The scariest stretch in Paranormal Activity 4 are the 10 seconds or so—though it feels like an agonizing minute—where a teenager abandons a web-chat conversation to investigate a weird noise and all the audience gets is an empty, static shot of her bedroom wall and an open doorframe leading into her closet. That frame will be filled by something at some point, whether it’s a specter or the girl returning to the conversation, but in the meantime, viewers are invited to scan around in the darkness and wonder about the terrible things that might be lurking in the shadows or off screen entirely. This is a familiar feeling in the Paranormal Activity movies, which have by now become an annual reminder that the fundamentals of horror are strong. The mythology has deepened, largely to the negative, and the formula is as rigid as the fixins of a fast-food sandwich—tastes the same in every city. But the effects are eternally reliable.
With an ominous title noting the mysterious disappearance of chief beastie Katie Featherston and her infant nephew from a California suburb, the action shifts to Henderson, Nevada and centers around Kathryn Newton, a typical teenager with a sweet younger brother (Aiden Lovekamp) and a conveniently tech-savvy boyfriend (Matt Shively). Not long after discovering him hiding in their backyard treehouse at 10 ’o clock at night, the creepy new kid from across the street, played by Brady Allen, comes to stay with them while his mother recovers from a vague illness. Between his blank stares, his night prowling, and his conversations with an imaginary friend, Allen freaks Newton out even before things start going bump in the night. Using an Apple Store’s worth of laptops around the house, Newton’s boyfriend sets up four different webcams to help figure out what’s going on.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, of Catfish fame, directed the last Paranormal Activity movie, which was the strongest mostly because of the inspired decision to mount a camera on the base of a rotating fan. Joost and Schulman try to exploit webcams to similar effect here and get some good scares out of the fact that web-chatters take up most of the screen, obscuring whatever might be behind them. But Paranormal Activity 4 eventually falls back on the surveillance-cam concept and loses some of its grip as the action escalates and more of the occult silliness comes into play. (The ending, too, rips off The Blair Witch Project so egregiously they could have swapped some footage.) Still, it’s a near-certainty that Paranormal Activity 5 will be terrifying—and based on where this series has gone, it’s also a near-certainty it won’t be surprising, either.