Just when you thought the nightmare was over, 'Paranormal Activity 4' offers another vision of an invisible terror that scares by making a racket throughout the house. That terror comes by way of a creepy little boy named Robbie (Brady Allen) and his imaginary friend moving in next door with his mom (Katie Featherston) and walking uninvited into the neighbor's backyard. When mom falls ill and is hospitalized, the boy stays with the neighbors for a few days, and all sorts of strange-happenings and paranormal activities begin to occur. As is the franchise's stock and trade, all manner of recording devices are readily available and in perfect functioning order to capture the events with better clarity, visibility and suspense than your typical ghost-hunting reality TV show.
Ignoring the plot's obvious similarities to Damien of Richard Donner's 'The Omen,' Allen genuinely elevates the movie's disturbing factor with his odd behavior and blank stares. He's tasked with mostly appearing emotionless and unresponsive to others around him, except when it concerns his playmate, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), the neighbor's boy with whom he's staying and shares a bedroom. Wyatt's teenage sister Alex (Kathryn Newton), who's largely responsible for babysitting the two while mom and dad (Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham) work on repairing their marriage, is on the receiving end of the terror and abnormal noises in the house. Her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) constantly looks at the camera to remind us what a creepy kid Robbie is.
Then again, any kid who acts as worryingly as this pint-size actor does is sure to make any movie creepier than its other intended parts. And filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost definitely work at outdoing the previous three, along with not letting Allen handle all the scares. The directing duo, who we remember from the last movie and as the masterminds behind the eerie faux-documentary 'Catfish,' devise a few new spins to the franchise's signature style in the found-footage subgenre. Aside from standard digital camcorders and cellphones, the filmmakers use laptop cameras for some rather ingenious angles, with the video chats creating the most uneasy moments. They also surpass part three's "fan cam" segment with the unnervingly bizarre and nightmarish sequences involving Xbox's motion-sensing Kinect device.
Picking up five years after the events of part two, this fourth installment to the 'Paranormal' series is ultimately a repeat of the first three — unknown noises and loud bumps generate a hair-raising vibe — except it's rarely ever scary. It only manages to send a few chills up your spine here and there as we struggle to see what's hiding around the corner or wonder what the other cameras are capturing instead. Part of the problem comes from a set of expectations already established by the other films. It's not this direct sequel fails as satisfying those expectations, but that we know they're coming far in advance. So, we sit, listening to pointless conversations while waiting for a clever surprise that never comes. In fact, the one attempt at a shocking plot twist creates more questions than it does a wholly satisfying piece of entertainment.
'Paranormal Activity 4' comes with plenty of the paranormal, like books falling off shelves, knives mysteriously disappearing, chandeliers moving on their own, footsteps scurrying across the upstairs floor and more. There's also a fair amount of activity in the deep-space compositions of the frame, which makes up the majority of the film's suspenseful feel, but none of it leaves behind a lasting impression. At least, not to the level of the previous three. On a positive note, all these smaller events thankfully build towards a final climatic confrontation, one that actually gives goose bumps. Sadly, even at its theatrical 87-minute release, it's a long time coming, requiring audiences to endure boring chats between the kids.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment brings 'Paranormal Activity 4' as a two-disc combo pack with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. The Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably on the panel opposite a DVD-9 copy. Both are inside a blue, eco-vortex keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. After a trailer, viewers are taken to a static and plain main menu with white text and blackground where they may choose between the 87-minute theatrical cut and the 96-minute unrated version. The difference between the two is negligible with extra footage that prolongs the scares.
As with the other 'Paranormal' movies, this fourth installment is only as good as its source, which isn't much. Shot entirely on digital cameras from phones and computers, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode rarely provides a pretty picture. It's a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, of course — all part of the effort and illusion in creating as sense of realism. But that is no excuse for ignoring the obvious, that being that oodles of video artifacts present everywhere, starting with image noise. It's mostly of the low-frequency chroma variety and can be quite the nuisance in several sequences. Banding and posterization is equally apparent throughout.
As for the rest of the 1.78:1 image, contrast and brightness constantly fluctuate and are never consistent with lots of blown-out highlights. While whites remain fairly clean and bright, blacks waver noticeably from scene to scene with grayish murky shadows, but shadow details are conveniently perceptible for a desired effect. Not surprisingly, colors are bold and vibrant. Like the picture quality, definition and clarity is only as good as its source, and it varies from excellent to average, depending on the scene. Overall, it's an intentional look that basically isn't all that pretty in high-def.
Where the third sequel really shines is in this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack as all sorts of noises and thumps spread throughout the room. Footsteps can be heard stomping overhead, scurrying from one side to the other with incredible, convincingly fluid movements. With fantastic directionality and terrific discreteness, other bumps in the night generate a terrifying environment and often seem as if to come from inside the house. Adding to the experience is a splendid, highly-responsive low-end, packing a good deal of weight and power to several of the effects. The rest of the mid-range is distinct and dynamic with excellent, detailed clarity in the upper frequencies. Exceptional channel separation in the fronts creates a spacious and appreciably varied soundstage while the center delivers well-prioritized and intelligible vocals, making for an awesome lossless mix to an otherwise mediocre supernatural horror flick.
As far as we can tell, all special features are exclusive to the Blu-ray release.
The fourth installment in the 'Paranormal Activity' franchise ultimately brings nothing new to the table, feeling largely dull and inferior thanks to expectations already set by the previous three. Despite building towards an arguably satisfying and creepy climax, the sequel is essentially a retread that takes a long time in creating any scares. The Blu-ray doesn't offer much in terms of picture quality, but it's to the intentions of the filmmakers, while the audio presentation is an excellent highlight. A small collection of supplements makes the overall package decent enough, but probably works best as a rental.