Friday, October 19, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 Review

Horror movies are not my thing.  I don't like to be scared.  My predilection towards open-mindedness of the various cinematic genres is the impetus for seeing such works.  Of all the horror franchises that I've been exposed to over the years, none have grabbed me (yes, pun intended) as much as the Paranormal Activity saga.  If you've been living under a rock for the last few years, the Paranormal films are found-footage horror/suspense films about a family and the demon that follows them throughout several decades.  While this latest entry into the franchise does some interesting things, it ultimately falls short of the fantastic Paranormal Activity 3.  A quick warning - I'll keep the spoilery bits for the second half of my review - many of the issues I had arose from the content, not execution of the film.

Paranormal Activity 4 is scary.  Maybe not as scary as its predecessors, but still incredibly tense.  The formula is the same as the previous entries; weird stuff starts happening and a member of the family (who no one else really believes) starts documenting the behavior.  Where PA4 differs is in the characters; the film revolves around a new family to the series - a couple with their two kids, Wyatt and Alice.  Their female neighbor is rushed to the hospital one night and her son, Robbie, is sent to live with our protagonists while she recuperates.  Cue scary stuff (that maybe isn't quite as scary as in the previous films).

If you've seen the other films you know what you're getting into.  That said, PA4 does do some interesting things to keep it fresh; the first film featured hand-held cameras on tripods; PA2 predominantly used home-security camera; PA3 used video cassette camcorders on oscillating fans etc; this entry uses built-in webcams on various laptops around the house to capture the strange events.  It makes sense and is a pretty clever way to capture footage all the time.  Granted, handheld camcorders are still used throughout the whole film, but when bad stuff starts happening after 3am we switch to the laptop views.  A Microsoft Kinect (as seen in the trailers) is used quite effectively (if not potentially inaccurately).

Where I mainly take umbrage with PA4 is the narrative.  The acting is terrific (and believably realistic as ever), pacing and tension as gripping as the previous entries, and the use of found-footage engaging and believable.  However, the story just doesn't live up to what I wanted.  I'll save my main complaints for the spoiler section, but the base-level questions that needed to be answered just weren't.  I was left with many more questions than answers.  PA4 does nothing to advance the mythology of this family and their pact with the demon, Toby.  It's really just a shame that certain basic ideas and facts just weren't explored or dealt with.  I understand the constraints of a film of this nature, but there were certainly ways in which my issues could've been addressed.

If you don't want to be spoiled, I suggest you stop here.  If you've seen the previous films and dug em then go see Paranormal Activity 4.  You may be slightly disappointed, but its still a fantastically gripping, tension-riddled horror film.

***Full spoiler warning for the entire Paranormal Activity saga is in effect***

My absolute main beef with PA4 are the characters of Robbie and Wyatt.  Robbie lives across the street from our protagonists with his mom, Katie.  For those of you keeping track at home, Katie was the woman from the first film who was possessed and killed her boyfriend, Micah.  In PA2, she kills her brother-in-law and her sister (after the demon Toby was exercised from their house just days prior) and kidnaps their son, Hunter.  It would seem as though Katie and Hunter relocated to Nevada after the events of 2 (the previous films all took place in California).  When we meet Robbie he's creepy as hell (probably due to the fact that he's bros with Toby).  He strikes up a friendship with "Wyatt," the youngest child of the new family.

It would make complete and obvious sense for "Robbie" to be Hunter, right?  Well wrong.  It turns out that "Wyatt" is actually Hunter; Robbie tells him that his "old family wants him back" - we also see him talking to Toby, insisting that his name isn't Hunter.  It is an oft-mentioned plot point that Wyatt/Hunter is adopted.  If Katie kidnapped Hunter because Toby wanted the first-born male child of the family, why would she give him up for adoption?  It makes no sense.  What would've made complete sense was for Robbie to be Hunter.  It just makes no sense that Katie would give him up for adoption.  She's clearly possessed by Toby during this film, meaning that the adoption bit would be because its what Toby wanted.  Then why would he want that?

In the middle of the film, our two leads, Alice and Alex, begin to research the triangle/circle symbol from PA3.  They discover a three-step process that involves a "preternatural" child; I honestly don't remember all three steps, but sacrificing a virgin was in there somewhere.  If Toby needed a virgin to sacrifice for some ritual with Hunter, why wouldn't they just go to a house with a virgin, kill everyone else, and then sacrifice him/her?  Why let a nice family adopt Hunter, then move in across the street from them, send a creepy kid to live with them, begin f'ing with them, and then ultimately kill them all (including the virgin)?  It just doesn't make sense to me.

Who is Robbie and why is he with Katie?  Only five years have passed between the events in the first and second films to the fourth.  Katie couldn't have conceived and given birth to him in that time; Robbie is around 9 or 10 years old.  The final five minutes of the film are somewhat confusing and frustrating as well; while incredibly (in)tense and terrifying, the final moments left me with virtually no questions answered and raising even more.  Our lead, Alice, is attacked by Toby in her house and flees to find her father, who was over at Katie's place looking for his wife and Wyatt/Hunter.  Alice runs across the street and encounters Katie in full-on demon mode (last seen in the final moments of the first film), busting through a door to get to her.  Alice escapes out a window to find her brother, entranced.  She turns around and in the yard are dozens of creepy-looking women, most likely part of the Coven that Katie's family belongs to.  She turns back to see demon-Katie come at the camera.  Cut to black.

Who were all those ladies?  If they're part of the Coven they sure didn't look like the women we saw at the end of PA3 - those were all older women dressed all in black.  Granted, earlier in the film we did see several of these black-wearing Coven ladies at Katie's house, but these ladies didn't look quite the same.  Plus there were dozens of them.  My assumption is that the whole town is a hub of Coven activity.  Maybe I'm completely wrong.  Who knows?!  It's just incredibly frustrating to have such a thing raised at literally the last possible moment with a potential explanation left for the inevitable sequel.  Plenty of films do this sort of thing, but usually they wrap up their own plotlines before introducing a new one for another film.

Before I wrap this up I feel I need to bring up the use of the Microsoft Kinect.  The Kinect is a motion-tracking peripheral that you use in conjunction with an Xbox 360 to play certain motion-controlled games.  The Kinect projects infrared tracking dots onto the environment so as to track movement.  Many times throughout the film, when the lights are off, the tracking dots are displayed and picked up via night-vision on a webcam.  And its pretty damn cool.  The dots allow us to see a child-like demon in several scenes (also, there are now multiple demons?  In one scene, Wyatt/Hunter is talking to Toby while this smaller demon creeps up behind him) and is just fun to watch.  The problem is that (as far as I know) the Kinect only functions when the 360 is on.  This means that this family leaves their Xbox running 24/7.  First off, that's just bad for the console.  Second, 360's auto-shutdown after a certain amount of inactivity.  Unless the Kinect still projects the tracking dots even when the system is off, this is a gross inaccuracy on the filmmaker's part.

The issues that arise from the Wyatt/Hunter situation keep Paranormal Activity 4 from surpassing its fantastic predecessor.  While I was on the edge of my seat for the duration of the film, I still feel that PA4 is lacking just a bit in the actual scare department.  There are maybe two moments that really, truly frightened me.  The rest of the time I was just moderately frightened.  As I said before, if you liked the previous films, then you'll probably enjoy this one on some level - it just doesn't do anything to garner new viewers.

Paranormal Activity 4 is still incredibly thrilling/chilling/intense, even if it doesn't quite live up to the previous films in the franchise.

The Bearded Bullet.

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