THIS TIME on Torments’ 2Spooky4U Halloween Month, we look at the fourth entry in a beached whale of a horror franchise. Why the fourth? It was the one on Netflix.
If I had to choose, I would choose found-footage to be my least favourite sub-genre of a genre. Ostensibly born from the cloying monotony of The Blair Witch Project, found-footage’s recent explosion in popularity has provided film-makers with the excuse they needed to make cynical exploitation flicks on a shoestring budget. Paranormal Activity was the source of that boom, and it went on to become the most profitable film of all time (taken as return on investment). I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment, but if it’s anything like the sleazy cynicism of its third sequel then I can only struggle to understand the appeal of this series.
Paranormal Activity 4 is interminably boring, let’s get that out of the way. Anchoring itself to the found-footage gimmick, it also showcases the cardinal sin of the entire movement: Who is editing this footage of this boring family and why is it so boring? Who is this for, in-universe? Neither question is answered. When the feed on the disparate laptops, CCTV and, hilariously, the Microsoft Kinect™ (which is totally sick cool by the way!) abruptly snaps to black, no obvious reason for the cut is given. This happens at least 12 times, and their insertion seems to be a handy marker for television broadcasters trying to figure out where to put the adverts.
The other cuts are also arbitrary, with characters suddenly teleporting from one side of the room to the other in a single cut, the timer in the corner of the camera feed indicating a handful of seconds have passed. Is this meant to counter ADHD? I don’t know, but I found myself being thrown out of the film every few seconds due to the jarring, overbearing and fundamentally cinematic conceit of these edits. If we’re meant to invest in the tedious plight of this privileged middle-class family, constantly drawing attention to the artificiality of the motion picture as a medium is not the way to go about it. Switching between long, static shots of empty rooms doesn’t help either.
But Paranormal Activity 4 isn’t merely boring – it’s fascinatingly boring. Beyond the bizarre editing decisions, the film’s idea of building tension is watching someone walk slowly through a room from a static angle, only for someone else to open the door in sudden fashion. This is not merely a jump-scare, the laziest and most effective method of eliciting mass startles from an audience; it’s a fake jump-scare, a cheap trick that’s so hopelessly mundane and unimaginative that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman include them constantly.
What makes this strangely engrossing is the act of anticipation. (‘Tension’ is not applicable, so ‘anticipation’ is the next best thing.) Joost and Schulman know we’re expecting a jump-scare, you see, so 80% of the time, when this false anticipation rises, absolutely nothing will happen. Precisely because we expect there to be a shadowy penumbra monster in frame when the fridge door closes, there won’t be one. It’s impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen but it’s impossible to tolerate the boredom; it’s a Catch-22, and I must say I’ve never witnessed such a feat in all my years of watching films.
This would be fine-ish if Paranormal Activity 4 wasn’t reminding us of far superior films every ten minutes or so. The most egregious is a homage to The Shining where youngster Wyatt (Aiden Lovecamp) rides around the house on a tricycle wearing an embarrassing jumper. At least this is a flash-in-the-plan reference though; young Wyatt and creepy neighbour Robbie (Brady Allen) also appear in several scenes where they talk to the Microsoft Kinect™ at 3AM, in a corporate-sponsored rendition of Poltergeist.
Those aforementioned horrors built tension and dread through music, lighting, atmosphere and performances. Paranormal Activity 4 has none of these qualities (with one exception), but it’s perfectly content to appropriate iconic imagery for the audience’s recognition, if not the content of what made those images iconic in the first place. In all fairness, they’re probably throwaway references the film-makers included for a laugh and for the audience to have a laugh, but a film of this nature should be trying to inspire similar iconography for films 30 years down the line.
What is Paranormal Activity 4’s lasting contribution to the horror genre? Providing us with a rare child actor (Brady Allen) who is, by far, the highlight of the film and consistently out-acts the older performers? “Pioneering” the use of video chat as a vehicle for found-footage? The promise of future feature-length advertisements for Microsoft Kinect™? At least one of them has reached its logical conclusion, but the fact remains that no one who has seen this film will be able to remember a single thing about it. I can’t, and I watched it yesterday.
Perhaps I’m doing the film a disservice – Paranormal Activity and its peers are designed, some might say manufactured, to be viewed in a cinema, surrounded by a hundred or so other people who actively participate by the means of startled yelps or stifled yawns. Part of why I seem so listless in this review is because Paranormal Activity 4 was an exhausting experience. It’s still more engaging than The Blair Witch Project, but it only proves that found-footage had a long way to go in 2012. In 2016, it still does.
Writer’s Note: As an addendum, I was stunned to find, during my hilariously brief cursory reading on the film and its history, that Paranormal Activity 4 cost an inexplicable $5 million. Also, Blumhouse produced it, so I should have expected mind-numbing tedium on the back of a played-out premise.