To the credit of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (purported documentary Catfish), with prequel Paranormal Activity 3, and now this latest entry, set five years after the events of the second film, the directing duo has enlivened the formula with a nifty bag of tension-building tricks and plausible enough methods for spicing up the tedious camera angles that especially hampered the second film.
While a greater mythology involving a demon-worshiping witch coven continues to develop in baby steps, hints about the grand design of the demon that possessed Katie Featherstone to murder her loved ones and steal her sister's child isn't why the audience line up to buy tickets. They plunk down cash to experience the giddy tension of knowing something is going to jump out and say, "boo" when they least expect it.
Joost and Schulman employ misdirection to handy effect, choosing to focus on the natural comedic chemistry between 15-year-old Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), for the film's first act. When a woman across the street is taken to a hospital for undisclosed reasons, Alex's mom insists that they take in her young son, Robbie, who has no one else to care for him. As you can guess by his creepy despondency, that's when freaky shit starts happening around the house and Alex enlists Ben to set up a few cameras and rig all of the computers in the house to record via video chat.
The authorial voice of the directors can be felt with some cheap editing tactics, but for the most part, the set up and pay off of scares is effective and occasionally inventive, such as the use of Xbox Connect tracking dots, visible only in night vision. Momentum sags when Alex and Ben are absent from the screen — her dismissive parents are barely even ciphers — but at least the camera-obsessed teenager isn't gone for long.
By tempering the format's inherent tedium with likeable characters and a strong sense of humour, Paranormal Activity 4 hits a new high water mark in a series that could easily have been crushed by its limitations by now. (Paramount)