Katie Featherston in "Paranormal Activity 4." (Paramount Pictures )
With Halloween around the corner, it's time once again for a new installment of the "Paranormal Activity" series. Like its found-footage forbears, "Paranormal Activity 4" chronicles one family's efforts to videotape the things going bump in the night in their home. According to many reviewers, however, it could mark the moment at which the franchise has run out of fresh ideas.
In a measured review, The Times' Mark Olsen writes that, like its predecessors, the latest "Paranormal" film manages "to wring more scares out of empty rooms than previously thought possible." The film's strong suit, Olsen says, "is that it finally feels contemporary," incorporating the use of computer webcams — "the strange sensation of backward motion that comes from someone carrying a laptop while walking and chatting … is both familiar and disorienting" — and an Xbox video game system. In the end, Olsen writes, the film is essentially "one big setup" that builds to a frightful finale and, of course, leaves open room for a sequel.
USA Today's Claudia Puig, however, has had enough the "Paranormal" series. She writes, "The franchise that capitalized on the found-footage craze has gotten lost." Labeling the fourth installment "sloppy," Puig says it often doesn't adhere to the tenets of the genre, nor to its own narrative logic. "Rather than moving the story forward by fleshing out the ghost story that's been evolving over the previous three films," Puig writes, "directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman [who also helmed the previous film] rely on goosing the audience with false scares and bland jolts."
In Variety, Geoff Berkshire agrees that the series has finally jumped the shark. He writes, "A battle between horror conventions and innovations has been steadily brewing over the course of the 'Paranormal Activity' franchise, and in the fourth film, the conventional finally wins." The filmmakers, Berkshire says, "seem to be suffering from creative malaise, settling for a few too many shots of doors ominously opening on their own, and multiple instances of the family cat scampering past the camera to deliver a sudden jolt." One of the bright spots in a series not known for its acting is the performance of teenage leading lady Kathryn Newton, who "summons agreeable echoes of Dakota Fanning and Evan Rachel Wood."
The Hollywood Reporter's Justin Lowe finds "Paranormal Activity 4" to be an exercise in style (and familiar style at that) over substance. "Asymmetrically framed scenes, staccato editing techniques and oppressive ambient sound (and the ominous lack of a score) are substituted for any real narrative development," Lowe says, "leaving a plot essentially consisting of a series of setups followed by frightening payoffs."
Finally, in the New York Post, Sara Stewart predicts that "you know how this is going to play out: The 'PA' formula is tried and true. Long stretches of placid green night-cam footage manage to make your flesh creep as you try to figure out if you just saw movement in the corner. Then something eventually flies dramatically across the screen, and no matter how much you tried to gird yourself, you jump. Repeat, repeat, repeat." The result, Stewart says, "is serviceable, if you’re looking for a few shivery communal scares."
If the previous films in the series are any indication, there's a sizable audience out there that is indeed looking for such scares. Could that mean more "Paranormal Activity" in the future? Stranger things have happened.
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