Sliding by with a few jump scares, "Paranormal Activity 4" feels stuck in neutral

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
88 min., rated R.

Paramount Pictures probably didn't expect 2009's shoestring-budgeted indie "Paranormal Activity" to be the second coming of "The Blair Witch Project" or muster up enough endurance for a franchise. For two consecutive Halloweens, the mythology of a demon that has haunted poor Katie (Katie Featherston) since she was a little girl has evolved over two prequels, 2010's "Paranormal Activity 2" and 2011's "Paranormal Activity 3," while goosing us with scares and making us beg for more. Now that the candy-corn holiday is creeping closer, "Paranormal Activity 4" is the official sequel in the franchise, but pushes its luck the fourth time around.

Five years since the possessed (and heavy-footed) Katie abducted her nephew Hunter, their whereabouts remain unknown, natch. Now in 2011, Henderson, Nevada, 15-year-old Alex (Kathryn Newton) lives in a roomy home with her dysfunctional parents (Alexondra Lee and real-life but now-deceased husband Stephen Dunham) and little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). Alex notices the strange little boy who lives across the street, Robbie (Brady Allen), walking around the neighborhood, and then in the wee hours of the morning hears and sees ambulances outside his house. When his mom is allegedly sick in the hospital, Robbie stays with Alex's family for a few days. Being around the same age, Wyatt and Robbie become playmates, but Alex and her boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) are suspicious of the neighbor boy. The fact that he wears socks with sandals and politely shakes Wyatt's hand are nothing compared to what Ben finds on the playback of recorded video chats in Alex's bedroom. In hopes of catching more weird activity from Robbie talking to his invisible friend "Toby" at 3 a.m. or some sort of supernatural force, Ben sets up cameras all over the house for Alex. Before she even makes the discovery of ancient cult symbols, the family is obviously doomed.

Writer-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who are two for two with "Catfish" and "Paranormal Activity 3," still manage to hold us in anticipation, until all the quiet waiting around erupts into a jolt or sometimes nothing. A simple "Hi" from someone popping up outside Robbie's house at night makes for a giggly-jumpy surprise; there's some creepy-fun business separately involving a disappearing kitchen knife, the X-Box Kinect tracking dots, and a pesky garage door; and horror-movie fans will surely find a cute nod to the tricycle scene in "The Shining." Aside from stock scares of someone appearing in the frame or a sudden crashing noise and fake-out jumps every now and then, the filmmakers can't seem to sustain a you-there-are tension this time around or summon any new, memorable parlor tricks that used to jangle our nerves and make us afraid of the dark. More self-opening doors, swinging chandeliers, and a cat jumping into the frame lack inspiration; even an "it's only a Prius!" jump moment seems desperate but still earns a laugh. With more mundane, stationary surveillance, though contemporarily taken from Macbook cameras, smart phones, and video chats, it all begins to feel like more of the same 'ol activity. And with the Schulman-Joost team and writer Christopher Landon returning, fans will surely expect answers or at least a push forward in the lore of the demon and the witches' coven, but this safe, warmed-over retread exists merely as a placeholding tease.

Since we've entered a Found-Footage Renaissance, films that piggyback on the success of their forefathers have to justify why characters would keep filming. The "Paranormal Activity" movies, for the most part, have found ways around that plausibility issue (i.e. "3's" oscillating fan). Here, Dad at least scolds his daughter to put down the camera, but later on, before you can say, "For God's sake, put the camera down and run!" and the action progresses to its grand finale, Alex makes sure we get a clear view from her eye-line, as if she's walking down a dark hallway with her eye in the viewfinder. Speaking of the finale, it builds tensely, giving us hope that it will reach the tremblingly eerie heights of the last movie's climax, but despite an effective last five minutes, it winds up being a rush to a cut to black that resolves nothing. What's more, the tagline, "All the activity has led to this…," doesn't mean diddlysquat.

Luckily, throughout, Newton (resembling AnnaSophia Robb and a Fanning sister) is a fresh face with enough natural likability that we don't mind having her front-and-center. Her funny, flirty rapport with Shively may be the most engaging in the series since Katie and Micah. Otherwise, for a truly frightening scare picture this All Hallows' Eve, "Sinister" is playing right down the hall, or perhaps in the next auditorium. It makes "PA4" look like child's play. Even though the not-even-a-decade-old franchise is beginning to feel like a flash in the pan and in need of some time off, it won't matter because there's already a "Paranormal Activity 5" in the works. If a fifth one can connect more dots and invent more startling frights like the first three, bring it on. If not, stop right there.