I’ll admit that I have a soft stop for the Paranormal Activity movies, and really, anything that includes demons and demonic possession. You might argue that, four movies in, all of the Paranormal Activity movies have been basically the same, and you’d be right — but underneath is something of a progression in a story about a demon and the hell it has unleashed on a family, in slow stages, to reach its goals.
Except, that is, in Paranormal Activity 4. I was able to give a pass to, and even fully enjoy, the earlier three movies because they move along the greater demonic storyline, if slowly. But the fourth movie feels more cash-in than ever before, and lacks almost completely anything that pushes the story forward. It leaves more questions than answers, there are some gaping holes in the fabric of the underlying plot, and it sort of feels like it’s time to bring the whole thing to a halt.
Okay, here come the spoilers, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to talk about the series of movies and have me ruin it for you.
Paranormal Activity is about a demon. It has apparently been following protagonist Katie and her family around for years, surfacing first when they were young and then going dormant. But it seems to be back. Over the course of the film, ostensibly, lots of stuff moves around and gets weird. Objects flutter, presences can be felt around the house, and other strange occurrences take place. For a low-budget movie, it was creepy and fun in the theater.
By the end of that film, Katie is possessed by the demon and disappears. In Paranormal Activity 2, we get a lot more context. In the months leading up to Katie’s possession, the demon was actually terrorizing her sister, new mother Christie. The demon seemed to have a fascination with her son, Hunter, and it’s strongly implied that perhaps the women’s grandmother bargained with the demon, trading the family’s next male child in exchange for wealth and prosperity. Hunter happens to be that kid.
Toward the end of the film, when Christie is possessed, her husband Daniel manages to transfer the demon to Katie — leading to the events of the first film. By the end of that film, Katie is possessed — it seems the demon works off fear and must mentally break down its targets before it can overtake them — and possessed Katie kills Daniel and Christie, steals Hunter, and disappears.
The third film fills in more backstory, prequeling the later events by showing the girls when they’re young, and implying that the demon coerced … something … out of Christie when she was young, mostly by threatening her family. The grandmother was also implicated in some sort of manipulative devil worship with a coven of witches.
All of that is cool. Each film builds out a new element that recasts the information of the last, expanding the plot just enough while managing to stay with the formula of the first movie.
Then we have Paranormal Activity 4. The logical way to expand the story was to show what happened to Katie and Hunter after his abduction, but the formula of the films — weird things happening in a house, captured on home video of some form or another, is pretty limiting. So the story hops ahead by five years and focuses on a family that’s experiencing strange things.
There are a few cool new elements: namely, the demon’s apparent thralls, in Katie and a kid named Robbie, who appear in the story and push things along. But what we never really get is additional information, or any real context as to why we’re seeing the events we’re seeing. What it breaks down to is this: What the hell is this demon up to? And why didn’t it accomplish its goals five years ago?
It seems unfortunate, but the ideas that were implied in the first three movies, and the fiction they built, were fascinating — and seem to have no good culmination. It’s certainly not to be found in Paranormal Activity 4, and the movie relies more on bait-and-switch jump scares than any other in the series. Overall, this is a story that didn’t need to be told and added little to the overarching through line. I’ve stuck around this long because a scary demon seems to be up to something — and it’s winning every battle it’s in. But it doesn’t appear that Paranormal Activity has much more gas in the tank, and for all the ideas unexplored or unexplained in the fourth film, it doesn’t seem like a fifth is going to do much except continue to cash in on the name.