Paranormal Activity 4 is the latest instalment in a franchise of cheaply made mass-marketed movies that have lined the pockets of producers who chanced upon the holy grail of license-to-print-money filmmaking. Not only does the target audience expect low-fi production values, they’d be outraged if they didn’t get ’em.
In a series that has scored big by merging the voyeuristic simplicity of Big Brother with the supernatural creepiness of The Blair Witch Project, an SFX-heavy sequel to 2007’s no-frills Paranormal Activity featuring name actors and interesting sets would constitute a cut-and-dry case of heresy, akin to taking the old blokes from The Muppets off the balcony and having them do the cha-cha or rewriting Waiting for Godot so Godo arrives, refreshed and well-showered, in time for the beginning of act two.
In PA4 perky 15-year-old Alex (Kathryn Newton) sets up laptops with webcams in virtually every room of her affluent family’s house to capture evidence of a malevolent spirit.
She also maintains the ‘found footage’ tradition of running around with a camera and recording the most traumatic moments of her life with an occasional “yep, I’m filming everything for no particular reason” line of dialogue thrown in for good measure. Alex has a boyfriend, a mum, dad, young brother and a young brother’s friend who moves in and brings some very bad vibes with him.
For a long time — at least the first half hour, and, actually, virtually the entire damn movie — pretty much nothing happens. Alex and her beau bum around, film each other, then creep themselves out by studying home footage for weird looking shadows and flashes of movement.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman take us well past the point of exploring how DIY digital feeds into the record-and-share-everything phenomenon, into the culture of instant rewind and re-watch; the reexamining of digital footprints almost as soon as they’ve been stamped in the cyber sand.
Somewhere, right now, a teenager is looking at PA4 on their laptop, rewinding the bits when the characters rewind bits they record on their laptops, and if the real-life teen records themselves doing that, you got yourself some crazy-meta action, right there.
But nothing ambitious is on the menu here. Joost and Schulman stick to the Paranormal Activity formula, which has lost whatever (rapidly waning) oomph it had in the previous three installments.
The screenplay (by Christopher Landon, who has helped write every PA sequel and is currently working on Untitled Paranormal Activity Spin-off, whatever that is) missed out on the golden opportunity of adding social media to the framework, which might have helped the film approach something vaguely resembling fresh territory.
Get some critical distance and the premise of this perverted franchise smacks as something somewhat audacious: a series of movies depicting rich Americans either doing nothing or watching themselves doing nothing, with a handful of flash-in-the-pan oogie boogies sprinkled on top.
PA4 highlights the absurdity of sitting through a sparse trashy thriller. This is the waiting game on steroids, if only it had the energy — the audience sitting, hoping, cupping proverbial hands for a dollop of excitement. A sort of ongoing state of anticipation, a constant look to the not-too-distant future, before momentary gratification arrives like a souvlaki after a bender, and the process resets itself.
Parnormal Activity 4’s Australian theatrical release date: October 18, 2012.