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Paranormal Activity 4: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) movie poster Paranormal Activity 4

Theatrical Release: October 19, 2012 / Running Time: 87 Minutes (theatrical), 97 Minutes (unrated) / Rating: R (theatrical), Unrated

Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman / Writers: Christopher Landon (screenplay), Chad Feehan (story), Oren Peli (original film)

Cast: Kathryn Newton (Alex Nelson), Matt Shively (Ben), Aiden Lovekamp (Wyatt Nelson), Brady Allen (Robbie), Stephen Dunham (Doug Nelson), Alexondra Lee (Holly Nelson), Katie Featherston (Katie)

Buy Paranormal Activity 4 from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy DVD Instant Video

How can civilization continue to take for granted the wondrous archaeological work being done each year by the men who find fascinating home movies and then edit them together into a standard feature film? The public has repeatedly rewarded this noble endeavor, showing up in droves for the annual unveiling,
which once the stuff of by-request limited engagements has long since grown into a wide theatrical release resembling those given scripted studio entertainment with its high budgets and technical wizardry. The Paranormal Activity films are not scripted studio entertainment, but sociologically invaluable records capturing the supernatural occurrences that plague families who document their lives.

Perhaps it is a little odd that these documentaries arrive each October with writing, directing, and acting credits, along with a long and growing list of crew members. I think I could write this entire review in this fashion, but I won't ask you to endure such a conceit. The Paranormal Activity series, meanwhile, shows no such clemency. Oren Peli's original low-budget found footage movie grabbed the public's attention in 2009 and got a sequel the following fall that effectively killed off Hollywood's annual October tradition of seven years, Lionsgate's Saw franchise. Now, Paranormal Activity is the new Saw, expected to grow by one film every fall.

This horror series is founded not on grisly torture but creative chills, a recipe that has held greater appeal for moviegoers and critics than every one of Jigsaw's adventures. Paranormal Activity 2 surprised many with its relatively favorable reception. Paranormal Activity 3 went on to defy the typical small film franchise trajectory by opening even bigger and coming even closer to matching the original film's leggy, word-of-mouth success (while besting it globally).

Paranormal Activity 4, however, is likely to go down as the one that killed the series. Not completely, for Paranormal Activity 5 has already called dibs on this year's Friday-before-Halloween. But the goodwill that the series was able to maintain for longer than most would have guessed (and much longer than template The Blair Witch Project could) is definitely dwindling.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. The original film's $194 million worldwide returns on a $15,000 budget were astronomical and, aside from Blair Witch, unprecedented. Rather than counting their blessings, Paramount Pictures counted on sequels repeating the unlikely feat. The budgets have risen all the way to $5 million. But $5 million is a drop in the bucket for a series able to reliably generate around $200 million in worldwide ticket sales each fall. PA4 cooled things off with its series-low grosses of $53 M domestically and $141 M worldwide. Still, that is a lot of found money for the rare modern film that spends more on advertising than production.

During a video chat with her boyfriend, Alex Nelson (Kathryn Newton) hears something. Strange neighbor kid (Brady Allen) makes a hostile face while playing in the tree house of new friend Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp).

While this franchise may pose a delicious case study to financial analysts, the typical moviegoer is probably about to start associating it with greed, if they haven't already, because the novelty and excitement are certainly wearing off. PA4 really stretches to stay fresh, new, and plausible, but cannot pull it off. This fourquel easily represents the steepest creative decline yet in a series that had twice managed to only take small steps backwards.

PA3 directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who previously made the dubious yet esteemed documentary Catfish, are back, along with sequel screenwriter Christopher Landon (whose most notable credit outside the series is Disturbia). That's surprising because the creative team here seems to have no interest in upholding a standard or building on established mythology. PA4 spends the month of November 2011 in Henderson, Nevada. After a brief refresher on the face of the series, Katie (Katie Featherston), the movie drops us into an upper middle class family of four in a nice house. The question "Who are these people?!" springs to mind and the film is halfway done before it gives you an answer, establishing a connection that doesn't matter much anyway.

Our attentions are fixed on Alex (Kathryn Newton) and Ben (Matt Shively), young teenagers in a fairly innocent relationship. The improbable documentation comes largely by saved video chats, which Ben's computer just does, okay? He shows Alex how to make all the computers in her house record video all the time too. Beyond the obvious, disturbing invasion of privacy, one wonders how many days these webcams could record this around-the-clock video without anyone noticing or questioning and without filling an average hard drive to capacity.

The reason for the extreme surveillance involves the strange behavior of Robbie (Brady Allen, who in a better movie could have been extremely creepy), a young boy who comes to live with Alex's family because his mother is in the hospital and there is no other family to turn to. It is a far-fetched foundation for an open-ended stay, especially since the strange Robbie, who of course maintains an invisible friend, has a troubling effect on Alex's comparably aged brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp).

"Paranormal Activity 4" uses Xbox 360's Kinect and night vision to put a new spin on the whole home surveillance thing.

