“It was a child’s toy, a very small Matchbox vehicle. Rolled seven feet across a linoleum surface. The duration of the event was seven hours.”
“Seven hours for what?”
“For the vehicle to complete the distance. Of course, this would never register on the naked eye. But I have it recorded on a time-lapse camera. It’s fantastic.”
This dialogue is taken from the 1982 film Poltergeist, and as Steve Freeling opens to the door to Carol Anne’s bedroom, the investigators see how different that haunting is to what they were expecting. Unfortunately, in Paranormal Activity 4, that door still remains shut; the five released films, including Tokyo Night totals over nine hours. Surely by now, the toy should have rolled across the floor and the characters moved onto something more interesting, but no, they are still chasing their tails across the cinematic purgatory of that linoleum floor.
The biggest strength of the first Paranormal Activity film when it was released in 2009 was surprise; until the final scenes, the audience did not know what director Oren Peli would unleash, but with each subsequent film the formula has been repeated exactly with diminishing returns, and this latest has reached the bottom of a barrel already scraped clean by the same story, the same bad acting and the same tricks to scare us – moving furniture, missing objects and all too predictable “unexpected” loud noises – and the splinters under our nails are now unbearable.
To be successful, a film must buzz with ideas in every frame;Paranormal Activity 3achieved one sole advance on its predecessor, the use of a camera strapped to an oscillating fan. Similarly, this year our ration allows one further innovation. Using an Xbox Kinect infra-red grid to observe the supernatural was a promising idea, but fails in the execution. Instead of building atmosphere by showing something new and exciting, even scary, the screen displays slowly moving green distortions, as scary as Adam and Barbara Maitland’s sheets from Beetlejuice. More effective is when the younger brother, Wyatt, speaks to the possessing entity through the Kinect interface, possibly because the scene is stolen from Carole Anne’s television in Poltergeist.
Although laptops are laid out throughout the house (because all suburban families maintain a ready supply of top spec hardware in the dresser for just such occasions), the footage so captured is never reviewed; that this is seemingly only recorded for the benefit of the audience rather than the characters strains the already flimsy facade that this is in any way genuinely recorded footage. When even directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have given up the conceit that found footage is an effective storytelling device, instead using the audience point of view as a narrative tool, is this not an admission that, in this form, the subgenre has finally reached its end?
The appearance of Katie Featherston ties this film to the previous installments, and she now has a child, who is initially presumed to be her nephew Hunter who she stole from her dead sister, now named Robbie, although later in the film a completely different character first denies that he is Hunter, then later refers to himself as Hunter. What should be development (possession? that’s new!) is actually misdirection from the lack of plot – it comes from nowhere, it goes nowhere, it is never explained, just another random incident in a meaningless script.
Other evidence of the creative bankruptcy of the production are the other obvious steals from superior classics of the traditional horror film, for example the child trundling through the house on a tricycle. While on the surface paying homage to both the moment in The Omen when Damian knocks his mother from the balcony and Danny Torrance in the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, these references would only have meaning to those a full generation older than the target audience of the Paranormal Activity films, an audience who would never waste their time on them, though perhaps that is the very point, to steal the image and sell it to children who don’t know better?
Like the annual Treehouse of Horror from The Simpsons, the announcement that Paranormal Activity 5 will be released in October 2013 would seem to indicate that these have now reached “event” status, a conceit that is entirely unwarranted and, like the alleged Paranormal Activity promised by the title, unsupported by the flimsy and contrived evidence on offer. This Hallowe’en there are better films on offer such as Scott Derrickson’s Sinister or the rerelease of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and its accompanying documentary Room 237; any of these would be a better choice than this tedious, inconsequential mess.