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Movie Review: Cheap Tricks

By Johnny M

Movie Review: Cheap Tricks

October 19, 2012 at 9:05AM EDT

The demon of diminishing returns haunts the frames of Paranormal Activity 4, a film that begs, borrows and steals from other, better horror films…including its predecessors.

WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS! (PAUSE…PAUSE…JUMP SCARE!!!)

It has been five years since the events in Paranormal Activity 2, when Kaite (Katie Featherston) vanished with her nephew Hunter after the brutal murders of Hunter’s parents. Cut to Alex (Kathryn Newton), a teenage girl living in suburban luxury with her parents and her 6-year-old brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). When the woman across the street is taken to hospital unexpectedly, Alex’s family agrees to look out for the woman’s son Robbie (Brady Allen), who is the same age as Wyatt. Almost immediately after Robbie moves in, strange events start happening in the house that get more and more intense as the days go by, like strange noises and things being thrown across the room. Everything is captured by laptop cameras installed by Alex’s boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively). What they show will shock and scare you…provided that you’ve never seen a horror film before in your life.

When the first Paranormal Activity came out in 2009, it was a bonafide phenomenon. A micro-budgeted, efficiently frightening film, it went on to become a worldwide sensation. Every year since, a new film in the series has been released like clockwork, keeping the same format and scope but changing it up just slightly. By the end of the third film, it had developed its own internal mythology and hinted at a wide story arc that would take several films to complete. With Paranormal Activity 4, the series takes perhaps its biggest step outside of its established milieu, as well as its biggest downturn in quality.

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Don’t look now, but there’s a horror cliche behind you!

The previous films were all consistent among themselves and all maintained a similar level of quality, engrossingly frightening, while also being remarkably simplistic. The first film didn’t even have a proper script, making it all the more immediate. The films have strayed from that rough-and-tumble, DYI dynamic as the budgets increased and they began to resemble actual movies. PA4 makes a number of changes to the established formula, almost all for the worse. While it’s no slicker or more sophisticated than any of the previous films, it also lacks their focus and character.

It’s kind of amazing that the film suffers so much considering that it was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who directed the surprisingly efficient third film, and written by Christopher B. Landon (with Zack Estrin) who wrote both the second and third films. By this point in the series, the beats and tricks of the films’ nameless demonic antagonist are well known, and most of those were established well before the first film was even shot. PA4 borrows heavily from the other films in the series, almost completely mimicking their build-ups and pay-offs. Joost and Schulman do mix it up a bit by adding in a few fake freak-outs (get that cat off the camera!) and an appropriately intense scene in a locked garage, but for the most part this is nothing we haven’t seen before. Several moments are also borrowed almost directly from other, better films, especially Poltergeist and The Shining.

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Let’s play the “Which ‘Paranormal Activity’ is this from?” game.

PA4 is the first film to not focus exclusively on Katie’s ever-dwindling extended family, instead focusing on a completely different family that is, in all respects, just the same as all the others we’ve already seen. Alex’s family lives in a McMansion like Katie’s sister Kristi did, and the family is ridiculously, almost offensively well-off, just like Kristi’s family. They’re the kind of family that has a laptop in virtually every room and entry doors that announce whether they’re open or closed. Demons apparently hate invading downtown studio apartments (on a personal note: yay for me). The family is so generic that it’s almost shocking to realize that Alex’s parents have genuine first names and weren’t just written in the script as Inattentive Father #21 and Real Housewife of (X) County. Whereas Katie and Kristi both seemed very much like real women, with real curves and girl-next-door faces, Alex’s family is totally central casting Wonder Bread.

That’s kind of a shame for Kathryn Newton. After all, it’s not her fault she’s pretty, blond, white and for all intents and purposes looks like the archetypal scream queen starlet. She actually does a pretty good job with the material she’s given, especially considering how shopworn and tired that material is, and comes off as much more mature than her age. The film focuses almost exclusively on Alex, and Newton is a congenial enough presence to make for a good audience surrogate. She works well with Matt Shively, who’s earthy adorkability and outgoing demeanor is a welcome change from the series’ history of controlling, douchebag male characters. Unlike Micah in PA1 or Daniel in PA2, he’s loyal and supportive, allowing his female counterpart to lead the action, and he’s a good deal more level-headed and rational than PA3‘s Dennis.

The rest of the cast barely makes an impression, although Aiden Lovekamp is extremely natural and believable as a typical 6-year-old. Brady Allen’s Robbie, on the other hand, is the standard Damien-type, with his spooky stare and too-precise diction. Like Newton, he does the best he can with the material. Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham, who were married in real life when the film was made, as Alex’s parents are so amazingly bland that it’s almost impossible to engender sympathy for them when Hell’s most active home invader pays a visit. However, Dunham died of a heart attack just a month before the film was released, giving his scenes an odd aura of foreboding that was never intended.

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Once again proving that children are inherently evil.

A horror film’s effectiveness centers on its believability, something the found-footage genre has a particularly difficult time with (see also “put the damn camera down and run, you blithering idiot”). The series finds increasingly convoluted ways to justify its constant cameras, although for the most part they’re realistic enough to not beg further questioning. Even when a character is constantly carrying a camera, it’s not much of an issue since in the era of YouTube, everyone is a camera because everyone is a star of their own reality show. Where PA4 really loses its power is by directing most of the film through the iSights of a small army of PowerBooks. This is fine when they’re sitting on a shelf, but Alex is constantly carrying around her laptop, something much more unwieldy and cumbersome than a small handheld camera, even when in the middle of distress. Nobody does this in real life, “this” meaning run from an unknown and possibly malevolent presence while talking to your boyfriend over FaceTime on your laptop.

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Above: more believable than fleeing from evil with your laptop in hand.

Beyond this, the film loses its grip on the series’ relatively tight mythology. The reasoning behind Alex’s family being visited by the demon is revealed over the course of the film, but it brings up a number of questions that are never resolved. The film gives us the “why” but refuses to explain the “how.” By the final scenes, all the plot holes, dangling plot threads and unanswered questions actually become infuriating. Most of the film is impossible to talk about without giving away major plot spoilers, but it’s safe to say that a twist about half-way through was clearly intended to be an “A ha!” moment and ends up as more of an “Oh, I can see tha…huh?” moment. Then there’s the hilariously boneheaded ending, which is so false as to completely negate any dread the film’s built up to that point and a scene after the credits that is completely unconnected to the 90 minutes before it and exists only to set up another film. It can’t even get its real-life metaphysical act together, misappropriating and misusing relatively common symbols like the Triangle of Solomon.

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You keep on using that symbol. I do not think it means what you think it means.

PA4 does nothing new and doesn’t push the series’ overall story arc ahead in any meaningful way. It’s an arbitrary and aimless sequel that tries to hide its lack of character by adding new technology (an X-Box 360 Kinect plays a central role) and speeding up the demonic activity’s intensity (14 days in the first film compared to 11 days here). Plus, it simply isn’t at all frightening. Oddly enough, it’s the first real sequel to the original film (the second and third films were both prequels), which doesn’t bode well for the fifth film in the series. And there will be a fifth film, since this one will likely recoup its budget several times over during opening weekend. Perhaps it will be filmed entirely on smartphones and will take place in close to real time. After all, the series has clearly run out of tricks and is desperately searching for new gimmicks. Might I suggest including an actual plot? Now, THAT would be scary.

Rating: 4 out of 10 / C-

(P. S. I consider the previous three films to all be somewhere between 6 and 7 out of 10, giving them B- or B grades)

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and has access to a huge supply of smudge sticks. image

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