Halloween is the time of year when critics wipe the beaded sweat from their brow, hoping to survive yet another round of debates regarding Paranormal Activity. OK, I'm being a little dramatic here, but opinions of this franchise have gravitated to both extremes since day one. There are those who look forward to this spooky holiday staple year after year, while others continue to wonder how these films are able to make any money in the first place. Personally, I believe there's an appreciable middle ground. Sure, these films aren't complex and they certainly don't hold a candle to recent slow-burn efforts such as Insidious or Sinister, but with the exception of Paranormal Activity 3's cultish finale, I found them to be highly effective haunted house flicks. Each successive installment managed to up the ante, so Paranormal Activity 4 had a lot to live up to, both in expectation and execution. Unfortunately, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman may have inadvertently triggered the beginning of the end with their latest. Filmgoers hoping for another solid entry are likely to walk away disappointed. Hey, at least fans and longtime naysayers alike will finally have something to agree on.
In 2006, a possessed Katie went on a murderous rampage and kidnapped her baby nephew, Hunter. This film takes place five years after the events in Paranormal Activity 2, and with their whereabouts still unknown (at least in an official capacity), a new family becomes the primary focus. Enter Alex (Kathryn Newton), a bright and enthusiastic teenage girl on the outside, but with her parents staring down the barrel of divorce, there's been a lot weighing on her mind. Her little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) is too young to pick up on the signals however. One day, Alex brings her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) up to her tree house for a little alone time, but is started to discover a strange boy from across the street, Robbie (Brady Allen), quietly hanging out by himself. Later that evening, an ambulance takes Robbie's mother to the hospital, but with no family to be contacted in the event of an emergency, Alex's family decides to take him in for a few days. Coinciding with his arrival, odd things begin happening around the house. Suspicious that these events might be the result of a supernatural entity, Alex asks Ben to set up laptops around her home so she can get to the bottom of it. Their amateur sleuthing reveals that Alex's family got more than they bargained for when they invited Robbie into their home, and when his mother is finally released from the hospital, all hell breaks loose.
The previous entry was able to impress with fresh filming techniques, most notable of which being a camera that was rigged onto the base of an oscillating fan. Despite a suspecting audience, its utilization kept them on the edge of their seat and allowed fresh scares to emerge from an all too familiar formula. To my surprise, Paranormal Activity 4 comes up with something even more clever - capturing the demon's movements via the Xbox 360 Kinect's infrared tracking dot system... but fails to be anywhere near as effective. That's really the biggest problem this film has as a whole - It's not as frightening as its predecessors, not by a long shot. In Activity 1-3, the formula was simplistic, but worked - Start the scares off small, then gradually increase the terror until it's palpable, leaving the audience to cower under their seat cushions. This time around, I waited endlessly for those 'boo' scares to evolve into something more, and although there are a few scenes that provide a shriek or two, the really good stuff is only delivered within the film's final moments. Needless to say thanks to the tone of my review, it all came as too little, too late. And speaking of the film's technological approach, were we really supposed to take it seriously? Cameras on tripods and security cameras I understand, but recording everything via Apple's FaceTime? I mean, it's a clever way to get more mileage out of the franchise, sure, but it's an idea that should have been used sparingly. Instead, Alex runs everywhere with laptop in hand regardless of the situation.
My largest gripe comes from the amount of comic relief that's interjected throughout. I know these films have been no stranger to comedy, but as the gravity of each situation intensified, the laughs were wisely packed away so tension could swell. This installment obviously tried to provide us with more of a 'slow burn' than previous efforts, but every time something is about to get going, there's another quip or wisecrack waiting to annihilate any feeling of suspense or dread.
Even so, this bout of Paranormal Inactivity could have been salvaged if only it provided some answer, or even some sort of progression in plot. But, if anything, we're left with even more questions. Still, that's not to say the film is a total flop. The cast this go-round is actually quite good, especially Kathryn Newton as Alex. She was charming and sweet as the girl next door and seemed genuinely scared when appropriate. Furthermore, she also leant her character an impressive fighting spirit in one of the film's more memorable scenes, and I'd love to see how she would fare as the last girl standing in a slasher film. Of course, the main attraction is still Katie Featherston. She's hardly in the film, but the small amount of screen time she has is sure to be the most memorable. Brady Allen does well enough as the strange boy from across the street, but again, the badly written script pretty much nullifies most of the chills he was supposed to provide.
