A shock to the system is an event. Someone tiptoes up behind you and goes boo! A car zips out of a side street into your lane. A door slowly blows closed. That last one, in the original Paranormal Activity, made movie audiences jump in tandem, as if ordered to by a gym teacher. Ah, the pleasures of horror-movie subtlety: when the conventions of the genre are stripped to the bone and the scariest part is not the monster but the waiting. In so many ways, Oren Peli’s film proved that less is more. Shot in a week in 2007 for $15,000 and finally released in 2009, it earned $193.4 million at theaters around the world. PA and its two sequels have totted up a $576.6 million global gross on a production investment of about $8 million, or a $72 return on every dollar spent shooting.
But when you expect the shock — hear the tiptoeing, spot the car, see the same spooky door in another film — that’s merely a habit. Attending a Paranormal movie is now just that: a rite of fall, with predictable autumnal shivers, like a Halloween jaunt in, say, Alaska. Not missing a trick, or a treat, the entertainment-industrial complex has extended a single fright night into an entire season, in theme parks (Universal Florida’s Halloween Horror Nights, which stretch over six weeks beginning Sept. 21, now in its 22nd year), at kitsch museums (Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors) and in Hollywood’s fall schedule of pre-Halloween horror films. This year The Possession began the ghoul parade in late summer, Aug.31, and it has continued with a new haunted-house movie nearly every week.
(READ: Corliss on the Paranormal phenomenon)
As the series that challenged Saw, the previous pre-Halloween king, and quickly beheaded it, the PA franchise has stopped innovating and turned into a familiar theme-park-like attraction: the same reliable, recyclable experience, the same methods employed with the minutest variations. That’s certainly the case with Paranormal Activity 4, which will lure about 5 million people to theaters this weekend. The movie is an October surprise without the surprise. You go not to be scared but to remember the thrills you felt watching the first film. Instead of a journey into fear, PA4 is a nostalgia trip — déjà boo! all over again.
In the first movie, set in Carlsbad, Calif., in 2006, Katie Featherston and Micah Stoat (the actors used their real names) moved into a house that gave hints of being in a really bad mood. The door moved; shadows crept across walls; an unseen figure slipped under the bedcovers. We saw this because Micah had set up a video-recording device in the bedroom; a timer spun or froze to capture the inexplicable evidence. (SPOILER ALERTS coming on plots of the first three films:) By the end, Micah was dead and Katie demonized. PA2 operated on parallel tracks with the first film, showing Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her son Hunter; Katie kills Kristi and abducts Hunter. The third film flashed back to 1986, when Katie and Kristi were kids and the root of the trouble — a coven of demons — was revealed.
So far, so cool. The second and third episodes, though lacking the innovations of the original, built on its found-footage ingenuity and point-of-view rigor. PA3 was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who had invested their “documentary” Catfish with such rich characterization that TIME named one of its subjects as a Best Performer of 2010. Given the reins again for PA4 — and again directing a script by Christopher Landon (who wrote the second and third episodes — Joost and Schulman were expected to lend body and (lost) soul to the central mythology, for this is the first film to move the larger story forward chronologically from 2006.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Catfish)
It’s now 2011 in Henderson, Nev., and we’re in the home of a normal-for-now family: Mom and Dad (Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham), their 15-year-old daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton) and 6-year-old son Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). When the woman who moved into the house across the street is taken to the hospital with an unknown complaint, the family takes her moody son Robbie (Brady Allen) in for a few days. Stuff happens, and to record the spookiness Alex’s boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) hooks up more surveillance equipment — Mac laptops, XBox Kinect, Skype — than Claire Danes sneaked into Damian Lewis’s home in the first season of Homeland. Need I say more?
O.K., thank you, I will. (Hardly any SPOILER ALERTS here. Most of this is revealed in the trailers.) A basketball slowly bounces down the steps to the living room. Mom’s kitchen knife flies out of sight when she isn’t looking. (It’ll be back.) Robbie’s invisible friend becomes, in night vision, semivisible. On Wyatt’s bedroom wall, the invisible friend scrawls his name: Hunter. Robbie warns Ben, “He doesn’t like you”; and when Ben asks, “Who doesn’t like me?” the child replies, “You’ll find out.” Wyatt, who was adopted, says, “My family needs me back.” Plus a levitation, a neck snap, a creepy bathtub scene, some mischief in a garage and the return of the Katie coven.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Paranormal Activity 2)
Horror movies have borrowed from other horror movies since — since, probably, the second horror movie. You’ll note references to The Shining, Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead and dozens more, but mainly to earlier PA episodes. Not so much an advance as a remake with a different cast, PA4 repeats tropes from earlier in the series but less impactfully. One of the cool moments in PA3 was when the dining-room furniture disappeared, then suddenly dropped from the ceiling (this brilliantly shown from a camera attached to a rotating ceiling fan). This time, a chandelier crashes, and a couple of pieces of furniture move themselves — pallid reprises.
The new movie nearly chokes on these replays, and has more fake shock moments (people who scare people) than real ones. The audience, no less than the filmmakers, can calibrate the “surprises” with a stop watch: wait, wait… and go. And, for all the video documentation of awful phenomena, Alex never bothers to show her parents the evidence and convince them she’s not paranoid but truly persecuted.
One of the pleasures of the first film was feeling the community of moviegoers. Maybe they were frightened, maybe they just enjoyed pretending to be, but the crowd reacted to the minimalist terrors as one jittery organism. At the PA4 screening, people still emitted ooohs and eeks, but the expressions of fear had a rehearsed air, as if the folks at the Regal E-Walk on 42nd Street had morphed into the Rocky Horror Picture Show acolytes of decades past, who were self-consciously and ironically part of the movie. (At least the Regal crowd didn’t have to dress in drag.) One trailer for PA4 shows folks at a preview screening purportedly scared witless, as if it’s a preview screaming. Were the audience members paid actors? Or has reality TV and the universal need to be YouTubed for 15 minutes turned every citizen into a ham for the camera?
The big bummer of PA4 is that until literally the final shots, it doesn’t elaborate seriously on the grander question — the big “What’s Katie up to?” The TV series The X Files mixed stand-alone episodes with, a few times a season, further hints on the “mythology”: Mulder’s lost brother, Scully’s child, the Smoking Man’s mission, etc. PA4 doesn’t provide nearly enough clues; in TV, this episode would be called a rerun. The ponderous pace of revelations makes you wonder how many PA films the series’ guardians have planned before the faithful actually learn something. Or maybe the filmmakers are content to keep coasting on autopilot, retracing their greatest hits. There’s a point at which movies become only merchandise, and the Paranormal franchise may be heading for that nexus, that nadir.
(SEE: Find Paranormal Activity on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list)