There's virtually nothing new in the dull "Paranormal Activity 4," except for a modification in the method of documenting the spooky shenanigans. Most of the creepy stuff is recorded via a laptop webcam or video chats instead of a standard video camera.
The "Paranormal" films hinge on the increasingly popular concept of found footage, in which large swaths of the story are presented as a homemade video capturing unseen ghostly events. While the first "Paranormal Activity" in 2007 was fresh and genuinely frightening, the concept has grown stale and gimmicky. In this sloppy installment, some visuals don't even fall within found-footage parameters or adhere to the story's internal logic.
Potential terrors lack originality or are never fully realized. Rather than moving the story forward by fleshing out the ghost story that's been evolving over the previous three films, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman rely on goosing the audience with false scares and bland jolts.
With its nerve-jangling deployment of ordinary household items gone mysteriously awry, the first film was a phenomenon. This time, the things that go bump in the night are run-of-the-mill bangs, clatters, slams and thuds that rarely elicit the jitters, jumps and screams that audiences experienced in the first couple movies.
Fifteen-year-old Alex (Kathryn Newton) lives in a spacious house with her rather disconnected parents and little brother. When Robbie (Brady Allen), a strange little boy living next door, comes to stay with them for a few days, malevolent weirdness ensues. Alex and her pal Ben (Matt Shively) decide to investigate, setting up laptops to record events in several rooms and using motion-sensing equipment with tracking dots and night vision. But some of the images that vaguely emerge seem to lead nowhere, except perhaps to eye strain.
This follow-up feels scattershot and pointless, riding on the coattails of its predecessors. Potentially frightening elements are introduced, then dropped or never fully played out. Once the scares start happening slowly the terror quotient remains muted. A neighborhood witches' coven plays into the proceedings. But it is more silly than fearsome.
The longevity of the "Paranormal Activity" series is keyed to originality. How many times can the filmmakers re-warm the same story? How many times can bodies be violently dragged from their beds until the viewer is inured to the terrifying visuals?
If the folks behind "Paranormal" are intent on churning them out, then the films need to be more imaginative, conjuring up new kinds of scares.
Paranormal Activity 4 is more like Paranormal Stasis.
'Paranormal Activity 4'
Directors rely on false scares and bland jolts for a dull fourth sequel that feels more like "Paranormal Stasis."
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Now open
Rating • R; language and some violence/terror.
Running time • 1 hour 28 minutes.