There are some clever sight frights and decent acting on display, but the film overall is a total mess. Too many laughs and not enough scares is bad enough, but the filmmakers also break the 'reality' barrier far too often to pay homage to films like The Shining... and I mean in a really obvious way that's going to make some eyes roll. There's nothing subtle about what they've done here. No, little Robbie was obviously intrigued by little Danny Torrance, so he - and I kid you not - even rides around the house on the same kind of three wheeler. It's clear at this point that the writers have finally run out of ideas. Couple this with the fact that the creative staff are still unwilling to illuminate us as to what's going on, and you're left with very little reason to see this film. So, yes, Paranormal Activity 4 is likely the beginning of the end. Sure, this installment earned well over $30 million on its opening weekend, so more films will undoubtedly follow, but this is where the series will begin to lose a large chunk of its viewership. Despite being a fan of the franchise myself, I can't in good conscience recommend this installment. The tagline of this film promises that 'all the activity has led to this', but if this is all they franchise hopes to offer, then consider me out. This is a gratuitous piece of filler, and if you really need a good scare, Sinister remains your best bet from 2012.
Paranormal Activity 4 is no looker, but that's by design. For all intents and purposes though, there isn't much you can say against the 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1), as it's a faithful representation of the source. Meant to emulate a 'home video' look, this flick comes complete with blocky background noise, colors and contrast that may look dull or murky, and on the opposite end of the spectrum there's even some black crush. The scenes that take place in the evening are obviously more susceptible to what is generally considered ugly 'behavior', but the filmmakers utilize the dark for mood and atmosphere. Things are quite remarkable during the day however, as colors are for more vibrant, skin tones realistic, while sharpness, contrast and black levels help deliver a decent sense of depth. You'll also be surprised at how much detail you'll see throughout the movie, but that's not to say that the camerawork (which often includes a laptop camera) ever looks superb. Unsurprisingly though, the standout sequences in this film come from the unique usage of the Xbox 360's Kinect. All in all, the only thing you can really say about the video presentation, is that 'it is what it is'. Regardless of how you feel about that, it's 100% faithful to the source. The flaws on display on this Blu-ray were also easily seen in theaters, so they're most certainly not a fault of the encode. Fans should be pleased with the transition to home video.
The Paranormal Activity franchise has always been something of a contradiction in the audio department - Everything is supposed to have been filmed with amateur HD cameras, yet we're still treated somehow to an effective 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. It's a head-scratcher for sure, but it's one of the few examples of broken logic I'm willing to let slide. These films are nothing more than spooky haunted house flicks, so hearing footsteps or other various noises creep around your living room really helps to sell the scares. The LFE actually rumbles a fair amount when the soundtrack allows (which isn't very often), so everything actually carries a realistic amount of 'weight'. Many are under the impression that this particular franchise won't benefit from an upgrade to HD, but for the lossless audio experience alone, I would urge you to reconsider. I highly doubt a DVD can provide the same kind of spooky ambience as this lossless track. It may not sound as good as typical Hollywood horror fare, but if you want some believable 'bumps in the night', this is as good as it gets.
The major selling point of this release is the Unrated Director's Cut, and the wording on the package would lead you to believe we're being treated to an additional 30 minutes of actual runtime... but this is not the case. The Director's Cut is only 9 minutes longer than the theatrical, and it should be avoided at all costs. My major complaint with this film when I saw it theatrically, is that it was majorly lacking in the scare department. As the extended cut only helps to prolong the scares by giving us a bit more time with the characters, making it through to the end becomes an even bigger slog, which I honestly didn't think could be possible.
No, the nearly half-hour of deleted scenes comes in a supplement that's been labeled as The Recovered Files, which again, is mostly a waste of time. It's the only supplement provided on disc, but it's worth noting that Paranormal Activity 4 also comes with DVD and UV copies.
Sometimes you see a film theatrically, hate it, and then somehow manage to gain a bit more appreciation for it when it hits home video. That's certainly not the experience I had with Paranormal Activity 4. All of the flaws that plagued the film theatrically stood out just as much when I revisited it on Blu-ray, and are even exacerbated a good deal more in the Unrated Director's Cut, which I would avoid at all costs. I've been a fan of the franchise thus far, because I have no problem with spooky haunted house flicks with no substance to speak of, but they have to be effective at what they do. Unfortunately, Paranormal Activity 4 fails to do that, as it mistakenly believes we'll want to spend more time with its characters than being scared. At least the A/V presentation is faithful to what was seen theatrically. Skip It.