.
Still, it might have been a decent idea to withhold that part of the story. The makers of The Blair Witch Project wrote themselves into a corner with the first film, forcing a wretched sequel and a series flame-out. With scares this intense and enough quality acting from Newton to cover the holes, Joost and Schulman deserve credit for sustaining the intensity of this Paranormal Activity films, and keeping it sustainable into the future.