Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2012

Paranormal Activity 4

Enough!

'Paranormal Activity 4' reveals an ossified franchise that has nothing else to offer

Paranormal Activity 4
Paramount Pictures
Director: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Screenplay: Christopher Landon
Starring: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Brady Allen, Aiden Lovekamp, Alexondra Lee and Katie Featherston
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Opened October 19, 2012
(out of four)

It's funny the way trends catch on. Five years ago, Paranormal Activity was a low-budget phenomenon built around an aesthetic that - as effectively as it was utilized - didn't seem to really have any legs. After all, how much mileage can you really get out of home videos and security cameras?

Well, as it turns out, a lot. At least in terms of quantity. The movie went from feel-good upstart to juggernaut franchise, its continuation for years to come now an inevitability. The principle of diminishing returns was unavoidable, but unfortunate and aggravating nonetheless. If you thought there would be nowhere else to go after the first entry, the following three sequels have proven you correct.

What I find kind of interesting about this continuing success story is the circumstances that have seemingly helped sustain it. I've talked to several people this month alone who have seen (or are planning on seeing) Paranormal Activity 4 not out of any particular enthusiasm for the series, but because it's Halloween-time, and going to see the new Paranormal Activity movie is a Halloweeny thing to do. So, rather than genuine interest, it boils down to a matter of good timing. (I'm not suggesting there aren't rabid fans of the franchise, which I'm sure there are - I'm only saying a sizeable chunk of the audience is purely the result of circumstance.)

It's become increasingly (and unsurprisingly) clear that there is little (if any) interest in disturbing the brand's signature (the way the [REC] franchise did so cleverly earlier this year) in any way. We know what we're going to get every time - which is precisely the reason why I'm done with this franchise from now on. Well, OK, it's not the only reason - another good reason is that Paranormal Activity 4 is a terrible movie by any standard. But the redundancy thing is a pretty good reason, too. Life's too short. It's the same reason I stopped reviewing the Saw series - I toughed it out for a few years before finally giving up. I doubt I missed any sort of radical reinvention.

Continuing to show up for this series would be like DVR-ing whatever new cop procedural CBS is airing this season. I may not have seen it, but trust me, I've seen it.

The fourth Paranormal entry continues down the path set by the third one, with that film's directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, returning behind the cameras. The characters are new, but the witches' coven introduced in the third film once again plays a role. Not that it ultimately matters or has to make any real sense - it's just another piece to a narrative puzzle being made up as the movies go along.

This time, the action settles around Alex Nelson (Kathryn Newton), a 14-year-old girl with an adopted younger brother, a pair of arguing parents, a dimwit boyfriend and a creepy next-door neighbor. The creepy next-door neighbor, Robbie (Brady Allen), is just about the same age as Alex's brother, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and has a tendency to show up at the Nelson household quietly and unannounced. In the driveway, in the treehouse, in the front yard, you name it.

As bad luck would have it, Robbie's mother (Katie Featherston, reprising her role from the previous films) is [supposedly] hospitalized one night, leaving Robbie in the care of the Nelsons at their house, where he's free to roam around freaking Alex out at every turn. Teenagers being as resourceful as they are these days, Alex and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) set up the family's computers to record everything so they can take a look at the footage and prove Alex's vague suspicions about Robbie.

Here's where I would typically say, "You know the rest," and you would assume that Alex and Ben proceed to take a look at their recorded footage and the plot moves forward accordingly. Except that doesn't happen. Days, maybe even weeks, go by, during which we see any number of disturbing events that would force anyone to either get out of that house, have Robbie committed to an institution, or both. But for some unexplained reason, Alex goes huge chunks of time without ever checking out any of the footage she was apparently so desperate to record.

This is not a plot hole, but an aesthetic one. The series has to continue in its trademark style, but this forces the filmmakers to keep finding shortcuts around its limitations and implications. Joost and Schulman want to let us see the footage being recorded, but can't figure out a way to justify the characters themselves seeing that same footage without derailing the whole movie.

And therein lies the problem. In order for this series to justify its continued existence (beyond financial reasons), it needs to allow itself to evolve. Only it can't, or won't. Whether it ever ends up doing so, I don't know, but that question is not nearly tantalizing enough for me to stick around and find out.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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