Paranormal Activity 4 has done what no other Paranormal Activity has accomplished before it: made me root for the death of this horror franchise. It's criminally boring and horribly stupid. And I love these movies. I love the shtick, love the sisters — hell, I even love the stupid name they gave the demon in the third film (Toby). These movies were always good for one or two deeply terrifying scares.
Sadly, Paranormal Activity 4 is merely a giant ad for Xbox Kinect. Spoilers ahead.
The most surprising thing about PA4 is that it was also directed by Catfish duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The very same pair behind Paranormal Activity 3 — which was fantastic. Their work on PA3 refreshed the series, with slow-burn scares and a new crop of clever characters you really wanted to root for. So what the heck happened in PA4? Has the demon-caught-on-tape well run dry? Not necessarily. These guys proved in the third film that the "found footage" style could stay interesting, by adding interesting characters, innovative scares and fleshing out the demonic motivations. But there's nothing new in the fourth installment... besides the aforementioned Xbox Kinect.
PA4 takes place a few years after the second movie. Katie (now possessed by the demon) has killed her husband, sister and sister's husband, and fled with their kid Hunter. Katie (now with a new name) and her creepy little kid Robbie have resurfaced in a new town with new names. But this film is from the POV of Katie's next-door neighbors, specifically the high school girl Alex. Which means all of this movie's video is coming straight from laptop video chats, with a bit of cell phone footage. The cameras are really an afterthought, which is sad considering that they played such a massive role in both 1 and 3.
Alex has a little brother named Wyatt, a mother and a father, who are not important to this story in any way whatsoever, and an adorable boyfriend who helps her set up laptop cameras throughout the house. The boyfriend has a few great lines, and Alex is very pretty, but overall there's zero emotional connection with this family. They simply aren't given enough to do beside sleep, watch TV or make food while creepy things happen in the background. Which is strange, given that watching video chat recordings between a girl and her boyfriend should be the most intimate thing on the planet (movie-wise). Instead it's just varied versions of them saying "that kid Robbie is weird," over and over.
But in their defense Robbie, the kid next door, really is a pretty creepy little guy. He's seen staring and wandering around their yard, always alone. Eventually the family is forced to take him in for a few days while his mom (Katie) is in the hospital. A perfectly reasonable plot point. So Robbie shows up, and shit gets weird. He gets up in the middle of the night, and WALKS AROUND A LOT. This is most of the film. Sometimes he talks to his imaginary friend Toby. The pacing is all over the place. I'm talking an hour of this stuff, and the movie is an hour and a half long.
Enter the Xbox Kinect. Apparently this video game apparatus projects little tracking dots all over the room it's set up in. And this allows it to track the people in the room, so that when they move around, their Avatar on screen mimics their actions. If you record the dots in night vision, you can see the dots move when the people move. The Xbox Kinect is always on. ALWAYS. Anytime you see the living room at night, you see the tracking dots. A massive part of this movie is dedicated to the Kinect. And it's repulsive. I don't care if James Bond sometimes drinks a Heineken in his movies — get that money, 007 — but I don't want actual plot points given over to product placement.
The whole "tracking dot" gimmick leads up to a scene where baby brother Wyatt is being stalked by another tiny ghost, which you can only see thanks to the Xbox Kinect. Is it scary? Sure. Could they have figured out a better way to do this without thrusting the Kinect into the spotlight for the entire movie? Probably. All of the Paranormal Activity movies had their gimmicks, the first movie had the camera in the bedroom, the second had the creepy pool cleaner, and the third had the (amazing) oscillating camera. We're OK with gimmicks, but this felt dirty.
So Robbie is living in the Kinect house, running around at night with his ghost buddy. And slowly charming baby brother Wyatt into becoming Toby's new plaything. This is when things get complicated. In the third movie, we learned that the sisters were always being hounded by the demon character Toby. This same beast is also in the fourth movie, he's buddies with Robbie and eventually Wyatt. As the movie moves forward, it's revealed that Robbie is trying to convince Wyatt to (also?) become possessed by a demon.
Remember the Kinect moment — that's a demon trying to get Wyatt. This leads to a whole crap load of unanswered questions. Is there more than one demon? Is Toby the leader of these demons? Towards the end of the movie, Katie pops back up and reveals that Wyatt isn't really Wyatt. He's her sister's son Hunter who has been adopted by this family. And she wants him back. SO WHO THE HELL IS ROBBIE? Just some other creepy kid who wears socks with sandals? It doesn't make any sense. If Katie and Hunter allegedly disappeared for years, where/why did she pick up Robbie? When did Hunter get picked up by the government? Wouldn't his new adoptive parents know that his family had been horribly murdered by his aunt and a little wary of creepy new lady neighbors who express excessive interest in their son? What is the point of being possessed by a demon in the first place now? And wasn't Katie possessed by Toby back in Paranormal Activity 1, so how is it possible that Toby is still running around outside of her? WHAT ARE THE RULES HERE?
But the icing on the cake is the actual ghost moments caught on camera. In past movies, when creepy things are caught on tape, the characters respond. They cry, they hide the evidence, they rationalize, they weigh the idea of moving out — but more importantly, they freak out.
Alex and her boyfriend catch Toby lifting her in the air and they say nothing. NOTHING. They don't even address it. Later on in the film, Alex is locked in the garage by the demon and the car is turned on, filling the room with exhaust. Alex has to break open the window with a crowbar and back the car through the garage door to get to fresh air. This is all recorded on her camera. All of it. But her parents don't care, and she doesn't really seem that impacted by it either. Sure she gets in a fight with her parents for not believing her, but if I was forced to back a car through my own house to escape a ghost there's no way I would come back into that house. My parents would be pretty pissed too. There's no emotional weight to what is being captured on screen. It makes the family feel contrived. And when they all die, I don't really care.
Again, it's shocking that Joost and Schulman were behind this movie. The pacing, story, and rules were just all over the place. The characters were bland at best and the scares were almost nonexistent. Truly PA4 is the worst thing to come out of the entire Paranormal Activity series.