1 out of 5
Directed by: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Wow, this is some bold barrel-bottom scraping. Which I’m not using to describe a lazily made film, or one without committed actors doing the requisite shrieking and disbeliving and acting spooked, rather just how straight to the “this is what you came for, eh?” point the movie is, ditching much need for justifying its story or establishing characters, and getting right to the by-now-established PA formula of POV camerawork, showing us night-time footage and making us wait for something to jump out, and a buildup of lil’ cutesy scares until someone can get dragged and / or thrown at the camera. Like, this is absolutely the Paranormal Activity equivalent of any late-entry horror franchise; the fact that the series isn’t a slasher or celebrated for its inventive kills doesn’t separate it from that fate.
While this is all very apparent, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost surely do the task for which they’ve been paid, perhaps trying to course correct from some of the more overt scares in PA 3 to the more subdued vibe of the original, but we’re lacking the comparatively organic combination of story exposition and spooks, so it’s very much just a waiting game for whatever’s going to happen, without any hooks to keep us invested in the featured family. Rather, just hit the beats: mention Hunter, mention the coven, insert a warning about the demon / ghost not liking being recorded so we have a “reason” for amping things up. In the meantime, flash occasional title cards for each night, and try to come up with new spins on moving one pixel on the screen. To wit: a Kinect device, show in night vision with all of its tracking dots splayed on those being filmed – that’s our flick’s newest invention.
In PA4, we’re given the preamble about Katie and Hunter, and then some years later, there’s a spooky kid and a single mom living across the street from the Nelsons, hint hint, and Alex Nelson (Kathryn Newton) is now of the age and era where filming yourself all the time is just, like, the norm, so that’s an easy-in for the PA team. …Kinda. I like that Landon, having been involved in the writing of several of these, has maintained some story consistency (even if it plays a little loose with some of the Whys), but as mentioned above, we’re setting the in-universe justification for the existence of this footage way at the bottom, because even always-be-recording teens might not drag their laptop along with them, facing the camera out, because that’s convenient, when going to explore a spooky sound. And the various web cams / cameras Alex and her boyfriend (Matt Shively) set up around the house to capture the creepy antics of that next door neighbor kid (Brady Allen), who’s come to stay while his mother’s away, then give us the needed rotating views, and cue the rest.
There’s just so little to that “rest.” Katie and Micah may’ve been a somewhat obnoxious couple in PA1, but they felt real. The family in PA2 – Katie’s sister’s – were actually more likeable overall, and again maintained that reality. PA3, while dropping the ball in trying to expand the story and keep the shtick going, still had some engaging human beings to at least fuel the first part of the movie. But here, the family is fake, just a prop for the scares. Newton and others are convincing enough, but the whole thing is too much a self-perpetuating sequel churn, and there’s only so much originality you can eke out of a Kinect camera.