It might seem silly to think of the Paranormal Activity movies as a Halloween tradition, but trust me, they will be.
After all, horror movies are perhaps the one non-porn genre that can sustain an essentially limitless number of sequels. For instance, the Friday the 13th series now has 12 movies spanning 32 years.
That is multigenerational. Forcing the crappy stuff you had to endure as a kid onto your own children — that's the very definition of a tradition, isn't it? Do you think Saw 3D: The Final Chapter is really the final chapter? For now, perhaps, but that thing grossed $45 million domestic on a $17M budget. Just wait until 2015, when we get the crossover smash Saw vs. Phillips Head.
Yet like all traditions, to outsiders and non-fans, horror franchises are baffling, laughable events that should have quit a long, long time ago. So you have to give some credit to the latest horror series. We're already all the way to Paranormal Activity 4, and there hasn't been an outright dud in the bunch.
In suburban Nevada, teen Kathryn Newton is creeped out by neighbor boy Brady Allen, who's been hanging around her house at all hours of the night. And after Allen's mom falls sick, Newton's family offers to care for him until she's back on her feet.
After his arrival, strange things start happening at their house — and Allen starts to involve Newton's little brother in his weird games. Faced by phenomena she can't explain, Newton fears for her brother's safety.
As far as yearly cash grabs — I mean, traditions — go, the Paranormal Activity series is neither the best nor the worst. At this point it's settled into a pretty solid groove. The house will creak for an hour or so, maybe something glass will fall down and go boom, and at the end someone makes a really scary face. Also, perhaps you would be interested in some light exposition about the family's background and about witches.
Within that formula, that leaves two wild cards for success: the characters, and whatever creepy new ideas the filmmakers can come up with to inject new scares into the sheer, unbridled terror of slamming doors and somebody pounding on the walls. Paranormal Activity 4 isn't particularly impressive with either.
Newton's sort-of-boyfriend Matt Shively is sort of funny. I think I was about to say more stuff about how he adds a little bit of welcome levity to the movie, but I just checked their ages on IMDb, and while Newton is the same age as her character (15), in real life Shively was 21 when they filmed this. Man, that is kind of really weird, and probably speaks to all kinds of negative things about American culture.
But I am here to denounce movies, not nations. So say what you will about this fine country, but at least it doesn't feature mediocre characters and a thorough lack of imagination when it comes to generating scares. Directed and written by the same crew who handled PA 3, my favorite of the bunch, PA 4 is just competent enough to not totally suck. It's moderately tense, it's got a bit of mystery to it, and a few jarring moments.
But it's otherwise more of the same. There's nothing nearly as inspired as the fan-cam in PA 3. The backstory continues to be spooned out in portions that would leave a hummingbird grouchy. (Bad idea. Do you know how fast those things can peck?) Which isn't a big loss, given the details of that backstory, but it would be nice to see the franchise shake things up a little rather than return to the same old bag of tricks.
I suppose, like all horror franchises, Paranormal Activity 4 is for the fans. But the one before that proved you can produce quality sequels. PA 4 is okayish, but at this point it's recycling itself so thoroughly it deserves a presidential medal of some kind.