When Katie from Paranormal Activity moves in across the street, it’s a pretty sure bet things are going to get demon-y, and fast. And, we’ve seen the other three, so we know all the rules:
- demons love to move furniture
- adults never notice anything
- there’s always some reason to have a camera rolling 24/7
- something in the background will move, if you watch long enough
- witches aren’t scary.
What this fourth installment adds is:
- nobody closes laptops
- a certain in-jokiness (is that the big wheel from The Shining, or the tricycle from The Omen?)
- a movie can be made from jump scares.
And of course by now you’ve seen the trailer, know that this is the Skype/Kinect version of the Paranormal story. And we also know that Matt Shively (Ryan Laserbeam from True Jackson, VP, for those who, you know, know True Jackson) is providing the comedy. Which, according to the rules of horror, of course means he’s doomed. And we know that, much like the Saw franchise, every narrative crack is being not just mined for story, but pillaged. So, because everybody is dead by now, we’re following Katie, after walking away with Hunter in 2, I think it was. Which was a pretty revolutionary sequel, even if it wasn’t quite as scary. It folded together so well with the first. Not in that Halloween/Halloween II way, either (which rocked), but in a filling-in-the-gaps way.
However, remember how the first Matrix pulled the rug out from under us so completely that the second and third couldn’t hope to escalate, so they had to make do with, I don’t know, some smoke and mirrors cloning process? That’s kind of what’s going on here, with Paranormal Activity. Don’t blame the follow-ups for not being as strong. Blame the original for being so good.
Still, the main strength of the franchise—4 here wrings it until it cries mercy—is that it sensitizes us to every square inch of that screen. And that’s a new kind of experience. Granted, this time through, if you’re watching every square inch (say, a certain blue book on a certain end table in the foreground . . .), you can kind of jigsaw a shooting order together. And all those eerily moving doors . . . now, instead of being creeped out, we’re wondering what’s the mechanism there? Magnets, wires, fans, stopmotion? None of which should be the focus at all. The reason we’re looking, though, it’s that we kind of know this story: small little hauntings spiral bigger and bigger, and finally swallow the family whole. It’s what we’re paying for, really.
Paranormal Activity 4 does this to a T, and I don’t want to fault it for that. I mean, sure, maybe it harps on the Evil Kid trick a bit too much, and our protagonist kind of disappears until needed for the wrap-up (kind of cueing us in that she’s really been a glorified expositional device), but, man, Ryan Laserbeam, the guy’s good, and for as long as he’s around, things are pretty excellent.
And, all that focus on the Evil Kid, it does let us not have to know this family very well, which is nice. We know they’re going to die, I mean; why bother investing in them? The filmmakers have a sense of this, I think, and I thank them for not dragging us through this family’s lives, when it’s only their deaths that are going to be interesting.
And, the witchcraft stuff this time around is dialed way back, as it should be. Just symbols and signs glancing off, such that they can work like the little twig-cairns and unholy windchimes in Blair Witch Project: they’re suggestive instead of definitive. And kind of ten times more terrifying because of that. So, best to go into 4 just pretending 3 didn’t happen. It’s easier than you might think.
None of which actually guides you whether to see or not to see, yeah.
That’s because I haven’t got to the final sequence, which is kind of to endings as the opening sequence of Ghost Ship was to beginnings: setting a new standard. Good storytellers know that we tend to remember a story not by its middle, but by how it draws to a close. And this time, much like with the first installment (thanks to Spielberg, right?), we end so perfectly. It’s like the movie’s been a kiddie ride the whole time, just puttering through the park, and then, suddenly, you’re on a rollercoaster, falling headlong into loops and turns and terror and terror and squint don’t peek you’re going to remember it later
and it’s over. So cleanly. As it should be.
For that last rush at the end alone, I completely recommend Paranormal Activity 4. And I should probably confess that, coming home from the early screener tonight, standing in the dark kitchen filling a glass of water, I felt more than heard somebody behind me. When the house, I was pretty sure, was asleep.
Because I know what happens when you just stand there wondering if somebody’s behind you or not, I turned all at once and it was my wife, all the way downstairs just to say hey, and as far as I know she hadn’t meant to scare me, but still, for the first time in a long time, my scalp actually crawled. I’d almost forgotten what that was like. And, just like with that first Paranormal Activity write-up, I’m writing this upstairs, on my laptop. Which is completely inconvenient. But my big computer’s all the way down in the basement.
Some nights, a little inconvenience is preferable. Some movies get you thinking that, anyway. For me, this month, that movie is Paranormal Activity 4.