If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw.
Or so the saying went for the better part part of, believe it or not, a decade. But the Saw series is, for the time being at least, over with, and the new Halloween horror franchise is, of course, Oren Peli’s surprisingly resilient Paranormal Activity. And why not? These things are relatively cheap to make, since no established stars are required (heck, any face you’d recognize from elsewhere would diminish the faux-reality effect these flicks are aiming for), special effects are limited to a few “big moments,” and the number of sets required are minimal, to say the least. The latest installment, Paranormal Activity 4, is expected to gross $31 million in its opening frame, and while that represents a fairly significant decline from the $52 million opening of part three last year, it’s still enough to secure first place at the box office and pretty much guarantee a green light for part five next year, given that this thing only cost a few million bucks to get “in the can,” as the saying goes.
As for how part four fares in comparison to previous entries in the series from a non-commercial standpoint, I’d say it’s certainly not as strong as two and three were, but still delivers the goods pretty well, and most importantly it actually moves the story forward by, well — moving the story forward, rather than embellishing upon our understanding of just what the hell is exactly going on by delving ever deeper into the past. And, as with last time around, Micah Sloat is nowhere in sight, so that’s a big plus, too.
After giving us some cursory flashback information to refresh our memories, the story gets rolling in the present day (well, okay, 2011), in the appropriately soul-dead suburban environs of Henderson, Nevada, where a bland upper-middle-class family is trying to figure out just what to make of their new neighbors across the street, a single mom (who we know to be Katie, played as always by Katie Featherston, from the previous films) and her creepy kid, Robbie ( Brady Allen —who we assume to be kidnapped baby Hunter, now grown up just a little bit). The “action,” as it were here, is transmitted via the conceit of several computer webcams, thus keeping the whole “hand-held horror” thing going, and the characters — standard teenage daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton), her standard horndog boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively), standard younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and standard marriage-hanging-by-a-thread parents Holly (Alexondra Lee) and Daniel (Brian Boland) — are all, well, frighteningly standard (as if you couldn’t guess that much), but what the hell : they’re more here to serve a function than to actually be unique or at all memorable in their own right, and as far as that goes, they all acquit themselves just fine.
Look, let’s not kid ourselves — the directorial team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, veteran hold-overs from the last film, aren’t out to reinvent the wheel here, they’re just out to deliver the goods as we’ve come to expect them, and maybe provide at least one nice little plot twist to keep us on our toes and let us that all know that we’re not as smart as we might think are, which is certainly the case here when it’s revealed that one of the key assumptions we’ve been making from the outset of the film is completely wrong. A few cheap jump-outta-yer-seat scares are, of course, a necessary ingredient in the mix, as well, and we get those, too, so there’s really nothing to complain about here.
Oh, sure, Paranormal Activity has become a formulaic, largely predictable thing at this point, but it’s a franchise now — what do you expect? Truth be told even the first one was never really as innovative as it presented itself as being. But if the formula keeps working, and the story keeps moving in at least a quasi-interesting direction, then count me as being one who’s happy to stick along for the ride. There’s nothing particularly exciting or groundbreaking about a Big Mac at this point, either, but every once in awhile, when you’re in just the right mood, they hit the spot like nothing else.