Kathryn Newton plays a teenager in a troubled Nevada household in "Paranormal… (Paramount Pictures )
Even at their best, the films in the unlikely "Paranormal Activity" franchise are never exactly thrilling, but they have cannily managed to wring more scares out of empty rooms than previously thought possible.
The newest film in the found-footage horror series, "Paranormal Activity 4," continues that tradition, picking up in story terms where the second film left off. (The third movie was set in the 1980s and hinted at the origins of the demon bedeviling an unfortunate family.)
A brief recap of that film's finale — in which the possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) disappeared with her infant nephew, Hunter — opens the proceedings before moving forward five years to introduce a family living in a Nevada suburb: disconnected dad (Stephen Dunham), harried mom (Alexondra Lee), young son Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), gamin teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend (Matt Shively).
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After a creepy neighbor boy named Robbie (Brady Allen) comes to stay with them for a few days, weird things begin to happen around the house. When Katie suddenly appears, it implies that Robbie is, in fact, Hunter, though it seems she has some dark designs on young Wyatt.
Directed like "Paranormal Activity 3" by the team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, this time from a story by Chad Feehan and screenplay by series regular Christopher Landon, this film's strong suit is that it finally feels contemporary.
The use of computer webcams, and the strange sensation of backward motion that comes from someone carrying a laptop while walking and chatting, is both familiar and disorienting (though there is nothing quite as ingenious as the sequence in the third film in which the camera was placed on a rotating fan for an unyielding pan back and forth across a room).
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In one especially effective visual motif, small beams of light from a video game system create an eerie star field in a darkened room.
"Paranormal Activity 4" is in many ways one big setup, building to a single, inevitable what's-behind-you jump scare and then a rollicking finale — one that implies a deeper mythology, opening the door (but of course) for another sequel.
'Paranormal Activity 4'
MPAA rating: R for language and some violence/terror
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release