Characters waving around unsteady cameras have become so common that found footage films are often dismissed before they are released. It’s been a long time since the likes of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and even the original Paranormal Activity. Found footage films are moving into other genres with the successes of films like Chronicle and horror films that use the technique (hello Apollo 18 and The Devil Inside) are getting increasingly bad reviews. However, the Paranormal Activity franchise marches on every Halloween with a new entry in the series and a new character that refuses to drop their camera even in the face of terrifying supernatural events.
Like the Final Destination franchise before it, the Paranormal Activities work best in a crowded cinema. Audiences get familiar with how these films work very quickly. They sit with their breath held waiting for the shock, the jump or the vicious death scene. There is a collective scream and then everyone giggles nervously and uncontrollably for the next few minutes as we wait for the next tension-building scene. The good news is Paranormal Activity 4 succeeds where its predecessors similarly achieved their single-minded purpose; to scare people silly with supernatural shenanigans.
Following on from the events of Paranormal Activity 1-3, it sees the return of Katie (Katie Featherston) after she became a possessed psycho in the events of the first two films. Five years after she abducted baby Hunter at the end of Paranormal Activity 2, Katie and the young boy, now named Robbie and decidedly creepy, are now living across the street from fifteen year old Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her family. Luckily for viewers, Alex is another character that loves nothing more than to film everything around her, chat to her boyfriend on a web-cam and thinks it is a good idea to set up cameras in every room to capture evidence of mysterious middle of the night commotions. When Katie apparently gets taken to hospital, Robbie comes to stay with Alex and her family. Her little brother and Robbie become friends and that’s when things start to get creepy.While there are many moments that border on boring, with repetition really kicking in during this fourth instalment, there are still enough spooks, jumps, surprises and innovations to keep the franchise feeling frequently fresh. Cats, loud noises and pranks played on kids all get used to make the audience leap from their seats. Some innovation comes in the technology that is used in the film. Expanding on the handy-cams, security cams and cams on rotating fans of the previous instalments, Paranormal Activity 4 has a range of web-cams being used to film the thrills. The XBOX Kinect is unsubtly advertised, but effectively utilised in an inventive way to create more bottom-clenching tension.
Computer generated effects can ruin horror and be the death of a scary movie, but the subtle CGI used here is only glimpsed quickly towards the end and makes for a nightmarish vision that will give you as many sleepless nights as the original film in the series did. There are some neat effects throughout the film with mysterious shapes glimpsed through the eye and sensors of the Kinect, characters being lifted and thrown and dangerous objects hanging precariously in unsafe places.
With found footage horror, it all comes down to those mad dashes as the audience is put right in the point of view of a terrified character running for their lives, turning to find all sorts of horrors hiding right behind them. And in that, the film does not disappoint. New heroine Alex gets to run, scream and smash car windows. She faces the terrors of imaginary friends, ghostly goings-on and a sinister coven all while nobly carrying a camera around so that we can share in the action. Directors of Paranormal Activity 3, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) return for another instalment and while often repeating themselves, also manage to bring enough innovation to maintain attention. The mid-section does start to flag as endless sequences of static cameras capturing rooms with characters not doing much start to frustrate more than fill with dread. It is a shame that more time could not be spent getting a bit more from the mythology and developing this world that has been created, but not much expanded, over four films now. However, after biding their time, they sure do bring the goods when it comes to the electrifying climax.
Expect to see popcorn flying, people looking every which way but towards the screen, holding each other tightly and covering their frightened faces. The sound of the cinema will be filled with uneasy laughter, shrieks, howls and finally screams as the film builds to its terrifying finale. The last five minutes are a breathless shaky-cam assault on the senses; so frightening and immediate that you will be heavy breathing long into the end credits. Everything that has worked so well in the other films is recycled by the end, but those final minutes are guaranteed to leave you shaking.
Paranormal Activity 4 is out now in cinemas.