It takes almost no effort or ingenuity to keep the “Paranormal Activity” franchise going. Same conceit, new home. These are the movies of our times: housing angst, recording devices everywhere, quiet suburban disorder. These are also the movies of our old times: evil that arrives whenever new technology does, when marriages fray, when teenagers need sex, when parents adopt.
The camera in these movies — and in most films seeking the attention of certain young and youngish audiences — is a third, all-seeing eye. Who knows what omnipotent force is editing these weeks and months of footage into 90- and 100-minute comedies and action movies and horror films? Maybe someone’s saving the big reveal for an all-camera-phone “Wizard of Oz.” In the meantime, having the actors seem to do all the cinematography fosters a kind of formal identification: You could have made this!
“Paranormal Activity 4” is set in Nevada, the state with the highest foreclosure rate, and revolves around a family of four that temporarily takes in the weird little boy (Brady Allen) who lives across the street. The parents might be splitting up, and their young son is not theirs biologically. Needless to say: For movie evil, this is a moth-to-flame scenario.
Most of the homemade-looking shots feature Kathryn Newton as the teched-out teen whose buddy (Matt Shively) fashions a security system out of the three laptops in her house. You almost believe she’d take the camera everywhere she goes but not enough to stop you from rolling your eyes when she falls asleep with her MacBook open and recording all night.
Installment four, which actually appears to be following installment two, has a few more special effects than its predecessors, mainly a rumbling sound design and a trick that yanks characters up to the ceiling. You can always tell this is about to happen because the bulk of the harness is visible beneath the actors’ clothes. But anticipating the yank creates a kind of meta-suspense. A gaffe like that speaks to the virtue of any “Paranormal Activity” production. The only reason a harness is perceptible at all is that the shots last for minutes. That kind of calm is a real gift in a horror movie now. It’s a pleasure to look around and inspect the framing, to see what small games the filmmakers are playing with props.
The directors, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, know what they’re doing here. The movie builds, with enough suspense, to its finale. But even for a something about supernatural shenanigans, this ending is embarrassing. They load their movie with references to other, superior ones: Hey, it’s an effective nod to the Big Wheel sequence from “The Shining”; and who else is that creepy little neighbor if not another “Omen” regurgitation?
But the ending steals actionably from “The Blair Witch Project,” the movie that helped spawn these first-person chillers. “The Blair Witch Project” worked rigorously for the horror of its final shot. Being a movie of its moment, “Paranormal Activity 4” basically gets its version of that ending the way Kathryn might. It downloads it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.