Paranormal Activity 4 runs on cheap thrills. After some time set aside for exposition that can be summed up as, "Something weird is going on in a house inhabited by at least one person who is tech-savvy enough to set up surveillance," the movie starts pummeling us with jump scares. If you've ever seen a horror movie, you should be familiar with the jump scare, the trick of a simultaneous on-screen surprise accompanied by a loud sound. These are effective (if always annoying) when used sparsely; in Paranormal Activity 4 they make for a monotonous rhythm.
A young girl plops down in front of the laptop she's Skyping on – that's a jump scare. A cat jumps into frame – that's a jump scare. An old woman says, "Hi," through the dark outside – that's a jump scare. A toy train turns on by itself – that's a jump scare. A car comes barreling down a street, almost hitting the person holding the camera who didn't look both ways – that's a jump scare. If she had looked both ways, it wouldn't be a jump scare. That's why she didn't.
Jump scares are just what the movie does. Faulting it for them would be like faulting a roller coaster for ascending and plunging, although Paranormal Activity 4 is no roller coaster. It feels more like someone administering intervals of brief electric shocks. Yeah, they make you feel, but goddamn are they annoying.
It's almost like directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman know their movie isn't scary. Their second stab at the Paranormal Activity series, and its fourth installment overall, is devoid of ideas beyond the one about ghosts haunting. Relying on the jump scare is an act of desperation. Something's gotta propel this thing that has to exist because it's Halloween and it's time for a new entry in the only viable horror franchise standing. (None of the Paranormal Activity films have made less than 20 times their budget so far.)
After two prequels, this is the first proper sequel to the first Paranormal Activity and it falls into standard horror-sequel mode, repeating what came before it while nudging the story along with the softest, most apathetic hand possible. None of the movies have been without stretches of tedium, but what was once a sturdy take on the found-footage subgenre is now lost in the perpetual-motion machine of itself. When it isn't screaming at you, it's giving you long, static shots to pore over, searching for something that might be amiss. At its most engaging, it's a game of Where's Weirdo.
In Paranormal Activity 4, we're introduced to a new family that lives across the street from a single mother and her strange, saucer-eyed, Persian cat of a young son, Robbie (Brady Allen). When the mom (I won't spoil her identity, but if you have any familiarity with this series, you know who she is) checks into a hospital, Robbie stays with the family and a bunch of weird shit starts happening that Alex (15-year-old Kathryn Newton) and her boyfriend catch on cameras and laptops they set up throughout the house. This supernatural force is obsessed with crescendos, bumping and thumping and teasing until it starts fatally tossing around its prey during the inevitable rush of a climax.
The best new thing Joost and Schulman devise for this one is the combination of an Xbox Kinect and an infrared camera. The latter picks up on the thousands of beams the former sends out, making those scenes look like moving neon Seraut paintings. It's a good-looking touch, but it's skin deep and a far cry from the suspenseful ingenuity of the camera/oscillating fan combo they deployed so effectively last time around.
Things thump increasingly harder throughout the film. Robbie brings over a fork that tells the future and draws things on the family's adopted son Wyatt that look like Pagan symbols but are never really explained. Nothing is, really, including why Alex stops reviewing her footage midway through the movie or why, after almost getting crushed by a chandelier and saying, "I feel like Robbie's brought something into the house and it's messing with me," no one really bothers to follow up on that.
It doesn't behoove them to, as it would cut the movie's runtime significantly to actually, you know, leave the house. It doesn't behoove Joost or Schulman to explain anything that's going on in Robbie's mother's house, or why anything is happening for that matter. Paranormal Activity 4 is where the fear of the unknown is conflated with pretensions of it. It is in everyone's best interest to explain as little as possible to create the false hope that more will be revealed in next year's inevitable installment, which won't be scary either.