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Wednesday
Oct242012

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Kinect Four

The latest pit stop in mankind's race towards the singularity, Paranormal Activity 4 asks the question, "How far can a studio push video-game product placement in a feature film before the lines between the two media completely disappear?" For years, movies have adapted video game storylines, and video games have been adapted from films, but the fourth entry in the bizarrely popular hand-held-horror franchise takes both ideas a step further: the X-Box Kinect is such a key part of PA4's forward momentum and scares that I was surprised the audience wasn't handed controllers and required to stand up halfway through the screening.

The danger, of course, is that the movie is so goddamned boring I suspect anyone compelled to move would just head for the nearest available exit.

A week ago, I called myself a fan of this series. The original bothered me for a week after seeing it;* the second was utter garbage until the last five minutes; and the third pulled off a bona fide miracle by not only being a solid prequel, but also the capper to a horror trilogy that didn't completely suck. Up to that point, I thought pretty highly of the Paranormal Activity franchise. They weren't the greatest movies ever, but there were more than enough surprises and rolling secrets to keep me coming back for more.

That's all behind me now, as screenwriter Christopher Landon and co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have announced to the world that they are firmly in the Franchise Business. The quality drop-off from the last film to the latest one is so severe in every respect that PA4 feels either like a direct-to-video sequel or a first film that can only be improved upon by sequels.

Unlike the previous movies, this one focuses on teenagers. And, yes, that is a knock on teenagers. Unless you're making a dead-teenager movie (like Friday the 13th), which exists solely to watch obnoxious kids get creatively murdered, it's a really bad idea to place them front and center. This is especially true of modern teens, whose self-obsessed, inconsequential OMG-speak is only tolerable for seconds at a time (PA4's protagonist actually says, "TTYL"** to her kinda-boyfriend at one point). In this case, the offenses are especially egregious because the movie is ninety minutes of idiots talking into Web cams and yelling at their parents. I'd be inclined to ignore my daughter, too, if she scream-whined about ghosts every time I walked in the door.

The studio and filmmakers are obviously pandering to their key demo now--I suspect because the adults who once took these movies seriously have learned their lesson from the Saw pictures and resolved to Redbox the rest. This means catering to a group of unformed people who have no problem paying seven or ten dollars to sit in a theatre and talk, text, yell at the screen, or do anything but follow complex storylines. This is why the sinister mythology of the first three movies is rehashed and carelessly jumbled here, rather than expounded upon.

If you care about such things, beware of massive spoilers ahead.

At the end of the second film, Katie (Angela Featherston) murders her sister and brother-in-law and kidnaps their infant son, Hunter (William Juan Pietro). Possessed by the demon that plagued her and her fiancé in part one, she walks off with the little boy to fulfill a curse placed on her family by a centuries-old coven of witches.

Make sense? Nope? Strap in...

Part four opens with Katie and her "son" Robbie (Brady Allen) moving into a new neighborhood five years later. Katie is mysteriously hospitalized, and Robbie goes to live with a family across the street. He befriends Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) and creeps out Wyatt's older sister, Alex (Kathryn Newton). Not long after the strange little boy shows up, creepy things start happening, and Alex calls upon her would-be boyfriend/Shia LaBeouf stand-in, Ben (Matt Shively), to rig every laptop in the house to record all the..paranormal activity.***

Ben even sets the X-Box Kinect to display thousands of motion-tracking dots, resulting in a neat visual gag that is used repeatedly to show that (Gasp!) the characters are never alone--even when they're ostensibly by themselves.

The trouble is that neither teen makes an effort to show their parents the truly creepy things happening in the house. Sure, they share footage of weird shadows crossing the screen early on. But when the butcher knife darts into the air during dinner prep and Wyatt's tricycle drives itself around the kitchen, our fresh-faced, dimwitted heroes stay mum. By the time they decide to have a look at what's going on, the invisible demon Toby has already begun his murderous rampage.

Let's talk about Toby. Introduced by name in, I believe, part two, he is the unseen, malevolent force that pulls sheets off of sleeping victims, stomps angrily up stairs, and tosses bodies around like rag dolls during each film's climax. Based on the fact that everyone he encounters looks up at him, we're led to believe he's a giant. Which begs the question: what's with the wiry little alien dude who shows up in the Kinect sequences? In a couple of scenes, Wyatt goes down to the living room and talks to Toby in a field of green lights. Pay close attention, and you can see the form of what looks like one of Whitley Strieber's gray creatures sneaking up behind him.

What is that?

For that matter, what is Toby? Is he a monster? A pet of the witch's coven? A body-jumping possessor of people? Sadly, the answer appears to be "All of the Above". The Paranormal Activity franchise had successfully maintained its villain's mystery, but with the appearance of this new form in part four, the filmmakers lay bare their spaghetti-against-the-wall approach to myth-building.

For more proof, look no further than the mid-film twist, where where we learn that Robbie is not, in fact Hunter--Wyatt is. Huh? This implies that Katie abducted her nephew; gave him up for adoption (or lost him somehow); took in another little boy; and then used him to lure Hunter back into her clutches after five years. The moment where Toby reveals Wyatt's true identity is creepy, interesting, and completely undone two seconds later because it makes zero sense.

It's about time to wrap this up, which, unfortunately, means talking about those teens again. These movies are known for their slow burns and intense endings, and part four has all that in spades--except this time, the "burn" is more like a yawn, and the ending is literally a combination of the previous three films' climaxes: hapless idiots' necks are snapped; a child is kidnapped; Katie turns into a demon-faced harpy and charges the camera; and the lone survivor stumbles upon a coven of witches in the middle of a late-night ritual (the key difference is that the number of women is cartoonishly large--I'm talking Sgt. Pepper's-album-cover large).

The ending's only surprise is the way in which we're led to it: the laptop camera in Alex's bedroom captures Toby dragging her violently into the hallway. In the next moment, we see the front lawn from the point of view of Alex's hand-held camera, which she apparently thought to grab after having somehow escaped the heretofore inescapable demon. She frantically runs across the street to save Wyatt and her father (don't ask), and manages to record everything that happens with the unwavering stance and professionalism of a Cops cameraman--instead of, say, someone who's on a rescue mission.

Thanks to Paranormal Activity 4, the series can be officially diagnosed with "Reverse Star Trek Syndrome"--meaning that the odd-numbered films are pretty good, but the even ones are beyond awful. It's sad, too, because this movie is very well made. I have no problem with the acting, editing, camerawork, or creepy atmospherics. But the script is generic, confused, and obsessed with annoying characters, making the whole experience impossible to Kinect with (sorry). The cash-grabbing is so cynical at this point that I have no faith in the just-greenlit fifth installment's ability to even be watchable.

Yes, stick around for PA4's post-credits stinger (which I did not), and you'll witness the setup for the also-just-greenlit Hispanic version of Paranormal Activity. You see, in addition to teenagers (who looove video games), those wizardly Hollywood demographers have discovered that the franchise's next largest target audience is Latinos. Don't worry, though, I'm sure the studio will settle for nothing less than the best possible story to wow those opening-weekend screenings. Though, much like Toby, I doubt you'll see me there.

*Though that probably has a lot to do with my having not seen it in a theatre packed with shrieking idiots.

**That stands for "talk to you later"--which really does need abbreviating, if you think about it.

***This place has more laptops than family members.

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