Friday, October 19, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 : An Enjoyable Step Back From Last Year's Activity


Wow, it's really been a year since I last sat down to write up my thoughts on a Paranormal Activity movie, eh?  Feels like just yesterday!

To quickly recap my thoughts on the past three installments of the franchise ... I'm a big fan of this franchise.  How's that for simplicity?  I am continually impressed with the way the original story from the first film keeps progressing, and the way the movies consistently feel fresh and exciting, despite the fact that at the end of the day, they're all relatively the same movie.  I know a lot of horror fans disagree with me on this, but I've found little to dislike about the franchise, and it has yet to let me down.  In fact, the previous installment, the set in the 80's PA 3, was my favorite of the bunch.

Though the films have proven to be quite polarizing amongst genre fans, they've all done fairly well with critics, with the second one being the least well received critically.  That is, until now.  Though directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the same guys who brought us the exceptional last installment (and Catfish!), PA 4 has been pretty much across the board getting negative reactions from critics, with a current Rotten Tomatoes score of a mere 30%, considerably lower than even PA 2's 59%.  Has the franchise finally jumped the shark, only four installments in?  That seems to be the general consensus.

To that I say .... FUCK THAT NOISE!

Is this latest bit of Paranormal Activity the finest hour for the franchise?  No, it definitely isn't.  But if you're a fan of the franchise, and you've enjoyed the previous installments, I really don't see any reason why you will feel any differently about this one.  Let's be real here.  At this point, you know what you're getting when you go to see a Paranormal Activity movie, and you know whether you're on board with what you're gonna see when you plop your ass in that seat each October, or you're not.  If you're on board, there's nothing about PA 4 that will get you off the board, so to speak.  If you're not on board, well, then it's your own fault for buying a ticket to see the fourth installment in a franchise that you don't even enjoy.  Unfortunately, the majority of those critical opinions that are stinking up film websites and newspapers are coming from people who are being paid to go see a movie they have no interest in, rather than real fans of the franchise.  At this point in the series, so deep into the story, it's pretty much all for the fans.  So whether or not you are a fan is really the only deciding point for whether or not you're going to enjoy this latest bit of activity.  In other words, if you go into it expecting what you should be expecting from it, then I expect you'll leave satisfied.

Picking up five years after the final moments of Paranormal Activity 2, where demon Katie kidnaps baby Hunter, Paranormal Activity 4 is the first movie in the series that is not a prequel story, thereby progressing the story forward for once, rather than backwards.  Focusing on a new family this time, the story sees Katie and a little boy, presumably Hunter, moving in next door to our new friends, finally giving us a glimpse as to what happened after Katie took Hunter.  All the activity has led to this, touts the tagline to the film.

One of the strongest suits of the franchise, for me, is that the movies are consistently entertaining before any of the titular paranormal activity even begins.  While many horror movies have boring lead ins that leave you itching for the real fun to start, these movies always manage to have first halves that are just as entertaining as the activity filled second halves, albeit in a totally different way.  PA 4 is certainly no exception on that front.  In fact, it may have the most downright funny and enjoyable lead up to the activity of the bunch.  The characters, as always, are quite likeable, with a particular standout in this one being teenager Alex's boyfriend Ben, who brings the laughs nearly every time he is on the screen (he reminded me of Randy from the last one, both of whom unfortunately kinda disappear during the latter portions of the film).  For at least the first 30 minutes of the movie, there are consistent out loud laughs to be had, and I had a real blast with all that stuff, as I always do.

Now one of the other things I always love about these movies are the innovative ways they come up with to keep things fresh on the 'found footage' front, particularly in the way the characters actually go about filming the activity.  Though it was just one handheld camera in the first, the second presented the idea of several security cameras capturing the activity, and the third took things one step further, with Katie/Kristi's step dad rigging up an ingenious DIY 'fan cam', a camera that is literally attached to an oscillating fan, to cover more filming ground.  Again, PA 4 is no exception on that front either.  Alex and her boyfriend spend their nights webcamming with each other, which becomes the first of two new ways to document the activity.  Now I know that the whole webcam capturing ghostly footage thing is nothing new when it comes to movies like this, but the actual webcam to webcam stuff is very minimal, with the idea being expanded upon when Ben decides to turn on the webcams in all the computers in the house, this way every room can be filmed at once.  I admit I was a little worried about the use of the webcam, but they found a way to keep that from being corny, like it usually is in horror movies. The webcams essentially just serve as multiple regular cameras, like in the second film.