This installment is about as boring as the first film was arresting. So little of PA4 is eventful. Even though its credits start rolling just past the 80-minute mark, it makes for an arduous viewing. There are the old standby touches: eerie rumblings, swaying chandeliers, a displaced knife. It all feels mundane this time around, illustrating we've gotten about as much as we can out of inexplicable domestic disturbances.

Previous sequels extended the concept with some clever touches: inspired chronology,
an oscillating fan stand giving the camera suspenseful movement, a 1980s period setting. This one's big invention is to make use of the motion sensors from the Xbox 360 device Kinect in night vision. It's interesting for about a minute and the movie gives us at least ten of those, as it digs deep for some scares and comes up altogether empty.

One of the most regrettable designs of PA4 is to aim for relevance with teenagers technically too young to see this in theaters without adult supervision. I know that youth is a desirable demographic, but having a couple of profanity-loving 15-year-old leads seems less likely to interest 9th and 10th graders than to turn off everyone else. It doesn't help matters that the most screentime goes to Kathryn Newton ("Gary Unmarried", Bad Teacher), whose unnatural performance is plain to see in a series where the illusion of not acting is so important. It's tough to say whether Katie Featherston isn't convincing as a standard actress or if the series' producers are limiting her exposure (she has shown up in just one obscure genre movie and three episodes of Peli's short-lived ABC series "The River" since embarking on this journey), but she excelled in this series back when she was not supposed to appear to be acting (mainly the first movie) and served the material well. No such luck here.

PA4 furthermore arrives with some odd baggage that could be the foundation of Poltergeist Curse-type lore; Alex's parents are played by a real-life married couple, the husband of whom died a month before this film opened in theaters with a dedication to him.

Though it should point out that an effective entry to this series is not a given, a disappointing sequel like this instead chips away some at the original film's legacy. Nonetheless, that one cracked my top ten films of 2009 and would have no trouble making a hypothetical Top 100 of the 2000s decade. That makes the failings of something bearing a similar title more upsetting than they would be on a typical bad horror movie.

Upholding a tradition, Paranormal Activity 4 is presented in both its theatrical and unrated cuts on both DVD and Blu-ray. The unrated version runs nine minutes and 33 seconds longer. It adds Halloween trick-or-treating scenes and extends a gathering of Alex and Ben's friends at the Nelson house. Oddly, neither edit here concludes with a post-credits Spanish language sequence attached to the theatrical release as a tease of an apparent Latino Paranormal Activity spin-off in the works aimed at a demographic of value to supernatural and religious horror. Strange that this would get for home video, since the plans do not appear to have been dashed.

Paranormal Activity 4: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese, DVS)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish, English Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese; BD Film only: English SDH
DVD Closed Captioned; Blu-ray Extra Subtitled
Release Date: January 29, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video (Unrated)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Once again, the movie's realism is undercut by its professional photography, as laptops are held steadily in motion and webcams record with high quality and depth of field. That makes for a smooth viewing experience, with hardly any more limitations than a new film not purporting to be found footage. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix has strong impact, with its bassy rumbles and deliberate spikes.

Boys will be boys, even creepy ones: hence this scene of Robbie and Wyatt getting their Slip 'n Slide on in "The Recovered Files." You know this has to be genuine found footage because look at that plain DVD menu screen!

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

As usual, the disc employs understatement to sell the film's found footage premise.

The menus place simple white text on a black screen. The only extra beyond the extended cut is the Blu-ray exclusive "The Recovered Files" (28:56), a long reel of deleted scenes. The material, none of it added to the extended cut, is largely interchangeable with what made the film, no more or less dull. The cuts include a friendly game of hide and seek in a darkened house, some Slip 'n Slide play, a conversation hinted at it in the film, and numerous additional clips of Alex sleeping.

The Blu-ray opens with streaming trailers. Presumably the same one sold on its own, the DVD opens with trailers for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and the 3-film edit Paranormal Activity: The Chronology that is available for download. The same two items play by the menu's "Previews" listing. The DVD includes both cuts of the film, but not "The Recovered Files", despite coming in 2 GB under dual-layered capacity.

The blue Blu-ray and gray DVD take opposite sides of the eco-friendly keepcase, joined by an insert with your unique digital copy and UltraViolet code and topped by a superfluous cardboard slipcover. Like most Paramount BDs, this one supports bookmarks but refuses to resume playback.

Watch a clip from Paranormal Activity 4's "Recovered Files":

The Nelson family's dinner is ever so slightly disturbed by something... paranormal.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Most will agree that Paranormal Activity 4 is one sequel too many for this inventive horror franchise, whose charm is almost entirely lost on this lifeless installment. While you can skip this one without hesitation, let me take this chance to highly recommend the original film and note that the first two sequels weren't bad. (A three-movie collection presently sells for less than $20 on Blu-ray and DVD.)

Offering content in line with its three predecessors, PA4 gets a technically proficient and versatile Blu-ray combo pack, but the movie isn't worth more than an essentially free extra on a future series collection.

Buy Paranormal Activity 4 from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy / DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed January 30, 2013.



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