Second Opinion: Paranormal Activity 4

The fourth film in the popular found-footage series is 'a sweet, scary night at the movies.'

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

I can’t tell you my relief that this film was not called Par4normal Activity. Or worse yet, P4r4norm4l 4ctivity. Although I would have appreciated P444444444 4444444y. Or a superlative subtitle like Paranormalest.

The first Paranormal Activity helped spawn a recent and unfortunate trend of low-budget “found footage” horror movies, wherein the film we were watching was allegedly culled from documentary tapes of people surviving – or not surviving – through some sort of horrific situation. At their worst, these films are insufferable, as they typically feature unscripted dialogue, amateur acting, and some of the crappiest photography imaginable. Lightweight, handheld digital cameras may have revolutionized a lot of filmmaking techniques, but it now means we’re currently stuck in a world that is drunk on its unfettered freedom from tripods. Seriously guys. Put the camera down. “Handheld” doesn’t necessarily equate “gritty.” It just looks like you tied a camera around the neck of your golden retriever with a shoelace, and overdubbed some screams and cuss words.

But I digress already.

ParaNorman Activity 4 is the first of these films I’ve seen since the first. Having foregone parts 2 and 3, I did feel a little lost, and had to rely on the series intro. To trace what I have gleaned. Part 1 featured a young couple (Katie Featherston was the lady) who felt their house was being haunted by a creepy demonic presence. They filmed everything from static security cameras, and eerie things did indeed appear at night. Somewhere along parts 2 and 3, Katie came back, now possessed by a demon, and interested in her infant nephew for some nefarious purpose. Part 4 now follows an entirely new family, although Katie does appear in this one in fits and starts. We know from the intro that we just need to watch out for her, and perhaps for her creepy 6-year-old son Rob (Brady Allen).

Much of the film takes place in a high-end suburban home with an average white family, and much of the film is shot by the teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton), who seems to discover eerie things happening when Rob has to move in (his mom had an… accident, which may have been the plot of a prequel). Chairs move on their own. Rob seems to talk to an invisible friend. We’ve seen all this stuff before.

This I appreciated: Where ParaFourMal exceeds where many of its peers fall short is in its camerawork. The short are largely all static, meaning we can stare at a still shot of a teenage girl’s for a few minutes in rapt silence, scanning the frame for the creepy activity. We know the door is going to move. We just know it. We’re staring right at it. And then when it does, it’s still scary. Since you’re constantly looking for ghostly images (and they show up a lot, worry not), you can’t help but feel kind of involved. It’s kind of admirable that a film can give you no real story surprises, but still be entirely tense. When people start levitating, and chandeliers start falling, you’ll be squealing a little.

I also like that Newton plays a 15-year-old girl, and she herself is actually 15. I have seen far too many horror films, or films in general, about teenagers who are played by people who are clearly over the age of 27. Since the 15-year-old is actually 15 in this case, we actually get a stronger and more natural example of the teen ethos. These kids talk like, well, real people. Newton is given an ersatz boyfriend (Matt Shivley), and his transparent come-ons are embarrassingly reminiscent of come-ons I tried myself at that age.

What’s more, the film actually has a theme. The family gets along, but mom and dad clearly don’t like each other anymore. There’s a coldness to it all. Which means we can sandwich in a handy little theme of the explosion of the nuclear family as represented by interlopers, miscommunication, and resentment, all under the ever-watchful eye of the cameras. The camera can see what the family cannot. It’s not terribly sophisticated, but greatly appreciated.

I don’t know if video game systems actually do this, but there’s a creepy effect produced by a system that projects ultraviolet lasers all around a room. Which means, when viewed through a night vision camera, the room looks to be dotted with millions of little green stars. When a person walks through this starfield, it’s spooky.

So, yeah, good and creepy one. Better than a lot of its peers. I can’t comment as to how it grown the Pear and Normal myth, but I can say that it’s a sweet, scary night at the movies.