The perils of adolescence are legion.
You're dealing with changes to your body, complex emotions, and new expectations in school and at home.
Thank goodness most of us, in our teen years, didn't have to deal with demon possession on top of puberty. Which makes me feel all the worse for poor Alex.
Alex, a pretty 15-year-old girl, has plenty on her lap already. Her parents aren't getting along that well. Her boyfriend is pushing her to get more physical. We can't know what sort of pressures she's dealing with in school but, given the fact that she wanders around her house at 3 a.m., she's probably not getting enough sleep to do well in algebra.
And then there's this kid across the street: Talk about your problem children. Robbie, 6, doesn't seem bad, really. Just a little weird. He sort of hangs off to the side a lot, watching other people do things. And when his mother was apparently rushed to the hospital for a few days (condition: undisclosed) Robbie's care is foisted onto Alex's already strained family. Now he's drawing weird symbols all over Wyatt, Alex's 6-year-old brother, and encouraging the both of them to play with Robbie's "imaginary friend."
"Is he nice?" Wyatt wonders.
"If you do what he says," Robbie answers cryptically.
The best thing about adolescence is that, eventually, you grow out of it. But when demons are around, there's some question whether you'll grow up at all.
Alex is the moral core of Paranormal Activity 4—or, at least as moral a core as we'll find here. When her father gets into a spot of trouble, she rushes into a strange house to try to help him. And when her little brother says he's in trouble, too, Alex doesn't run the other way and call the cops (as, in retrospect, she probably should've done). Instead, she tries to rescue him.
It's also nice that Alex's family elected to take little Robbie in, though that proves to be a mistake. So it's sad, really, that this movie takes all of our better instincts and punishes our poor protagonists for them.
The word paranormal in the title should tip us off that there's something eerie going on here: The movie's entire conceit is based on demonic spirituality.
First, take all the weird symbols Robbie scrawls on Wyatt's chest, back and arms, including one that seems to have special significance. In the movie, we're told that it was an ancient symbol used in a diabolical possession ceremony. The rite involves several steps, including the apparent offering of some sort of virginal sacrifice.
Then there are the women hanging out at Robbie's house. We're not told what they're doing, but it's fairly clear that they're part of a coven. Sometimes they seem neighborly enough. But toward the end, they just sort of lurk en masse, silently looking on as the demon does its work.
Oh, yeah, the demon. (Or, perhaps, demons. It's a little unclear.) It moves furniture around, sends chandeliers crashing to the ground and starts cars in closed garages, nearly killing trapped occupants via carbon monoxide poisoning. It plays with knives and shuts doors and manages to levitate a sleeping 15-year-old girl off her bed. It's not always so gentle, of course, but we'll deal with that momentarily.
Sometimes audiences see a spectral presence that appears to be a little child—a fleeting shadow across the hallway, perhaps, or a ghostly figure swathed in the greenish (and, to the human eye, invisible) points of light from an Xbox Kinect.
And then there's Katie—the possessed woman from the first and second movies—who also haunts the screen. Mostly she looks pretty ordinary, and sometimes she even acts it. But when she's after prey, her face contorts into a demonic visage, complete with freaky eyes and pointy teeth.
After the credits roll, we see a snippet of a Spanish-speaking man walking through a store containing all sorts of religious symbols and icons, from crucifixes to candles. The man's startled by a woman who tells him, in Spanish, that "this is only the beginning." It means, of course, that we can look forward to at least one more installment of Paranormal Activity next year.
Alex's boyfriend, Ben, places his hand on her thigh, and that contact appears to be a pretty big step for both of them. Alex and Ben never lock lips, but Ben clearly would like to to that—and quite a bit more. During a video chat, he asks Alex to flash her breasts. She refuses, but doesn't seem upset by the request. When they learn that one mysterious rune requires the sacrifice of a virgin, Ben tells Alex, "You're f‑‑‑ed," then half-jokingly offers to take care of her virginity right then and there. When Alex says that Ben could be in trouble, too, he says he's fine because he's already had sex three times (a claim the film suggests is a lie).
