Here we go again.
It’s October, which means the low-budget, high-yield “Paranormal Activity” franchise has plopped yet another sequel into theaters, slavishly following the formula of previous chapters. Multiple surveillance cameras? Check. Spacious McMansion where strange things start happening? You got it. Bizarre apparitions that either move really slowly or very quickly through the frame? Yup.
Viewers ready to shell out for “Paranormal Activity 4” can be assured that there are at least a half-dozen or so decent jolts to be enjoyed over the film’s running time, but prepare for a long wait to actually get to them. The first two-thirds of the film redefines “slow boil” to the extent that audiences will spend as much time looking at their watch as they do waiting for something eerie to happen on screen.
This installment begins with a flashback to “Paranormal Activity 2,” which ended with creepy Katie (Katie Featherston) abducting her young nephew Hunter, before jumping ahead to November 2011, when teen girl Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) start noticing there’s something very weird about Robbie (Brady Allen), the dour, bowl-haircutted boy across the street.
When Robbie’s mom goes to the hospital late one night, Alex’s parents take Robbie in for the duration. His unusual behavior continues, and weird shapes start showing up in Alex and Ben’s Skype conversations, and then chandeliers start falling out of the ceiling. And so on.
The biggest surprise that “Paranormal Activity 4” -- written by Christopher Landon (who did the previous two movies) and directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the guys behind “Catfish” and “PA3”) -- is that the relationship between Alex and Ben is so engaging. They’re funny, they’re flirty, and they’re smart enough to realize that something weird is going on (it’s Ben who wires all the computers in the house to shoot surveillance footage), making them far more interesting than 95% of most other horror-movie teenagers.
But praising a “Paranormal Activity” movie for the teen relationship is like lauding a restaurant for the music they play; it’s nice, but it’s not what you came for. These movies tend to eschew the hard questions -- What is the agenda of Katie’s mysterious coven? Who, exactly, found the found footage of this movie? -- in favor of thrills and chills, but even those don’t build in any way.
Yes, it’s scary when the X-Box Kinect registers the presence of a person who’s invisible to the naked eye, or when a carving knife flies up to the ceiling when mom’s back is turned, but “Paranormal Activity 4” provides this minimum requirement of scares without pacing them or escalating them in a way that builds tension or suspense.
Would it be too much to ask that the franchise skip a year so that the inevitable “Paranormal Activity 5” script could actually take this story somewhere interesting while also spooking the bejesus out of us? Or would giving this cash cow a sabbatical cause too many nightmares in the bean-counters suite?