The phenomenally successful and ingeniously devised Paranormal Activity series is a piece of Indie film royalty. It generates huge piles of delicious money on extremely meagre budgets and despite each instalment being an obvious cash-in on the phenomenally shrewd first, it’s still a series that somehow seems to maintain its integrity. Which is odd, because I’ve never taken much of a shine to it.
You already know the set-up. We’ve got another family, another house, another creepy kid and another whole heap of steadily escalating and carefully crafted paranormal activity. ‘So it’s the same as all the others then’ I hear you say. Why yes it is. It really is.
The film plods on through the first hour with little of scary note really happening. We do get a bit of flashback action but other than that the audience is expected to patiently sit and wait. This slow build is all in aid of ratcheting up the tension (and possibly impatience) of the audience, but of course such an approach lives or dies on the power of the pay off. This proves to be as problematic as it was in the first three films that promised so much but delivered precious little.
With directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman back in the saddle though there was hope. With Paranormal Activity 3 they had a good hysterical stab at an ending and by now you think that they’d have learned their lesson. But alas no. When someone has strung you along with the carrot and stick approach you will at least want to eat the carrot at the end. But more than this when it’s been happening for 90 minutes you want a carrot feeding frenzy. You don’t want one huge bite before someone yanks it away from you with a swift and ‘shocking’ roll of the credits. You want to tear it apart, tears of joy streaming from your eyes as you scream your way through it. This has all been to say that the pay off, when it finally arrives, is lacking a bit of the starey eyed insanity that I’d hoped the series would have learned to give us by this point.
A surprising transition to a bit of full blooded horror wouldn’t have gone amiss. What was once a surprising and fresh approach to the horror film has gone stale. When there will be huge amounts people willing to wait a long time for their horrific conclusion why not emotionally invest everyone and then go crazy? Why not give us the slow build and then sell out a bit and go for the easy scares, just slightly? Within the remit of ‘easy scares’ I am of course not counting the all too easy jumps that constitute the first hour. Due to the structure of the film paranormal scares are not narratively advisable early on so all you’re going to get is the directors playing to your tension without jumping the shark. The fact that I was heavily aware of this structural and formulaic encumbrance ruined pretty much any potential for anxiety for the majority of the running time. Never a good sign.
However this isn’t to say that the film has nothing going for it. Joost and Schulman may have pretty much made the same film all over again but they have learned a few things along the way. The central teenage relationship (and excuse for a whole lot of Skype-camera-action) is very believably played by newcomers Kathryn Newton and Brady Allen and for the first half of the film the main register of the audience was laughter rather than expectant tension – which was a nice change. But even so this is not enough. The audience needs to be scared and without that in a film like this you’re never going to make a classic.
The majority of cinema consists of stories with up, downs, twists and sub-plots. With a veritable fairground of plot devices and narrative techniques at their disposal film-makers have the potential to make continually engrossing and surprising films – throughout their duration. This series eschews that convention however by taking you on an ever escalating rollercoaster. There you sit, climbing and climbing with only the anticipation of a nice steep, scary pay off to tide you over. But when it drops you need to repay your audience their investment. Smashing straight into the ground just won’t do it. They need to experience the end, not just get killed on impact. Such a bold statement as finishing a film in a fit of bewilderment is more of a technical comment or a one shot shocker than a continuous crowd-pleaser. But more than that it’s a statement that has been shown to continually fail in this context.
Technically everyone involved does well. The special effects are well done, the acting as good as could be expected and the atmosphere is good enough. But this makes the failure of the film to hold your attention all the more unfortunate. When the 5 second glimpse of the utter ferocity the directors are capable of finally comes (I bet you can guess where in the film it happens) the carrot you’ve been after all this time is pulled from your grasp and you have to wonder, was it worth chasing it at all?