Halloween understandably spurs the release of new horror films every year, and 2012 is no exception. Two weeks ago, we were treated to the mercifully brief run of “V/H/S,” an anthology of interchangeable stories organized around “found footage” that would have been better left unfound. Last week was “Sinister,” which was a step up, but basically recycled a bunch of creaky plot ideas so overused that they now qualify as conventions: family arrives at new house, kids start acting spooky, objects start moving on their own, and each casual closing of a door triggers a noise so loud that the characters — and, of course, the audience — are physiologically forced to jump.
“Paranormal Activity 4” manages to trump both movies by putting the family/kids/objects/blam elements into a “found footage” format, a device that the first “Paranormal Activity” revived so effectively five years ago. Because — spoiler alert — everyone dies at the end of the first film, the economically mandated sequels have mostly been filling in the back story, while trying to set up enough pre-story to allow for “Paranormal Activity 5,” “6,” “7.” Katie Featherston is the only cast member to appear in all four so far: one of the blessings of the form, from the actors’ point of view, is that death is not quite as final as it is in other genres — or, for that matter, in life.
This time around, a family must temporarily look after Robbie (Brady Allen), the spooky kid from across the street, while his mother is in the hospital. Fortuitously, their son Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) is the same age — 6-ish? — and quickly bonds with Robbie and the “imaginary” companion he’s brought with him. When the weirdness starts, big sister Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her wiseacre boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) secretly network all the computers in the house into a 24-hour webcam peep-and-keep system.
The “Paranormal Activity” series is one of the few franchises to succeed at introducing something different into each film. (The same was true for most of the first run of “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies.) But the ideas are running out; for the first time, there is nothing new, other than one cool special effect. Beyond that, it tiresomely relies on the “slam-and-blam” tactics. Sure, I was scared in the sense that I leapt along with everyone else, but I wasn’t proud of myself in the morning.
Last week’s “Sinister” is slightly better, largely thanks to Ethan Hawke, who plays a true-crime writer desperate for a hit. He is dopey enough to move into the very house he’s investigating, and dopier still to hide this from his wife (Juliet Rylance). It seems that, one day, the previous occupants (except a son) were hanging out under the old oak tree; the next day they were hanging from it. Things get weird, ominous and progressively convoluted when the writer comes across a box of old Super-8 films (and, helpfully, a projector) in the attic. That’s right: more found footage.
Unlike the “Paranormal Activity” films (and “Cloverfield” and “The Blair Witch Project”), the footage in “Sinister” is used within a conventional narrative; it doesn’t determine the way in which the story is told. As a result, it looks slicker than those others, despite having reportedly been made for under three million dollars (which it handily recovered the first weekend).
Like the “Paranormal Activity” films, it’s full of shock cuts and loud noises and fake-out threats. Similarly, every time it barked, I jumped. And, once again, I wasn’t proud when I woke up the next day. I’m beginning to feel like a horror-film tramp.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).