Paranormal Activity 4 is by far the most rote instalment in the Paranormal Activity franchise thus far. By this point in the series, the found footage conceit is already difficult enough to swallow, but the biggest sin perpetuated by the flick is that it wastes the opportunity to start providing answers. As a matter of fact, it raises more questions than it answers. It's interesting to watch Paranormal Activity 4 to see where Katie and Hunter end up, but the filmmakers fail to do anything worthwhile with the idea, instead wasting time on an illogical story and focusing solely on the franchise's meat and potato elements. By this point in the series, we need loose ends to be tied up and for niggling questions to be addressed, but returning directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, as well as veteran screenwriter Christopher Landon, seem to want to drag their feet for as long as possible, clearly running out of inspiration and motivation as they milk the franchise for everything it's worth. To the credit of Joost and Schulman, there are a few well-implemented moments of horror to be found here, but nothing in the film is as effective as the best moments in the 2007 original.
Set in November 2011, five years after the events of the first film, the story picks up in Henderson, Nevada, where 15-year-old Alex (Newton) maintains a regular suburban life with her family. Just across the street lives a mysterious young boy named Robbie (Brady Allen), who intrigues Alex and her sort-of boyfriend Ben (Shively). When Robbie's mother is rushed away to hospital, Alex's parents Doug (Dunham) and Holly (Lee) agree to take care of Robbie for a few days, believing he'll make fast friends with their young son Wyatt (Lovekamp). But not long after Robbie's arrival, strange and inexplicable things begin to occur, prompting Alex to set up recording devices around her house to provide 24-hour surveillance. As the hauntings escalate, Alex finds herself trying to convince her mum and dad that something wicked is going on.
It is impossible to properly assess the narrative of Paranormal Activity 4 without delving into what some may consider to be spoiler territory. You have been warned.
A big issue with Paranormal Activity 4 is that, from a narrative standpoint, it fundamentally makes no sense. Since the first film, Katie's fate has been a huge question mark which wasn't addressed in the second or third film. 4 sets out to show what happened to Katie after kidnapping Hunter, but the execution is idiotic. See, as it turns out, Alex's adopted brother Wyatt is actually the kidnapped infant Hunter, and Robbie's "mother" Katie (Featherston) - who moves into the house across the street from Alex - ostensibly wants to retrieve him throughout the film. But how does Hunter, despite being a kidnapped child, end up being legally adopted? Why would Katie let this happen if she wants him back in the first place? How does Katie manage to find a house right across the street from Hunter? How can Katie so openly navigate around the country despite being a wanted fugitive? What is Robbie's purpose, and who is he? The whole set-up is appallingly mapped out and riddled with holes. Maybe the demon wanted an innocent Hunter at a later age and thus let him be adopted by another family, but why, then, did he choose to kill Hunter's birth-parents in the first place? One assumes that some of this stuff may be addressed in future sequels, but I wouldn't get your hopes up - we still have questions from the first film that were never addressed.
It doesn't help that Alex's parents are some of the daftest idiots to grace the big screen in 2012. No matter what Alex tells her mum and dad, they pay no attention to her, or take any action. Doug is the biggest idiot, because he experiences the unexplainable supernatural occurrences first-hand but does nothing about it, and doesn't even tell his wife. Later in the movie, Alex records the unmistakable sight of an unseen force tormenting her, while at the same time her cameras around the house capture someone wandering around. But while Alex has memory cards and hard-drives to prove that a demonic force is present, she apparently doesn't bother to show her parents the footage, and they seem unusually cool about the whole incident. Furthermore, it makes no sense for Robbie to come stay with a family of complete strangers while his mother is in hospital. It doesn't add up.
With a more modern setting, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) had a larger array of sources to tell this story through documentary-style footage. The characters here employ laptop webcams, video chats, cell phones and more traditional video cameras, following the formula set by its predecessors but giving it an intriguing modern twist. But Paranormal Activity 4 lacks good scary moments, as it mostly relies on cheap jump-scares which will not get under anyone's skin. The spine-chilling final few minutes are admittedly spectacular, but everything else - a chandelier or a knife falling, and characters playing pranks to scare each other - are predictable and silly. And, disappointingly, there is no intoxicating feeling of pure dread permeating the proceedings.
One thing which does work in Paranormal Activity 4 is new leading actor Kathryn Newton. The 15-year-old actress is incredibly cute, and she's such a natural presence on-screen. Newton's performance seems so effortless and lived-in, with her warm, vivacious demeanour making her a believable and ideal protagonist. Also solid is Matt Shively as Alex's boy interest, Ben. Playing a smarmy teen, Shively is a hilarious scene stealer, giving this reviewer a character to actually latch onto. The younger children are equally impressive, with a skin-crawling Brady Allen as Robbie, and Aiden Lovekamp who excellently handles the multiple layers of Wyatt's character.
Paranormal Activity 4's storyline fails to progress the overall mythology of the series in any way. Hell, the entire movie could have been condensed into a 10-minute prologue for a proper sequel. Clearly, the studio heads want to keep milking this thing, but this series seriously needs to stop beating around the bush. The Paranormal Activity franchise should have remained a trilogy in this reviewer's humble opinion. The first two were solid companion pieces, with the second film justifying itself as more than just a cash-grab. The trilogy would have been perfect if only the third film shed further light on Katie's troubled family history. But with this fourth film done and a fifth on the way, we're firmly into franchise milking territory, with the makers wasting as many films as possible to generate maximum profits.