Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Back in 2009, a movie came out that brought something new and refreshing to the “found footage” genre of horror movie made so popular by The Blair Witch Project a decade before. That film was Paranormal Activity. Like its snotty-faced muse, it was very low budget and had a certain simplicity to it. It relied on a single handicam being placed in a bedroom every night to capture what spooky shenanigans were occurring. Audiences loved it, so inevitably the sequel hit screens the following year. And in a pattern resembling Saw, we’re now seeing sequels summoned on a yearly basis to coincide with Halloween. But is Paranormal Activity 4 a devilish return to form, or is it just a pale apparition of what went before?

If you’ve been following the franchise thus far then this film returns back to the “regular” timeline set forth in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2, but does draw on plotlines exposed in the prequel, Paranormal Activity 3. I know, I too wish they’d just called Paranormal Activity 3 “Paranormal Activity: Inception, or Origins, or The Summoning”… just something to make the chronology a little easier to comprehend! Regardless, it follows on from the massacre at the hands of Katie (Katie Featherston) in PA2. And guess what? She’s gone walkabout with Hunter and ended up in a new neighbourhood – a new neighbourhood that houses our lead, Alex (Kathryn Newton), and her family. Inevitably, spooky things start happening and the Paranormal Activity storyline is developed… very, very slowly… and not in an interesting new way.

He’s behind you…

The big “hook” this time is the use of modern technology to capture the activity, namely webcams and X-box Kinect’s detection system. I’ve got to say, it worked, but it wasn’t as effective as it could have been, and nowhere near as interesting as what went before. The main problem is that in previous instalments the cameras were positioned in such a way that you became very familiar with the room over time. The nature of a webcam mounted to a laptop is that it travels and moves a hell of a lot; thus breaking some of this continuity. Sure, some of these cameras are artificially “fixed” to capture the action, but it somewhat removed some of the tension by having them so mobile.

The next thing you’ve got to come to with a horror film is… the horror, the scares, the tension. And I’ve got to say that spare the last 3 minutes, the film is incredibly light on all of the former. The Paranormal Activity franchise has got a reputation as being a “slow burner” and one that gradually ramps up the tension, but this takes “slow burner” to an entirely new level. This is very slow. And the menace is somewhat removed by the silhouette outlined by the Kinect sensor’s projections. In previous films, you’ve come to use your imagination to conjure up what this demon looks like. Hell, in Paranormal Activity you saw those weird trotter / three-toed imprints in the talcum powder, and in Paranormal Activity 3 you had that snorting sound. I was imagining one hell of a demon. All of this is destroyed somewhat in PA4. You’ll see what I mean if you head out to see it.

This is an album cover by a death metal band called Crucifier (thanks Google). But THIS is how I saw Paranormal Activity’s demon. Or something close…

And how could I forget the return of my friend “LOUD NOISES!”. Yes, he’s back and with a vengeance this time around. The majority of the startlings are a result of the loud noises. I’m well aware that Paranormal Activity pioneered this approach, so I’m not expecting it to vanish, but a little more terror would have been appreciated. And god knows I rambled enough about this issue in my review of Sinister, which in retrospect was probably a better film than Paranormal Activity 4. In all aspects. The acting here isn’t bad, as Kathryn Newton is a very likeable lead and carries the film well, but its the shambolic writing that lets the film down so badly. I’m sick to death of the family never believing there’s a ghost until they’re crucified on a clothes line or suspended from the rafters by a dressing gown cord.

The Kinect effect. Not sure if Microsoft will feel a boom in their profits because of this though…

And the plot holes? My oh my are there plot holes! Although some would ruin the film, just ask yourself “who is Katie’s child?” – the one that she initially turns up with, because it sure as hell isn’t Hunter from Paranormal Activity 2. Who is he? Why does she have him? And just why the hell do they bother to record ghostly happenings if they never check the bloody tapes!? I’m half-expecting the already-commissioned Paranormal Activity 5 to deal with the unknown child to be honest. And inevitably I’ll be going to the cinema to see what they’ve cooked up this time. Hopefully something a little more refreshing and interesting…

Paranormal Activity 4 isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not even in the same league as the original. Many of the scares have been removed and the pre-requisite for imagination has been checked at the cloakroom. It was the fear of not knowing what the demon looked like that made it interesting for me. The addition of a witches’ covenant in Paranormal Activity 3 caught me a little off-guard, and was unwelcome in my eyes, but it added a bit of depth to the saga. This instalment does little to develop the plot.

Ultimately, this film’s developments are tantamount to finding out that the horrible black silhouette of a goblin lurking in the corner of your room is in fact a pile of clothes. It removes the fear and intrigue. Maybe I missed the point of the “silhouette” cast by the demon here, but the film certainly didn’t develop this image I have in my head. I certainly won’t be calling the Ghostbusters. Especially if Bill Murray isn’t coming to crack some jokes. Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 – now THEY were scary movies! I’ve never looked at a fridge or bathtub the same since. Probably why I’m malnourished and odorous.

