As expected, this fourth entry in this found footage franchise is a tired, tired affair.
When William Friedkin's horror classic The Exorcist was released upon an unsuspecting public in 1973, the Reverend Billy Graham declared that the actual celluloid on which the film had been printed was, in fact, possessed by a malignant, infernal force. Graham was nothing if not a great showman, and this provocative announcement only added to the general hullabaloo surrounding the film's release.
Another great showman, Steven Spielberg, did a little myth-making of his own when he saw an early version of Oren Peli's found-footage chiller Paranormal Activity. It was said that upon watching the film, Spielberg noticed a door to an empty bedroom had inexplicably locked. Sufficiently freaked out, he apparently wrapped the screener in a plastic bin bag and sent it back to Paramount quick sharp, convinced his copy was indeed harbouring some kind of spectral presence.
The latest entry in the franchise arrives with little of the same excitement. Not surprising, really: by the time a franchise gets to chapter number four then it's deep into Citizens on Patrol/Dream Master territory. Expectations have to be reset accordingly.
So it goes with Paranormal Activity 4, a hokey, stubborn, old-fashioned sequel that steadfastly refuses to push the brand into new and interesting directions. It's about as unsettling as a badly stuffed pillow. And yet, that's not really the point.
Like its predecessors, the film operates as a tightly-wound jack-in-the-box and nothing less. It plays it safe, with the tried and tested formula of 'long periods of not much happening + creeping dread + sporadic poltergeist action' pretty much intact until a histrionic, almost laughable finale threatens to derail the entire enterprise.
The directors are Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, the team behind Catfish and last year's previous entry Paranormal Activity 3, a film that dared us to believe that HD-quality camcorders were commercially available in 1988. Their latest film brings the action back up to the (near) present, specifically the aftermath of events depicted in Paranormal Activity 2.
This time, life goes topsy-turvy for a Nevada family after a mysterious woman, Katie (the demonic protagonist from the first two films) and her creepy 'son', Robbie (who may or may not be Hunter, the child abducted in Paranormal Activity 2), move into town.
When Katie is hospitalised by a suspicious illness, the family take Robbie/Hunter under their wing, which is when things start to go bump in the night, and the family's daughter, Alice (Kathryn Newton), and her boyfriend Alex (Matt Shively) are forced to investigate using an assortment of cameras and other devices.
The 'found-footage' conceit is somewhat dulled here, as we've already spent way too much time gazing into the darkness in previous episodes. We've poured over grainy video footage, tried to spot anomalies in the corner of every spooky frame. Perhaps it's time for a moratorium?
Having said that, there are some efficient scares here. A sequence in which Alice gets attacked by a malicious entity inside a garage delivers the requisite chills, although quite why she would want to film it on her webcam is anyone's guess.
The addition of girl/boy leads means the series can mine some of the iconography of teenage stalk 'n' slashers for the first time. And the directors have fun by playfully dropping in the occasional reference to classic horror. There's one particularly groan-inducing moment when the family's son, Wyatt, pedals around the kitchen on a three-wheeler bike.
As is par for the course, the film is as much about interior design as it is about ghosts and ghouls. It crams in long, lingering and, frankly, tedious shots of wallpaper or other household furnishings, while the audience waits for something, anything to happen. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, but whatever the hell's going on, everything is all very tasteful and middle-class. It's coffee table horror, straight out of IKEA.
'All the activity has led to this' promises the tagline and, technically speaking, it's not wrong.
A few thrills on show but the scares have all been done before.
A rickety old ride and no mistake, this instalment is for franchise fans only.