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 timecode counting down at the bottom of the screen—remain the same; and while 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 cowriter Christopher Landon, all returning from the last film, have deepened the chill factor somewhat by expanding the series' 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 six-year-old son called Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). One day another six-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.