Review: ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ treads water instead of pushing forward

I think the “Paranormal Activity” series is fun.  Not great.  Not important.  Not a redefining series of genre films.  But fun.  2007’s “Paranormal Activity” did not pick up a distributor right away, and it didn’t hit theaters until September 2009, with Paramount treating it almost as an experiment.  It caught fire and it quickly became evident that the studio was going to want a follow-up.  Oren Peli, who wrote and directed the original, stepped into a more supervisory position, and as he started branching out with projects like “The River” and the still-unreleased “Area 51,” he helped other people build out the mythology that he started.

Tod Williams directed the sequel, and Michael R. Perry and Christopher Landon and Tom Pabst all contributed to the script.  It expanded the world a bit and started to try to make sense of what happened to Katie (Katie Featherston) and Michah (Micah Sloat) in the first film.  It carefully built the big set pieces so it leaned on the exact same sort of scares that the first film did, but with a baby right there in the middle of things.  The film ended with an upsetting cliffhanger of sorts with Katie making off with young Hunter (William Juan Pietro), and part three went back in time to the ’80s to show Katie and her sister Kristi as kids, bringing in co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman to work with with Christopher Landon, who returned as the sole writer this time. I think the last fifteen minutes or so of “Paranormal Activity 3” is the scariest sustained sequence in any of the movies, and I thought it set up a really interesting broader canvass for the films.  When I saw that Joost and Schulman were coming back to direct the fourth film, I thought the movie was in great hands, and I was excited to see what they came up with.

Here’s the thing… “Paranormal Activity 4” is well-made.  These films make it look low-fi in terms of staging and how scenes are built, but they are hard films to pull off, and so I thought Joost and Schulman might expand on the things they did in the third film, while the truth is that I think “PA4” is a step backwards, or at least a step sideways.  The series is finally moving forward chronologically, with this being the first film since the original to take place entirely after the events of the original, and yet the amount of new information that is offered up this time is truly frustrating.  It’s just not enough.  The script by Zack Estrin gives the best material to the teenagers played by Kathryn Newton and Matt Shively, and they’re very personable young performers.  The movie hinges on the arrival of a new family across the street, complete with creepy kid Robbie (Brady Allen) and the strange things that happen to his neighbors as a result.

There are good ideas here, including a use for the XBox Kinnect that is very clever, but there are also a number of awkwardly staged moments that surprised me after seeing how well Joost and Schulman handled this stuff the last time out.  There are also some rough performances here that undermine the reality of things.  I think it’s probably a good sign that I’m so annoyed by the near miss of much of the movie, because it means I do care about whether or not they get it right.  I think they could right their course for the next film easily, and I’m still interested.  I’d like to see the endgame for the series come together, and I think at this point, fans of the films have invested enough time that they deserve some real answers and some bigger payoffs.  For this series to continue to work, they’re going to have to play fair and start answering the questions they’ve laid out.  This entry in the series is the first time I’ve felt like they played it safe, and that’s a shame.  Even so, I have a feeling Paramount will have another winner with this one, and I hope they take care to reward viewers in the future instead of just offering up something that feels like a place-holder, no matter how well-made.

One caveat:  this was presented as a work-in-progress, and there is a chance they’ll fine tune the film further between now and release.  It’s not a lot of time, but they can certainly tighten things up and pump up the soundtrack.

“Paranormal Activity 4” will arrive in theaters October 19, 2012.