Paranormal Activity 4: Squeeze-and-Release Dread

It’s surprising that “Paranormal Activity 4″ has turned out to be as scary as it is. Five years into this phenomenally profitable franchise, you might expect the picture to be an exhausted joke, wobbling around in “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy” territory. The simple formal elements of the series — the mostly static “found footage,” the numbered night scenes, the time code counting down at the bottom of the screen — remain the same; and though the three previous films have grossed more than $500 million worldwide (on a combined budgetary outlay of slightly more than $8 million), the dedication to a low-budget aesthetic — no stars, no music, no flashy effects — likewise remains unchanged.

What has changed — or is changing — is the story. Given the huge profit margin involved, it might have been tempting to just keep remaking the exact same movie over and over again, with slight shock variations. But directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and co-writer Christopher Landon, all returning from the third film, have deepened the chill factor somewhat by expanding the series’s mythology, introducing an agreeably silly ancient Hittite motif and sketching in the outline of an overarching pattern of evil. All very creepy and still very effective.

In the three previous movies, set in California, we met the troubled and troublesome Katie (Katie Featherston). As a child, Katie and her sister, Kristi, fell under the malign spell of their grandmother, secretly the leader of a coven of witches. Later, taken over by a demon called “Toby,” Katie killed Kristi and disappeared with her infant son, Hunter. Now, six years later, we find ourselves in Nevada, getting to know a new family: a mom and dad (Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham) who aren’t getting along too well, their teenage daughter, Alex (Kathryn Newton), and a 6-year-old son, called Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). One day, another 6-year-old, a very strange lad called Robbie (Brady Allen), comes calling. Robbie lives across the street from this family, and his mother has suddenly been taken to the hospital. He has nowhere to go. The family takes him in — a big mistake, naturally, as we soon see. Alex’s boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), has her set up laptops and other surveillance equipment around her house to document the strange stuff that begins happening (and, of course, the tension-pumping non-activity in the various late-night rooms).

Some of the expected supernatural jolts that ensue — the shaky chandeliers, the self-slamming doors — provide a reassuringly familiar background for startling new frights, among them an eerie levitation. (Illusionist David Copperfield, a fan of the “PA” franchise, weighed in here.) There are dim figures barely seen, a possessed butcher knife, a frantic garage scene and — hey, what’s going on across the street?

One of the most appealing aspects of the “Paranormal Activity” films is their lack of gore and pain and dismemberment — the calling cards of the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies. The “PA” films are solidly in the haunted house tradition, which relies on little more than a generalized spookiness. The story here doesn’t entirely add up (the picture’s original ending didn’t test well, so a less detailed conclusion was substituted), but who cares? The movie delivers what we’ve come to expect, an unrelenting sense of squeeze-and-release dread, freshened up with some lively new scares. Any minor narrative gaps can be filled in later — presumably right around this time next year.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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