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Sinister (2012)

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never been a fan of Anchorman and all of its sayings that some fans will spit back at you ad-verbatim like it’s still a fresh and exciting movie, and not something that’s now eight years old. But one quote, or scene, does stick with me – and that’s the one in which Steve Carell‘s character just exclaims “LOUD NOISES!” as his contribution to an argument. It was funny. It was apt. So why am I bringing this up in a review that’s not for The Campaign? Well, because I don’t think there’s any other phrase, spare “LOUD NOISES!” that really sums up horror movies of the past five years. Does Sinister follow this well trod path, or is it something altogether more… sinister?

The set up for the film is that true crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family to a new town so that he can write his new book about some grizzly murders that happened there: a quadruple hanging. Of course, Ellison decides to move the family into the exact house where the hangings happened (unbeknown to his family) so that he can draw inspiration from the surroundings and maybe uncover a thing or two about the unsolved murders. But Ellison uncovers a box of film in the attic that explicitly details a series of brutal murders all featuring a rather evil looking presence. Obviously, I can’t divulge much more, but that’s the premise. But is it any good?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. I also can’t help but feel that Sinister and Insidious have more in common than a single word title. Let me make this clear: I thought Insidious was an OK horror movie that had a solid narrative… for the first 2/3 of the film. That last act was appalling and looked like it was shot in a high school drama class. Honestly – the “make up” on the “big bad red faced demon” was abysmal. That whole ending left a sour taste in my mouth. But the main problem with Insidious and Sinister is their reliance on the aforementioned LOUD NOISES! The films rarely employ true terror or fear. The vast majority of the jumps come from cheap amplified noises. This isn’t horror. This is just making people jump. I could pop a balloon behind you right now and you’d jump. It’s not horror or terror – it’s surprise. This is why I can’t really say that Sinister distinguishes itself from the pack. It’s more of the same.

Ethan Hawke is fantastic here… even if he does look like Johnny “Drama” Chase…

I will however say that the plot, whilst supernatural and a little forced, works well. I enjoyed the general premise of the film as a whole and I really must commend Ethan Hawke here. He seamlessly holds the film together and really slogs it out on-screen. It’s refreshing to have a horror movie that’s genuinely well acted by its lead protagonist. One thing I’ve got to mention though… since when did Johnny “Drama” Chase from HBO’s Entourage (RIP) start acting in films? In the trailers I swore that Ethan Hawke was Kevin Dillon – they look almost identical. I was half expecting to see Turtle and E run on-screen and make the film into a total Bromance (yes, I loved Entourage, and can’t let go of it). But getting back on track: Hawke is brilliant. That’s not to say the rest of the cast are slouches, but they never stood out in the same way. James Ransone‘s Deputy was the comic relief and Juliet Rylance ably portrayed Hawke‘s wife, Tracy, but the children? Eh… less noteworthy. They’re no Pierce Gagnon, that’s for sure. Can’t we cast him in all films from now on? And cast Tom Hardy in there too? I’d pay.

If you shhh it makes the LOUD NOISES even LOUDER!!

Whilst I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Sinister, I almost knew what I was going to get from the outset. As soon as I see all of these “terrifying”, “you won’t sleep at night” and “best horror of the decade” quotes I’m immediately suspicious. Especially when they come from small-time horror film sites about as big as Film Phage – hey, it’s true, we’re small time  here (for now…). I just feel that either the standards for horror are slipping, or that people have forgotten what it’s like to be truly terrified by a film. Maybe I’m just hard to scare in that regard, but I didn’t feel tense or have an feeling of horror for the entire runtime. It was just interesting. I still say that nothing has come close to capturing the nuanced horror of Rec or even The Ring upon first viewing in a darkened cinema. There’s just too much emphasis on cheap jumps as opposed to psychologically terrifying someone. Although it’s lambasted, you’ve got to credit the original Paranormal Activity for at least trying this and making people doubt their own eyesight. A clever innovation. A clever innovation that will not be found in Sinister, despite Hawke‘s best efforts.

The only thing truly sinister about Sinister is how they managed to amass so many positive quotes from fellow critics that made the film seem the equivalent of a live-action ritual sacrifice with demons emerging from the lacerated corpse. Instead what we have is a film with a solid plot and a dodgy sound system that spikes way too often.

I’ll say one thing: Sinister beats out The Possession as best horror film I’ve seen in the past few weeks, but considering that’s its only competition that’s not saying much. With only Paranormal Activity 4 and perhaps Silent Hill: Revelations still to go, it could be another very unscary Halloween. LOUD NOISES!!!

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