Monday, October 22, 2012

What worked and didn't work in Paranormal Activity 4

I saw Paranormal Activity 4 this weekend and found it to be something of a mixed bag.  I have to admit, I enjoy these found footage horror films largely from the angle of looking for the seams.  I rarely am able to get immerced in the conceit that what we're seeing is "actually happening" but oddly, I really enjoy spotting all the tricks and innovations that the creators use to create that illusion.

But rather than pontificate about found footage, just go read my old post on the matter here.

There was a fair amount I liked about the film.  For one thing - casting director Terri Taylor should be commended for finding the young actress who plays the lead, Kathryn Newton.  The 15 year-old really has to carry most of the movie and it's clear the wrong actress in that part could have sunk the film.  She manages to be the most likable and most sympathetic protagonist in any of the PA films.  It helps that she has great chemistry with the actor playing her boyfriend, Matt Shively.  Shivley's actually 22, but he manages to play a credible 15 or 16.

It really enhances the film to have teenagers who actually look like teenagers.  We're so used to seeing actors in their mid-twenties playing high school students that it almost takes us aback to be reminded how young and vulnerable actual teenagers look.  It actually makes terror more vivid because these victims don't look like over-developed adults.  Even though these movies always end with the heroes getting killed, I found myself really wanting these kids to come out of this okay.

And yet, when they met their end, I felt cheated in a way that had little to do with the downer nature of the ending.  It was a little bit of a surprise, especially since the second film went out of its way to spare its teenage protagonist from the slaughter.  Mostly, I felt let down because every previous sequel tried to expand the mythology.  The mythology and the backstory deepened, perhaps not completely, but enough that it felt like this chapter needed to be the definitive end.

Over the course of the previous three movies, we learned that the demon haunting Katie in the first film was a demon that had made a pact with a coven led by Katie's grandmother.  The pact demanded payment in the form of the first male child born in the family line.  This turned out to be Hunter, the infant stolen away in the second film, who resurfaces in Paranormal Activity 4.  The events of this film lead to Hunter ending up in the possession of the coven.  Unfortunately, his fate after that is ambiguous and it's pretty well hinted that Kathryn's character meets her end trying to save him.

As profitable as these films are, it's probably unrealistic to expect Paramount to produce a definitive conclusion before the box office totally bottoms out.  The problem is that three films of build-up demanded a more meaningful climax to the Hunter story.  Basically, the film ends right before the true climax should begin, giving the audience a massive case of blue balls.

Other writing issues:

Why do Alex's parents agree to take in Robbie?  Alex's mother meets Robbie's mother Katie only once, briefly. How many of you would taken in a strange kid belonging to a neighbor whom you met for only three minutes once.

How the hell did Hunter come to be adopted by the family as Wyatt?  There's a big red herring in that we're clearly set up to think that Robbie is actually Hunter, but as it turns out, Wyatt is revealed to be Katie's nephew.  This unfortunately leads us to wonder how Hunter ended up going from being in Katie's clutches at the end of the second film, to going into the adoption system.  There are some indications that Katie had to wait until Hunter was of age so that the pact could be completed, so that at least explains why he wasn't delivered to the demon immediately.  Yet I can't figure out how or why she would have lost custody of the kid without revealing herself to the authorities in the process.

As for Robbie's real identity, I'm presuming that Katie was pregnant when she got possessed and that the boy is her actual son.  I'm going to further suppose that since Robbie was the second male child born to that family line that he couldn't be offered up to the demon to fulfill the pact.

Why does Alex stop watching the videos?  Alex and her boyfriend are smart enough to rig up a surveilance system that basically turns every laptop in the house into a hidden camera.  For about 2/3 of the film, we see them dilligently reviewing the footage and finding evidence of weird stuff.  Then, when things become a little less ambiguous (i.e. the knife incident), Alex conveniently stops reviewing the tapes. 

The script tries to cover this by showing Alex having trouble logging in, but that's a fix that actually makes the problem worse because it creates an unanswered question about why Alex's password has suddenly been changed.  (Maybe you could argue one of the kids did it under the direction of the demon, but then why not just turn off the cameras or trash the laptop altogether?)

Was Katie really in the hospital? If so, what was wrong with her? If not, why was she faking?  Robbie ends up with Alex's family because his mom Katie becomes sick under strange circumstances.  Not only is her condition never explained beyond this, but Alex points out that Katie doesn't look like someone who was sick.  That line seems designed to make us suspect there's more to her illness than meets the eye - but we know that at a minimum, there was an ambulance that took her away.  We get zero clue to what she was sick with.  It's just a weak plot device designed to isolate Robbie.

The arrival of the coven members also doesn't make much sense.  Since Katie obviously knows all of these people, why wouldn't one of them take Robbie in?  Are all of these holes supposed to lead us to the conclusion that Katie went to these lengths to plant Robbie in with Alex's family, knowing he'd make contact with Hunter?  Surely there had to be easier ways to insinuate oneself with that family.  (A good start? Try not acting like a fucking weirdo.  Just knock on the door and say "Hi, I'm Katie.  My son and I are new to the neighborhood and I thought it'd be good for Robbie to play with boys his own age.")

Those are the biggest issues with regard to the script's internal logic.  I have a few others, but they start to enter the realm of nitpicking.  Did you guys see it this weekend? What did you think?


  1. I too was off put by how the overall story wasn't furthered in this movie. I also found it very confusing as to why possessed Katie when to so much trouble to take Hunter then to just have him adopted by another family. Also didn't they mention at one point that Robbie was also adopted? So maybe he's not Katie's son. Far be it from me to try and make sense of the story.

    Another burning question: if Katie did actually go to the hospital wouldn't she have been recognized due to her connection to multiple murders of her boyfriend/sister/brother-in-law. She's even using the same name!

    And did you see this MTV article that claims to explain the ambiguous ending but only manages to just ask the questions everyone wants to know without really giving any answers?!

    1. Those answers are very frustrating. I think the creators' attitudes actually brought down my assessment of the film even further after reading that. Sigh.

      Glad to see I'm not alone in pulling for Alex's survival. Can we get #AlexLives trending on Twitter?

  2. I'm sure others would like to see more nitpicking of PA4. What was the story about the fork (that could tell the future, and was 200 yrs old) that Robbie brought from home about?

  3. i think that means the creator's themselves have no frickin' clue what was going on either. typical. completely tanked an otherwise well-rounded franchise.