Note: This early reaction is based on a workprint of the film and not the finished version. It also includes minor spoilers, so read at your own risk.
The Paranormal Activity franchise has to run out of ideas at some point, right? After all, how many different ways can you film an empty room with a stationary camera and wait for a door to creep open all by itself? Yet here we are, three sequels later, still finding nice things to say about a franchise that's somehow stayed fresh while all its imitators have failed to tap into that same magic.
Last night Paranormal Activity 4 had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, and while the filmmakers insist it's still a work in progress, unless something drastic changes between now and its October 19 release date, we've got a pretty good idea of what's in store. There were clearly a few moments where the visual effects hadn't been entirely completed, or where sound design was either missing or temporary, but as far as the characters and story goes, one would think it's pretty close to the final version. And there's great, good and bad things about its final prospects.
PA4 has the best character work in the entire franchise. This go-around focuses the story on a teenage girl, Alice, and her family who take in one of the neighbor's kids, Robbie, when his mother is mysteriously hospitalized. The cameras come into play as Alice and her boyfriend, Alex, use video chat to constantly talk to each other. One night Alex notices Robbie's creepy behavior while Alice is sleeping, and so the pair install video recording software on all the laptops in the house to try and find out what the deal is with this weird kid who is suddenly living in their house.
And the best part of the movie is the relationship between Alice and Alex. Kathryn Newton and Matt Shively, respectively, are naturals. They've got chemistry and charm and their relationship never, ever feels like a "movie relationship." They're just two funny, normal kids, with normal tastes, and normal ideas of how to react to an increasingly weird scenario. And while it would seem the word normal would be at odds with a movie with the word paranormal in the title, it's actually the saving grace here because it creates an attachment to these two, and the family at large, that pays off once the craziness starts to set in.
Returning directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have found a way to make the film more visually interesting than ever before. That's mostly thanks to Alice and Alex's relationship and their believable obsession with Skyping with one another, which means that Alice can constantly carry her laptop from room to room and it feels less like the setup for a scare and more like something they'd be doing even if there wasn't this creepy new kid in their house.
But on top of the webcam stuff, their use of the camera on the Xbox 360's Kinect is inspired. For starters, it does not feel like product placement. (I actually hope it is, because if that's the case whatever amount Microsoft forked over for its inclusion probably covered half the budget, but even if that wasn't the case, it still works.) The thousands of IR dots that it broadcasts out not only create a fun visual image, but it feels like something you've never seen before, and yet it just further grounds the movie into a world in which this stuff makes sense. You could go home and experiment with it - and many teens probably will - and I feel like that's an energy that this franchise needs now that it's in the fourth installment.
PA4 isn't scary. I wish it was, but unfortunately it just isn't. We believe and care about the characters more than ever, but because PA4 lacks any new tricks in its scare portfolio, none of that translates into fear. It's the same old creaky doors, possessed people standing still, and non-possessed people getting yanked around like rag dolls, and that stuff isn't affecting the fourth time around.
On top of that, and this gets into mild spoiler territory, there's no need to try and turn Katie Featherstone into a genre icon. PA4 tries and it totally backfires. The past movies all used her as the common denominator that tied them all together, and she's fine as that. As an icon of fear, however, she's bland and empty. There's no threat, no menace, and she sucks any tension right out of the movie anytime she appears.
And that's a shame. You still care about the family. You understand the peril they're in, you just don't fear for them in the way you've feared for the families in the past, and it's largely because PA4 brings into light what should stay in shadows. If they do anything to the film between now and its release, they need to find a way to make Katie Featherstone scary. It's like watching a motion-capture performance that hasn't been animated over. It would be like if in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the entire time you saw Andy Serkis on set and not Caesar the ape. They could, and should, digitally replace her entire body with a shadow - as it is in the above image - and her presence in the movie might actually be effective.
The Sum of it All
Having said all that, it didn't matter to me that the movie never made my heart rate raise. I appreciated enough of the work done with the characters (minus Katie) and the visual setup of the film that I didn't walk out of the theater feeling like I'd just seen the death of a franchise I like quite a bit. Rather, it felt very much like a work in progress. There's a good movie in there. There might even be a great movie in there if enough work can be done on it between now and when it comes out. But even if all they fix are the temp effects, it'll still be a decent entry into the franchise. I sincerely hope it's not the final one, at least. I'm still game for one more round, and that's not something that can be said of every franchise this far in.
Paranormal Activity 4 hits theaters on October 19.
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