Been There, SAW That: Is Paranormal a Fatigued Franchise?
A Film Review of Paranormal Activity 4
By: Lawrence Napoli
I used to be a big believer in the Paranormal Activity franchise because the first film presented a unique take on the haunting genre by melding it with the visual style of “found footage.” The second film really expanded on this story’s mythos in its attempts to dig up the family history of the Katie and Kristi sisters. Then the third film came along and took a step back to revisit the literal past of the sisters as pre-teens that basically confirmed everything that the second film postulated. This brings us to the present day and Paranormal Activity 4 which certainly delivers some new tricks to the trade of visual effects and “authentic” surveillance footage, but grinds the progression of the overall story to a screeching halt. Evil sister Katie is still up to no good with a child we presume is Hunter who both happen to be set up in a brand new neighborhood and the audience will never be told or shown how or why. It is clear that the Paranormal franchise has resolved itself to max profits by saturating its sequels with fluff; not entirely unlike a certain Saw franchise that deployed 6 sequels that declined in quality yet were dirt-cheap to produce.
So mom, we totally got weird things happening around here.
Writer Chad Feehan joins PA veteran Christopher Landon in scribing a tale that makes no real attempt to connect to the narrative established in any of the previous films. Simply carrying over the primary antagonist and dropping her in a completely new environment with no explanation how she got there is confusing to anyone who is familiar with the saga. Sure enough, series mainstays like authentic and believable dialogue in addition to unassuming yet ever-threatening environments play to this film’s strengths, but none of it stands on its own as we’ve all seen this before. It is so easy for horror franchises to fall into the whole auto-tuned, remix trap because to a large extent, the audience secretly covets the predictability as well as the same old gags that got people hooked in the first place (although the allure of mailing-it-in on the creativity front is perhaps more seductive). The franchise fatigue of been-there/SAW-that shows at the box office as PA4’s money total is way behind its predecessor’s sales. Needless to say, the much coveted word of mouth praise for these types of thrifty horror films isn’t there primarily because the story just isn’t there.
I'm used to appearing in other people's houses.
I don’t mean to take anything away from the neat ideas the writers and directors came up with to keep the presentation of this film somewhat fresh. Instead of camcorders, the protagonists rely on cell phones and laptop webcams to provide the handheld and static perspectives of the twisted events surrounding yet another seemingly innocent suburban family. Once again the visual effects of ghostly apparitions and surprise scares are integrated seamlessly by effects supervisor Eddie Pasquarello. Without question, the highlight of this film (effect-wise) is any scene that features the night vision exposed motion tracking dots of the Xbox Kinect in the family room. Even scenes where nothing actually happens are creepy enough to heighten the suspense of the moment which primes the audience for very decent chills when something does.
I guess demons can enjoy Just Dance 4 like the rest of us.
Horror films traditionally do not feature award winning performances and guess what? Paranormal Activity 4 isn’t breaking that trend any time soon. Of course, the very format of this film doesn’t exactly give any actor the opportunity to succeed. Seldom is the case that anyone is in front of the camera long enough for the audience to read into the character’s expressions or emotions. Often is the case where the actors are asked to do absolutely nothing during a scene in order to build suspense. The entire cast does its job by presenting a well off, suburban family that isn’t entirely close, but not coming apart at the seams either. The one standout has to be the young actress Kathryn Newton’s performance as the older sister, Alex because she happens to be featured more often than any other member of the cast. Clearly, she is a very attractive girl that maintains the burden of making any kind of connection to the audience by conveying sheer terror and/or concern in what her character experiences. Yes, PA4 continues to promote the significance of female characters over males (once again, a jerk of a boyfriend is featured in Matt Shively’s rendition of Ben).
Why are all children creepy and evil in these movies!?
Let’s not mince words: Paranormal Activity 4 is another fun little “found footage” horror flick, but clearly a step in the wrong direction of franchise fatigue. The audience is clamoring for a new perspective on this tiring formula. For instance: who is collecting all this footage to designate the respective nights where “incidents” occur? Where are the police amidst all these unexplained murders all these years? If the K&K sisterly coven is real, is there no entity of holy and/or paranormal police to deal with these malevolent groups? There is so much potential to warp the Paranormal formula to truly do the unexpected and feature a brand new perspective on these events which would revitalize the narrative and actually justify another sequel. A fifth Paranormal Activity has been confirmed for next year in addition to a spinoff that will feature a Latin flavor to it. Expanding the brand name is good so long as the fundamentals of fiction are being adhered to. However, if remixing, retooling and rebooting is the engine of expansion, the audience will be sure to send a clear and expedient message that the “same old” isn’t worth anyone’s time or money.