After time traveling back to the `80s in "Paranormal Activity 3," this fourth installment in the highly profitable, found-footage horror franchise begins with yet another gimmicky flashback. This time it's to 2006, as a toddler is abducted by his Aunt Katie (Katie Featherson), who has murdered her sister, Kristi.
Returning to November 2011, it follows the Nelsons, a suburban Nevada family caring for a creepy 6-year-old Robbie neighbor (Brady Allen), whose single mother, Mrs. Torrance (a.k.a. Katie), has suddenly been hospitalized. Bickering Doug (Stephen Dunham) and Holly (Alexandra Lee) Nelson have two children: Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), who is also 6, and his 15-year-old sister, Alex (Kathryn Newton).
It's a bit strange that brooding Robbie has a malevolent friend, the invisible demon Toby, with whom he constantly converses -- and that Wyatt rides his Big Wheel around the house following the supernatural presence. It's also weird that computer-compulsive Alex and her tech-savvy, Skype-chatting boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), set up motion-sensing webcams all over the house to acquire the bizarre found-footage.
Screenwriter Christopher Landon and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who collaborated on the previous installment, use far too many generic shots of inexplicably opening and/or slamming doors, dark hallways and distant noises, along with the family cat ominously scampering past the camera for sudden surprise. The only cinematic innovation introduced in this low-budget sequel is the use of the Xbox Kinect video game system, which covers everything with a ghostly matrix of tiny green projection dots that are only visible on an infrared camera. So expect lots of menacing surveillance footage, very little of which has any significance and some of which elicits laughter. And the potential of a neighborhood coven of witches is never fully explored.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Paranormal Activity 4" drops to a stale, derivative 2, dedicated to the memory of Stephen Dunham, Alexandra Lee's real-life husband, who recently died of a heart attack.