"PARANORMAL 4" — ★1/2 — Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Brady Allen, Katie Featherston, Aiden Lovekamp, Alexondra Lee, Stephen Dunham; R (language and some violence/terror); in general release
The weakest, most derivative and funniest film in the "Paranormal Activity" quartet still can claim that a few of its cheap-jolts-that-pass-for-frights work. So does my ancient KitchenAid washer. That doesn't mean I'm not bored with it and that I don't keep it out of sight — in the garage.
Which is where one of the best scenes of this best-scene-starved new installment takes place.
It opens with a 2006 flashback, home movies of a toddler being coddled by his "Aunt" Katie, played by Katie Featherson, the young woman chased by demons. "Hunter," the baby, "was never seen again."
Cut to last November and Nevada, where a family of four meets a real "Danny doesn't live here, Mrs. Torrance" 6-year-old who's moved in across the street.
Robbie (Brady Allen) is a loner with scary eyes. His mom has to go to the hospital, so he comes to stay with the Nelsons. He whispers to an invisible friend, clings to their son his own age, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), and scares the willies out of nubile and curious Alex (Kathryn Newton), 15, and her tech-savvy boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively, funny).
Who is Robbie talking to?
"You'll find out," he warns.
The teens' late-night video chats inspire Ben, when he isn't putting the moves on Alex, to rig up computers to record video in much of the house. So whenever Alex says "It's three in the morning. And I just heard a noise," she picks up a laptop and walks it downstairs to investigate. There's a smattering of cellphone and camcorder footage, for those who like to keep track of the "who?" "why?" and "how?" this footage is gathered.
The kids are onto something. And the adults (Alexondra Lee, Stephen Dunham) aren't listening.
"Paranormal Activity 4" isn't content to merely recycle gags and bring back characters from the earlier films in the most successful "found footage" series of them all. Because that plainly isn't enough. Now, they're shoehorning homages to "The Shining" into the peril.
A kitchen knife shows up, foreshadowing later events. Wyatt rides his big wheel through the frame, and chairs mysteriously slide out to block his way.
The novel addition here is making use of a phenomenon of the video game age — the dot matrix that your xBox Kinect uses to track movements for you to play the game without hand-held controllers. Point a camera at a room where the Kinect is on and the lights are out and watch ghostly shapes of little boys follow creepy Robbie around in the dark.
But even that isn't that frightening. Everything the codirectors of "Paranormal 3" show us in "Paranormal 4," they show too much of. Mysteries are solved so blatantly that there are no surprises. So they resort to the cheapest of cheap scares — Alex or the family cat lunging into the frame in extreme, EXTREME closeup (this is supposed to be a computer screen they're coming at) at opportune moments.
The lengthy lulls of surveillance footage that set up the frights are as suburbanly bland as ever. It's just that our patience for them is gone.
Showcase that you'd expect these hit movies to be, actors — either those menaced or those lurching along menacingly — don't launch their careers with them. That's because the formula needs them to be generic and turns them passive in the face of the supernatural.
Alex's odd proactive character moment here stands out because that's not what they've been hired to be. Just try (not too hard) to alert others to the menace, sit back and let things happen to you.
Just like the audience. At least this time we, like they, know this jig is up. Which is why they went for laughs to break up the monotony.
"Paranormal Activity 4" is rated R for language and some violence/terror; running time: 89 minutes.