The following contains spoilers of Paranormal Activity 4. Beware!
There are only around a million ways to plot a movie, and therefore just as many ways to analyze a given movie’s story structure. On the most basic level, storytelling in film, just like in any other media — it still comes down to a defined beginning, middle, and ending.
If the last two Paranormal Activity films are any indication, this franchise is starting to move away from a balanced story structure and, especially in part four, they are gravely suffering for it. The last two films have back loaded all the most interesting material into the last few moments before the abrupt cut to credits. And while gimmickry and ruse have always been an earmark of this series, the degree to which we are being cheated by the endings of late is rapidly giving rise to out and out apathy toward, not only the conclusion of the films, but also the preceding events.
At the end of Paranormal Activity 3, we were introduced to the idea that the origin of Katie and Kristi’s separate, but overlapping supernatural occurrences is rooted in the influence of a bizarre cult that has been grooming them for demonic possession. While this is a fascinating idea that actually lends new context to the events we had seen in previous films, it is also introduced at a less-than-opportune moment. We get a mere taste of this new direction before the credits roll. It is beyond frustrating as it makes the new conceptual wrinkle feel little more than manipulative twist. The one thing that saves PA 3 from being a total disaster is that enough compelling material is showcased in the two acts that precede this twist.
The same however cannot be said for Paranormal Activity 4. Whereas PA 3 is a tense and unique entry undone by its underdeveloped twist, PA 4 is a flimsy, slapped-together construct that serves only to get us to the undeveloped twist. The filmmakers make the utterly lazy decision to repeat the exact plot model of the last movie, and introduce yet another intriguing new angle without fleshing it out. We reach the house across the street, the house we know to be occupied by Katie, and we are shown that she has been busy recruiting followers. The horde gathered in the yard resembles something out of a Romero zombie film, and just as we’re reeling from the surprise and the anticipation of where this may lead, the film ends.
The larger problem here is that the fractured continuity of PA 4 requires of more care on the part of the script to engage us even more throughout the first two acts so that the twist does not feel so tawdry a deception. In other words, if we are going to be introduced to a new family in addition to a new horror device just before the close, we’d better loving every step that leads us to that cliff before we are forced to hang from it. Alas, there is nothing in Paranormal Activity 4 to keep the audience so engaged. In fact, the new characters are so poorly developed that we are in no way invested in their sinister plight. So by the time we reach that final gasp turnabout, we are so desperate to return to Katie’s world that the appetizer offered is far from substantial..
It’s clear that the sole motivation for the films is to get our interest piqued for the next chapter. They do not exist in the moment. Inadequate attention to the present story perfectly explains the particular cheapness of the scares in Paranormal Activity 4. The filmmakers know they are merely bidding time until their shocking finale so they spin their wheels in absurd misdirection that would infuriate Vegas lounge magicians. This is also what feeds the boring, uninspired atmosphere of the film. At this point, we should be savvy to their wiles. We must not allow ourselves to be enticed by these pre-credit stingers, as the new story elements they reveal will most likely not be given the development that the deserve in the subsequent film.
Not convinced this franchise has become more concerned with self-promotion than with storytelling? After the credits of Paranormal Activity 4 is a teaser for the film series’ Latin spinoff. It is maddening. Were this series more concerned with cohesive thread lines, the next film (the theoretical but inevitable Paranormal Activity 5) would be a first hand, documented account of the seasoned demon hunter tracking down the minions of the evil force to which Katie is host. It would be just enough of a new conceit that we wouldn’t feel like we were watching the same game of “look for the ghost in the room and wait for the obnoxious banging doors.” However, we would also still be very much rooted in the franchise’s mythology and allow the filmmakers, dare it be said, the chance to definitely end the series before it becomes as stale and contrived as this most recent outing. Bonus points if the director of Trollhunter is hired to take over.
[Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures]
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