Starring Katie Featherston, Kathryn Newton. Written by Christopher Landon. Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. 14A. 88 min.
Nothing in Paranormal Activity 4 is as clever as the scene in its predecessor where ghost-hunting suburbanites affix a camcorder to an oscillating fan base to create DIY tracking shots of their living room. That little bit of innovation was the franchise’s greatest stylistic flourish to date—ironically, in a film set way back in 1988.
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s film fiddles with webcams and showcases the Xbox Kinect, but it’s all for naught. The technology is fresh but the underlying strategy is stale. In this installment, banally candid amateur footage of a family gives way to increasingly tense nighttime tableauxs patrolled by hidden phantoms who slowly open doors and rustle sheets—standard operating procedure for the ghouls, and the filmmakers.
At the beginning of the series (way back in 2007) the less-is-more approach was the genre equivalent of killing ’em softly (especially compared to Saw’s gore-mongering). By this point, it’s become redundant. And the decision to try to account for the uncanny goings-on through an ever more elaborate, franchise-spanning plotline—centred on the original film’s sweatpants-wearing demon-receptacle Katie (Katie Featherston)—has had diminishing returns. Paranormal Activity 4 has a genuinely appealing teenaged protagonist (Kathryn Newton), and the characters tend to respond to the spookiness around them more plausibly than most horror-movie morons. But that scarcely matters when we suspect that they’re all just grist for the mill, and that the filmmakers are going to continue to obfuscate the ultimate motives of the supernatural antagonists so as to keep an ace in the hole for the next run-through, which should arrive, like all assembly-line products, right on schedule this time next year.