It's been an incredible journey for the Paranormal Activity franchise. Four years ago, it not only unseated the Saw franchise as the chosen place for annual Halloween-time terrors, but in the process became not just an incredible cash cow for distributor Paramount Pictures, but a mammoth achievement of cinematic marketing. The first film was introduced with such a tease, that there sensed this eery delight that here was a horror film-- no horror event-- that felt needed, a jolt to scare fans, and to an industry who shelled out schlock with such regularity, a generation was over it before it even began. By making the first Paranormal Activity an on demand, you must hunt out to see it type affair, it built a sensation, and three films to follow. The unfortunate discovery was that that first film was too much hype, too much of a tease, and the franchise itself is its own unfortunate undoing by mere circumstantial existence. The found footage set-up, the digital age grain, the humming of elongated shots of suburban ordinariness, that white noise soundtrack. The films are all tease, jolted by old time movie behavior of a creepy house noise or a distant footstep that anyone can identify. The real triumph is that the well-oiled machines these films have become, upping each production budget to such a micro amount that the films can keep going, not just long enough for even the fans themselves to start to protest, but as long as midnight showings alone can cover the expense.
The first Paranormal Activity was hardly original, it was just marketed as such. The found footage horror sub-genre existed previously-- the film was really just a glossier rip-off of 1999's The Blair Witch Project, marketing materials included. The genre, of course, has grown-- case in point this years found footage teen superhero film Chronicle and frat guy party flick Project X. The shaky camera work, incongruous editing, and crappy sound effects have the ability to channel a lived-in sense of humdrum normalcy, a natural fit and setting for the horror genre-- but the Paranormal series, likely unaware that a franchise could have possibly bloomed-- had to bust something out of their asses and try and create some sort of mythology to keep the series and its dividends flowing. That's the stretch for director Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (also the pranksters behind 2010's Catfish), and there are stretches of monotonous day in the life humdrum-ness matched by occasional spooky whatever-ness that successfully build up slight smidgens of tension especially in the beginning. But, there's never a payoff, and for a chiller, it's quite boring; Paranormal Activity 4 is just a tease. C-