Paranormal Activity 4 (Paramount, Everett Collection)

Like the best movies, Oren Peli’s found-footage horror story Paranormal Activity is perfectly self-contained. It has a beginning, a middle and an ending, and everything you need to know about the characters and the situation is contained within its running time.

The thing is, Paranormal Activity made money. Its teeny budget and massive gross makes it one of the most profitable movies ever released. DreamWorks couldn’t let it go, commissioning a sequel that opened a year later. That made money too, so Paranormal Activity became a regular event; as long as people go to see them, we can expect a new one every Halloween.

But what happens when you’re trying to expand upon a story that wasn’t meant to be expanded upon? (Spoiler alert: The first movie ended with the mysterious demon that had tormented hapless couple Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston taking possession of Katie and killing Micah.) Peli, who’s stayed with the series as a producer and script consultant, has found some intriguing ways to broaden the world of Paranormal Activity.

Director Tod Williams’ Paranormal Activity 2 moves sideways through time for a sequel set roughly parallel to the events of the first film and following Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and dropping a couple of hints about how the demon arrived at Katie and Micah’s house in the first place. That was pretty nifty, and the use of multiple security cameras let Williams expand on the fixed-perspective device of the first movie, as well building his picture to a different but equally shocking ending.

With Paranormal Activity 3, the series pushes even further into its own history, rolling things back to 1988 (via a cache of old videotapes) to investigate certain strange occurrences in Katie and Kristi’s childhood. That one isn’t quite so clever; you can feel directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman straining to come up with compelling story beats, and the final revelation of a larger conspiracy behind Katie and Kristi’s demon complicates the master narrative unnecessarily.

You could argue that such complications are necessary if DreamWorks wants to make more Paranormal Activity movies without simply repeating the same events over and over again, but with Paranormal Activity 4 the franchise is clearly spinning its wheels. The first of the series to be set after the events of the original, PA4 – again directed by Joost and Schulman – picks up in Nevada five years after Micah’s murder and Katie’s disappearance, as teenage Alex (Kathryn Newton) becomes convinced that strange things are happening when her family takes in a neighbour’s kid (Brady Allen) for a brief stay.

Joost and Schulman take advantage of the explosion in miniature camera to co-ordinate the action through various security cameras, webcams and phone cameras – subtly pushing the series away from its found-footage concept to a more intentionally edited aesthetic. The series has grown more sophisticated all along, but the multiplicity of sources here led me to wonder who was cutting all of the material together and where they’d come from – to say nothing of why they were making the choices they made. (Maybe they’ll deal with that in the fifth movie, but given the way Paranormal Activity 4 ends, I kinda doubt it.)

And as bright as Newton is in the lead – check out the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray to see more of her range – Paranormal Activity 4 makes it clear she’s ultimately a peripheral character in its master narrative; Joost and Schulman have larger ambitions for the series that nudge it even further in the direction suggested at the end of the third movie. I understand that a franchise needs to get bigger and bolder in order to keep its audience coming back, but I’m honestly not sure the Paranormal Activity franchise can support this level of expansion. Sooner or later we’re going to need this stuff explained, and it’s getting harder and harder to believe Peli and company can do that in a satisfactory manner. This thing works best when it’s small and contained.

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