Dirs: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. US. 2012. 88mins

Paranormal Activity 4

The latest Paranormal Activity sequel is the franchise’s fourth film in the last four years — and, unfortunately, it’s also the first to be unable to find significantly inventive new ways to freshen up its formula. Despite a few alterations to the well-worn found-footage format, there’s a visible sense of strain as the filmmakers struggle to top themselves, resulting in a horror movie whose best shocks carry echoes from previous instalments.

The movie does get some mileage out of the creepiness of utilising infrared cameras and Skype video chats to document the paranormal terrors.

Opening October 19, Paranormal Activity 4 will hope to replicate the first three films’ grosses. (Worldwide, those movies brought in a combined $577m, with an almost equal split between domestic and overseas returns.) First weekend sales ought to be robust, but the betting is that word-of-mouth may not be as strong for 4 as it was for 3, which grossed $206m globally and reignited the brand. Still, considering how cheaply these films are made, 4 would have to fail spectacularly for Paramount not to pull the trigger on a 5 to be released this time next year.

Set five years after the events of the first two movies, Paranormal Activity 4 focuses on a Nevada family that includes pretty teen daughter Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her sweet-tempered adopted kid brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp). But when Robbie (Brady Allen), a neighbour boy about the same age as Wyatt, has to move in after his single mother is rushed to the hospital, Alex begins to wonder if Robbie has brought with him some sort of invisible evil presence into their home.

By this point, even those who have never seen a Paranormal Activity movie are probably familiar with the construction of a typical instalment. Constructed from recovered footage that was shot by the victims before their untimely demise, each film slowly builds in tension by hinting at the unseen terrors hovering around the main characters before eventually the menacing spirit (which has possessed one of the characters) destroys its prey.

But whereas Paranormal Activity 2 featured a better script and stronger acting than the original — and 3 cleverly served as a prequel that further fleshed out the franchise’s overarching storyline — 4 essential sticks to past strengths to deliver its shocks. Bringing back the directors (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) and screenwriter (Christopher Landon) from 3, Paranormal Activity 4 benefits from several underappreciated selling points of this series — namely, strong, naturalistic performances and a disarming sense of humour amidst the shrieks — but doesn’t add much new in the process.

Not that the filmmakers don’t try to shake things up a little. The movie does get some mileage out of the creepiness of utilising infrared cameras and Skype video chats to document the paranormal terrors. And this is the first sequel in which the franchise’s central sisters aren’t the main characters, although Katie (Katie Featherston) does end up playing an important role in the proceedings. Ultimately, however, these minor tweaks to the brand don’t make up for a story in which we can feel fairly confident predicting precisely how everything will play out. (Even 4’s cheeky allusion to The Shining suggests a movie more indebted to the past than one trying to break new ground.)

Still, the film manages to conjure up a few nice sequences of prolonged tension, in part because the franchise’s steadfast refusal to indulge in gross-out gore always leaves open the possibility that this sequel may be the first one to break with tradition. (Indeed, a scene where a knife goes missing creates palpable dread for every subsequent scene in the same room.)

Lovekamp and Allen do a good job as the movie’s central children, with Lovekamp a convincingly angel-faced tyke and Allen an upsettingly dour boy. And Newton and (as her dorky boyfriend) Matt Shively play believable teens full of hormones and sarcastic attitudes. But for loyal audiences who have made the Paranormal Activity films their Halloween movie destination for the last several years, they may feel like they’ve seen all this before — and with a lot more zest.

Production companies: Blumhouse, Solana Films, Room 101, Inc.

Domestic distribution: Paramount Pictures, www.paramount.com

Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli

Executive producers: Akiva Goldsman, Steven Schneider, Christopher Landon

Screenplay: Christopher Landon, story by Chad Feehan, based on the film Paranormal Activity by Oren Peli

Cinematography: Doug Emmett

Production design: Jennifer Spence

Editor: Gregory Plotkin

Website: www.paranormalmovie.com

Cast: Kathryn Newton, Matt Shively, Aiden Lovekamp, Brady Allen, Katie Featherston