With the arrival of "Paranormal Activity 4," it's clear that this strange and inspired franchise has lost its creep factor, slipping into a deep groove of mediocrity with few scary moments.
However, to date, these movies have been a huge windfall for the filmmakers (Paramount Studios took over the franchise after the remarkable and unanticipated success of "PA1").
The first film was shot in a week for $15,000 and debuted in 2009. It went on to earn $193.4 million worldwide. The three have earned, globally, $576.6 million, testimony to how affecting the first film was, and the genius of its structure, copied verbatim: set up cameras (ever more sophisticated) in a mundane suburban house, inhabited by ordinary people (no known actors are ever used, a decision that is brilliant in its simplicity, given that the film must have a decidedly authentic look).
The caveat is that things do go bump in the night. Especially, it seems, in suburbia. And so the point of view quickly shifts to the installed cameras, now rolling, capturing footage of the family and the house asleep.
What the filmmakers discovered is that there is something inherently hair-raising about recording a house in the dead of night (usually 3 a.m., the digital clock registering the exact time), the rooms dark, all eerie and quiet. Until it's not.
"Paranormal Activity 1-4" mine a familiar trope, playing on the fundamental truth that audiences (especially the adolescent demographic) believe in events and phenomena that are beyond the scope of scientific understanding. No matter that there has never been any proof offered of the paranormal, nor the existence of a shadow world. We still are very much predisposed to believe. The world religions count on it.
And it's that predisposition that makes movies such as "PA" so compelling. Fans are drawn to them like moths to a flame, no matter the narrative, each predicated on our complete willingness, even eagerness, to suspend our disbelief.
This willingness to believe, it could be argued, seems to be part of our DNA — we believe in ETs and séances, in poltergeists and a netherworld of spirits and monsters, in things that exist in a realm just beyond our clinical grasp, and are thus easily portrayed in fiction and film (especially with CGI). Clearly it's not much of a stretch. Hollywood understood that almost a century ago with the making of the vampire classic, "Nosferatu."
"PA" has coincided its annual releases with Halloween, a night dedicated to the jeepers-creepers experience. While these movies are now a familiar ride, wrung of all novelty and most surprises, they still possess residual power to scare and PA 4 will likely attract audiences eager to be creeped out once again, while waiting for "PA 5."
A decade ago, Morgan Freeman portrayed Alex Cross ("Kiss the Girls" and "Along Came a Spider") with a certain complex, nuanced panache. Cross, Ph.D. in psychology, masterful profiler, is an intriguing character. One ideally suited for this genre often referred to as a police procedural.
Enter Tyler Perry, stage left — sans the signature Madea wig and dress — as the newly minted Cross. Clearly, Perry hopes to expand his acting chops beyond dressing in drag and is looking for a character that possesses greater dramatic range. Cross, yes. This movie, no.
That isn't to say that a film with Cross can't be compellingly scripted — "Kiss the Girls" is a fine example of good writing, superb acting, a blend of Cross' strengths of intelligence with his in-harm's-way courage.
But alas, for reasons that puzzle, Perry selected material that is shallow, implausible and sadistic, offering no serious opportunities to delve beneath the surface in service of those moments that ask the audience to pay really close attention.
Instead, it's the same familiar trope: two cops, Cross, and his partner, Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), are in the hunt for a maniacal serial killer, known as Picasso (an almost unrecognizable Matthew Fox from the TV series "Lost"). The vignettes are gratuitously violent, each setup a blunt instrument, all seasoned with a heavy dash of revenge. The dialogue is nonsensical, the supporting talent wasted. Perry had an opportunity with "Alex Cross," and he missed.