'Paranormal Activity 4' Review

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Paramount Pictures

The capper to the second-to-last night of Fantastic Fest 2012 was a "work-in-progress" screening of 'Paranormal Activity 4,' the latest installment of the insanely lucrative found footage horror franchise. Since the movie is unfinished, it would be unfair to write a review.

Here, instead, are some notes on the film and the screening:

- The screening was introduced by co-director Henry Joost, who warned that this workprint featured an incomplete sound mix and unfinished special effects. I noticed a few awkward sound cuts, but most of the effects looked done to my eyes.

- The film is set almost entirely in a suburban Nevada house, five years after the events of the first two films.

- Teenagers, always the franchise's key demographic, are now also its key protagonists. Alice (Kathryn Newton) -- at least it's Alice according to IMDb; I could have sworn she was called Alex, but I've seen 25 movies in the last 6 days, so who knows -- is a typical 15-year-old, obsessed with her phone and chatting with her friend Ben (Matt Shively). One night there's an incident at the house across the street, and the single mom who lives there is hospitalized. Her 6-year-old son Robbie (Brady Allen) has no other relatives and nowhere else to go, so Alice's family agrees to take care of him until she's back on her feet.

- Robbie is prone to taking long walks alone, wandering around the house at all hours of the night, and conversing with an invisible friend. His behavior may or may not be related to the strange supernatural phenomena Alice begins observing right after Robbie arrives (SPOILER ALERT: It is).

- Each 'Paranormal' has put some new twists on the found footage aspects of the cinematography. This one introduces Skype video calls and a gimmick -- and sneaky product placement -- involving the Xbox 360 Kinect, which apparently works by filling a room with thousands of tiny invisible laser dots that track people's movements. Under infrared light, the dots become visible, enabling us to see all kinds of weird ghostly stuff moving under its spectral green glow.

- Though there are a fair number of scares, Joost and co-director Ariel Schulman have some fun wringing comedy out of Alice's parents, who are totally oblivious to the rapidly escalating chaos. When Alice and Ben try to show her dad the inexplicable blur they catch zooming through the Xbox dots, he laughs it off as teenagers and their newfangled computers. You kids today with your technology! You can even catch hellspawn in the act of defiling the sanctity of our home!

- It's a cute bit, but one that comes back to bite the film on the ass when things start getting really para-abnormal and mom and dad remain impossibly nonchalant. Call me crazy, but when chandeliers start falling from my ceiling and knives start vanishing off of cutting boards (and then reappearing hours later), I start taking my teenage daughter's warnings a little more seriously.

- This brings up another problem with the film: no one believes Alice when she insists that something is going on, but we are watching the conclusive video proof that she's right. A cursory scan through this footage would reveal the truth. But I guess once you've gone to the trouble to rig your entire house with cameras and keep them running 24/7, it's silly to actually use the evidence they produce in any way whatsoever.

- Brady Allen is excellent as the film's creepy little kid. And because this is a movie about creepy little kids, there's a very nice reference to 'The Shining' just before the "REDRUM" really starts flowing.

- The thing I continue to like about this series, including this installment, is the unique way it treats its jump scares. Because most of their shots are static (they come from locked off security cameras or webcams) Joost and Schulman will hold on a seemingly innocuous frame for a long time, until our minds fill with dread imagining what nightmare fuel will pop out next -- and then it does. It's an unusual and unusually satisfying blend of suspense and surprise.

- The thing I continue to dislike about the series, or at least the sequels, is the lingering unanswered question of who, within this fictional universe, is cutting together this footage. Whoever they are, they're a total dick. Sometimes they hold on a shot just to freak us out. Sometimes they cut away just before something horrible happens, then cut right back to survey the carnage. The only reason to do that, at least in this context, is to try to avoid getting an R rating. Because, teenagers.

- As a general rule, you should never willingly walk into a room that is lined with plastic sheeting. Nothing good is happening in there.

- This is a work-in-progress, and as such it didn't include any closing credits or explanatory titles that might reveal the fates of the characters in the finished version. In this state, 'Paranormal Activity 4' explains none of the mysteries it sets up involving Robbie, his invisible friend, and their relationship to Alice's younger brother Wyatt. Who is who and how they connect to the larger 'Paranormal Activity' mythology is left unclear. This movie is reasonably scary and unreasonably opaque.

- In lieu of a Q&A, franchise star Katie Featherston appeared on stage after the film ended to briefly thank everyone for coming, complement Fantastic Fest (where the series has regularly premiered) and encourage everyone to tweet their reaction and feedback. Then just as quickly as she arrived, she left, appropriate behavior given her character's habit of popping up in the 'Paranormal Activity' sequels when you least expect it.

[Editor's Note: Because the screening of 'Paranormal Activity 4' was called a "work in progress," we will not be giving it a proper rating score until its completed.]

'Paranormal Activity 4' hits theaters October 19.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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