The real brilliant device they use this time around though is the X-Box Kinect's super creepy tracking dot system.  I guess with the Kinect, little green tracking dots are projected from the device, so the characters in the games can be controlled by the movements of the players, and those dots can be seen if you look at the area with an infrared camera (can't say I knew that!).  For the majority of the film, there's a camera positioned right there in the TV area, with the tracking dots being projected all over the room, which becomes a really clever, not to mention highly creepy, way of showing paranormal movements.  It's quite effective, and highly creative.  And I've got a feeling the Kinect is gonna become the new super cool ghost hunting tool, which makes the film a pretty damn good commercial for that device.  Hell, I want one for myself right about now!

But the main thing that brings my ass back to the theater every October is, as I said in the opening paragraph, the story, which is expanded upon with each new installment.  Unfortunately, that's the area where the ball is dropped a bit this time around, and it's really the only area the ball is dropped in (not a good area to fumble in, that's for sure).  Though "all the activity" has supposedly "led to this", there's surprisingly very little forward progression of the bigger picture with this one, and we really learn nothing new about the story or see it payoff in any way.  Sure, we do get to see what became of Katie and Hunter, but there's pretty much no advancement of that story.  In fact, the movie ends on a very similar note to the way the last one ended, and it all feels like a bit of filler, in preparation for next year's installment.  The films always leave you with a lot of questions, but they always answer a lot of questions too, and PA 4 does nothing but leave you with even more questions than you started the film with.  Kind of a bummer, being that I was hoping, and expecting, the master plan of all this activity would be revealed this time around.  Oh well, guess we've gotta wait another year.

Without spoiling too much, the film also ends by utilizing an effect that I absolutely hated in the first film; the demon face morph.  Ugh, I thought enough fans had bitched about that with the first one that they would've learned to leave that shit on the cutting room floor, but there it is, utilized even more than it was in the first one.  I hate that shit, and I wish it would stop.  Not just in these movies, but in ALL movies.  If the dude in the YouTube video I just linked to can pull off the effect at home, then it doesn't belong in a big budget movie made by dudes with filmmaking talent.  Simple as that.

But ya know what?  I so enjoyed 95% of the film that I didn't even mind the lackluster finale, or the fact that no real closure or expansion was brought to the story.  Sure, it's very much more of the same, but don't us fans of the franchise go to see these movies for more of the same, only presented in new ways?  I know I do, so more of the same was exactly what I was looking for, and what I was happy to get.  The first half was super entertaining and funny and the second half full of tension, to the point that the little rubber duckies I won for my two friends and myself in the claw game in the theater's arcade area ended up becoming surrogate stress balls for the three of us, with the audible sounds of the air squeezing out of them being heard during the particularly tense moments.  Wow, re-reading what I just wrote there, my friends and I sound super lame.  Maybe I should've edited that part out.

Point being, I love these movies, and I had a blast with this fourth installment, as I always do, and as I fully expected to.  It's not the best or most innovative activity we've yet seen, but it more than gets the job done, and it whets the appetite for the activity to come.  Next October, my ass will again be at that theater on Thursday night, I can assure you of that.  I admit that I'm a little worried that the story has begun to wear thin, and that it may be becoming a bit nonsensical, what with this demonic entity now investing over 20 years in this family and still not really accomplishing much other than killing a few average, ordinary people (epic plan, dude!), but I remain hopeful that the story will finish strong.  And for that matter, hopeful that it will finish, preferably before the series does indeed jump the shark.  Though I would love to be able to continue the October tradition of seeing a new Paranormal Activity movie for the rest of my days on this planet, I think a solid and satisfying fifth installment next year would probably be the perfect way to wrap things up here.

By the way, stay through the credits to see ... something.  I'm really not even sure what it was, and it's not much of anything, but yea.  It's something.  Actividad Paranormal?

Oh and Katie looks hotter than ever, for those that watch these movies because they want to do her.  Yep.
One last thing.  Want to offer my condolences to the family of Stephen Dunham, who played Alex's father Doug in the film.  I was shocked to discover today that Dunham died of a heart attack last month, on his 48th birthday.  Dunham appeared in many different films and TV shows in the 90's and 2000's including The Mummy and the show DAG.  Incredibly sad.


Matt-suzaka said...

I was a little concerned when I saw the critical reaction to PA 4. The time for it to hit the skids would seem to be nigh, I figured, but now with this review and a handful of other trustworthy people saying it's solid, I am very psyched to see it.

And I am with you about the third film, which I re-watched about two weeks ago and found that I enjoyed it as much as the first time I saw it in theaters. The scares are well thought out, creative and nicely executed, and I look forward to more of the same with PA 4.

Eric Flapjack Ashley said...

I enjoyed PA4, much moreso than most people seemed to. Sure, it was more of the same, but when I love the "same", more of it isn't necessarily a bad thing. I do think, however, that one per year is beginning to wear on the franchise.