Mockumentary filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) know a thing or two about misdirecting an audience, as they proved again with 2011’s “Paranormal Activity 3.” Together with returning screenwriter Christopher Landon, this time around they seem short on new ideas, however, relying more on the series’ reputation for low-budget thrills to attract audiences. Regardless, by now Paramount’s franchise is a brand unto itself, and it’s unlikely that anything will stop the first few waves of fans boosting “Paranormal Activity 4” up the chart until at least through Halloween.
Quickly recapping with flashbacks and documentary-style introductory cards the conclusion of “Paranormal Activity 2,” when in a prequel to 2007’s original film Katie (Katie Featherston) killed her sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and abducted her nephew Hunter (William Juan Prieto), the current version jumps ahead to 2011, relocating the action from California to Nevada and introducing an entirely new family. Teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton), her 6-year-old brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) and their parents (Stephen Dunham and Alexondra Lee) live a typical middle-class suburban life, even if they think their neighbors across the street — single mother Katie and her young son Robbie (Brady Allen) — are a bit of an odd pair.
After Katie is unexpectedly and mysteriously admitted to the hospital for some unknown illness, Alex’s mom inexplicably offers to take Robbie in while his mother is recovering. Alex soon begins to notice strange events coincident with Robbie’s arrival, while the young visitor’s insinuations increasingly draw Wyatt away from her. Other family members also begin to clue into the strange goings-on, with mysterious sounds, shifting furniture and alarmingly animated household objects suggesting something is seriously amiss.
With the help of her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), Alex sets up the family’s home video cameras and laptops to record Robbie’s late-night wanderings and vaguely sinister activities around the house. As Alex becomes more convinced that some evil presence is seeking her out, the mysterious forces behind Robbie’s visit become more assertive, squarely threatening the family’s survival while inexorably tracking back to the earlier abduction of Hunter.
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By now the basis of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, concerning Katie’s possession by a demonic force that results in a series of malevolently haunted houses, is well-known to those who care to follow each new iteration. The fourth installment adds little new information while playing out the inevitably unpleasant outcomes that await the characters, preferring to recycle plot elements from previous films.
Fairly mild in tone and riffing — if not quite ripping — off a collection of horror classics that includes “The Shining,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Poltergeist,” the franchise’s premise and its execution nevertheless remain rudimentary, with the narrative and character backstories representing more of a sketch than a fully realized vision of the supernatural world that Katie inhabits.
Although Newton and Shively are likable enough in their roles as the sleuthing teens, the other performances remain perfunctory overall. Laptop webcams and camera phones are substituted for the earlier video-surveillance cams, but little has changed visually in the style of the filmmakers’ alternation of static and frantic hand-held shots, mixed with a surfeit of distracting closeups.
Asymmetrically framed scenes, staccato editing techniques and oppressive ambient sound (and the ominous lack of a score) are substituted for any real narrative development, leaving a plot essentially consisting of a series of setups followed by frightening payoffs. Weak attempts to introduce a smattering of satanic symbology are belatedly superfluous. It’s just such lack of creative investment that inevitably leads to further sequels, if a theatrical audience can actually be sustained going forward.