When Robbie crawls into bed with Alex and puts his hand on Alex's shoulder—an encounter recorded on Alex's laptop camera—Ben declares that the 6-year-old must be "trying to cop a feel." A crude double entendre is uttered. We see Alex in a T-shirt and boxer shorts (her pajamas), as well as an off-the-shoulder outfit.
Compared to most other R-rated screamfests, the Paranormal Activity series has been relatively gore-free. Its demons don't seem to cotton to blood. But the body count? That's another issue.
In flashback, Katie (wearing a blood-stained tank top) kills her sister by throwing her against the wall. Another character dies after being hurled into the ceiling. (The impact is unseen, but we witness the lifeless body dropping to the floor.) Another person is tossed into several walls before being dragged off into the darkness, never to be seen again. A fourth unfortunate ends up with a snapped neck. (We see the twist.) A nasty-looking demon lunges at someone, and then the video, tellingly, goes dark.
Elsewhere, a boy gets dragged underneath bathwater, where he stays submerged for (seemingly) several minutes before rising, acting somewhat … changed. A knife is whisked off the kitchen counter, hovering apparently for days before dropping back onto the counter (and seriously scaring Alex's dad). A chandelier crashes to the floor.
After levitating for part of the night, Alex wakes up and claims that she feels like she's been hit by a truck. A garage door slams down, trapping Alex in a garage. Then a car starts up and runs for several minutes before Alex bashes one of the car's windows with a golf club and backs the car out through the still-closed garage door.
Crude or Profane Language
"Don't swear!" Robbie admonishes Alex and Ben, suggesting that his "invisible friend," while keen on killing, is no fan of bad language. But the characters here don't listen. The f-word is used about 20 times, and the s-word is uttered half-a-dozen times. Characters misuse both God's name (10 times) and Jesus' name (twice), and they say "a‑‑" and "b‑‑ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Alex's mom gives Alex a sleeping pill, much to the horror of the girl's father. Both parents drink wine.
Other Negative Elements
Rules aren't well inforced by Alex's parents. And the kids sometimes take advantage of that. When the parents leave for a night out, Alex and Ben have friends over. The get-together is pretty innocent, but it's suggested that it's done behind the parents' backs.
Ben secretly records all of his video chats with Alex, saying his computer just does it automatically. At Alex's request, Ben uses her family's computers to set up a whole-house monitoring system, unbeknownst to Alex's parents.
We hear references to people passing gas in their sleep.
When I was a kid, one of my friends was pretty sure his younger brother was possessed. So, one day, being the dutiful, Christian child that he was, he confronted his 6-year-old sibling, determined to cast out the evil influence.
"I know who you are," my friend said to his bewildered brother.
"Get out of him!" my friend hollered. "Right now!"
Well, this created quite a ruckus, but after my friend's parents sat him down for a little chat (talking, among other things, about the fact that just because someone's eyes look red in a family photo, that doesn't necessarily indicate demon possession) things settled down quickly, with no real harm done.
My friend had never seen a movie about possession, as far as I know. His family was deeply religious, and I'm pretty sure his "inspiration" came from some creative Bible reading paired with his boundless—sometimes overactive—imagination.
I found myself thinking about him and his brother as I walked out of the theater after seeing this film, noticing that the only other people in the movie with me were all under the age of 12. My guess is that these kids—perhaps a half-dozen or so, all told—were dropped off at the local multiplex under false pretenses. Maybe they told their parents they were going to see Hotel Transylvania or Here Comes the Boom, but instead they snuck off to see an R-rated movie filled with bad language, some adolescent sensuality and loads of scary images.
And it's those images that are at issue here. Paranormal Activity 4 tells us that everything—and I mean everything—in our day-to-day lives might hide an unspeakable horror, be it making dinner, taking a bath, going to sleep or playing with an imaginary friend. And that's a message that can easily spark nightmares and waking terrors and flat-out emotional dysfunction.
I doubt that all the kids in the movie with me will automatically assume that their own family members are now in need of an exorcism. But demon possession is perhaps not something we should so casually use as a theme for entertainment. Some may learn to not take it seriously enough. And others—well, they might take it very seriously indeed, which can usher in its own set of problems.