It's tempting to think that the Paranormal Activity franchise is subtextually trying to say something about the death of suburbia and the ghosts that linger there; the great American nuclear family not recognizing or even thinking much about its place in history; or the insidious, slow-burn dangers of hyperconnectivity over physical community. But no, that'd probably be reading way too much into what is essentially a one-note gag that's been strung out over four distinct iterations. Sometimes a scary movie is just a scary movie (even when it's not all that scary).
Paranormal Activity 3 messed with the series' timeline by doubling back to the 1980s for a prequel of sorts, and then, in the franchise's most interesting turn of events, threw in a coven of witches and an invisible demon-thing with the wonderfully inappropriate name of Toby. (Imagine if the King James Bible had rechristened Lucifer as such. The word and the world would be far less fear-laden.) That film actually gave me some genuine heebie-jeebies, the first of its ilk to do so, and I grudgingly realized the series' creators were getting better at their bare-bones spook show.
Apparently I spoke too soon, as this fourth installment, set in the present, returns to the basics, namely long takes of empty rooms and hallways, mysteriously opening doors (set in temblor-prone Nevada, a supernatural explanation for household objects moving around a bit is hardly required), and obviously evil or possessed children. Fifteen-year-old protagonist Alex (Newton, who does a fine job playing a freaked-out teen) and her boyfriend Ben (Shively, ditto) rig up Alex's home with a series of webcams to better document the odd goings-on that have begun to occur there. It's all down to the new kid on the block, Damien-esque Robbie (Allen), who is taken in by Alex's clueless parents after his Aunt Katie (series regular Featherston) mysteriously takes ill. If we've learned nothing else from horror films, it's that little kids are weird and probably possessed, so, you know, when you see one coming toward you, it's best to run the other way.
As usual, the final 10 or so minutes of the film go like gangbusters with mayhem and death appearing (literally so) out of nowhere. And, as in its predecessors, there are 80 minutes of yawn-inducing pseudo-suspense to sit through prior to that. This is one horror franchise that's burned itself out, and then some – not even the rare shock cuts to nothing much at all will startle anyone over the age of 8. Notably, a closing-credits epilogue foreshadows more of the same to come, raising the question "Why?" The answer is, obviously, "Why not?â"