Paranormal Activity 4 landed with a thud when it hit theaters last October. It wasn’t popular with either audiences or critics (the latter, on the whole, had been surprisingly kind to the franchise up to this point). It wound up with barely more than half the domestic gross of the third installment. Of course, add in the $86 million it hauled in overseas and it was more than enough for the famously low budget franchise to continue with the already-scheduled Paranormal Activity 5.
Why the vehemently negative response to part four from so many fans? Having just screened the new unrated Blu-ray edition, I’m honestly not really sure. Here’s the truth about this series: the first film wasn’t all that great to begin with. Yes, it was immensely impressive that writer-director Oren Peli was able to do so much with so little, much like The Blair Witch Project a decade earlier (still the all-time box office champ of the “found footage” genre with $140 million—a staggering $215 million when adjusted for inflation). But the movie was essentially a very clever cinematic sleight of hand that doesn’t hold much in the way of repeat-viewing value. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat did a believable job of acting like average, boring people. The extremely lo-fi audio/visual effects were expertly deployed to create chillingly sustained suspense.
The sequels have all provided variations on the limited theme. Maybe we’re just too familiar with the trademark “scares” for the fourth time around to still be that scary. That said, I found this one to be at least as enjoyable as the previous one, even though it admittedly added nothing new to the thinly developed series backstory. In this outing we spend most of our time in the home of an entirely new family. Teenaged Alex Nelson (Kathryn Newton, who could easily play AnnaSophia Robb’s younger sister) is our protagonist. She lives with her mom (Holly Nelson), dad (Doug Nelson), and younger brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Though she’s a little tech-challenged, she has a guy friend, Ben (Matt Shively), to help her set up cameras in every device possible after weird things begin happening in the house. They’re not weird for us, because they’re all hallmarks of the Paranormal series, but she’s understandably freaked out.
The household dynamic changes abruptly once the little boy who lives across the street, Robbie (Brady Allen), moves in with the Nelsons. From that point on, the paranormal activity within the Nelson home increases dramatically. The green “tracking dot” effect, captured on camera via night vision and created by the Xbox 360, adds a neat visual twist that we haven’t seen in previous installments. The actors portraying the Nelsons, particularly Kathryn Newton, do a credible job of acting naturally. Revealing anything further is unnecessary. Part four isn’t the best of the Paranormal Activity sequels (I’d give that distinction to part two), but I honestly don’t think the relative quality level exhibited throughout the series seems diminished.
As usual with films in this series, Paranormal Activity 4 presents a challenge when evaluating the Blu-ray image quality. The “found footage” that has been edited together to tell the story comes from a variety of consumer-grade cameras, webcams, and security cams. As such, clarity and detail level varies wildly throughout. I’d say that Paramount’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer does a great job of representing all these varying quality levels. When banding is evident, it’s the camera’s fault rather than the transfer. Same goes for loss of detail in dark scenes, focus problems, and digital noise. This is another accurate representation of flawed source footage.
And so it goes as well with the audio. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix doesn’t consist exclusively of audio taken directly from the variety of consumer sources. It’s been sweetened and enhanced, of course, with all the usual hums, thumps, footsteps, and crashes we’ve grown a little too used to in the Paranormal series. Most of the scoreless soundtrack does, in fact, approximate “reality” and as such the mix stays mostly up front. As the scary stuff occurs with more frequency, we hear more atmospheric sounds from the rears and the LFE channel kicks in at just the right moments.
Another established tradition with this series is a minimal amount of bonus material. The Blu-ray contains the aforementioned unrated cut that runs almost nine minutes longer than the theatrical (also included). Other than that, “The Recovered Files” contains a fairly generous 28 minutes of additional “found footage” (i.e. deleted scenes). They wouldn’t have added much of anything to final cut, but for fans of the series it’s a cool inclusion. A standard DVD and Digital Copy are also included with the Blu-ray.
I don’t personally feel the Paranormal Activity franchise has run out of steam. Part four may be lacking in the freshness department, but the film managed to be roughly as entertaining as the other sequels. Paranormal Activity 5 has already been slated for an October 2013 release and I’ll gladly check that one out too.