The onslaught of Paranormal Activity wannabees released post-2009 left many feeling exhausted with the subgenre, and it’s hard to blame them. As is often the case after the tremendous success of a horror film, the majority of movies that followed in Oren Peli’s footsteps were uninspired to say the least, with studios adopting the first-person gimmick as a convenient excuse for cutting costs. Hitting theaters within the subsequent months were The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside, Apollo 18, and many more; the backlash was immediate and fierce. But lost in the shuffle was The Fourth Kind, opening weeks after Paranormal Activity to significantly less fanfare. Critics hated it – the movie received a dismal 19 percent Rotten Tomatoes score – and these days, it’s virtually never discussed.
But it should be. The Fourth Kind does not deserve its reputation as simply another garbage found-footage cash grab, and there’s more to offer here than you might expect. Although the movie has serious issues, it’s one of the few found-footage films of its time that legitimately brings something new to the table. It’s time to give Olatunde Osunsanmi’s work another look.
Though it was released during the Paranormal Activity mania, The Fourth Kind draws much more of its inspiration from The Blair Witch Project in that it tries to convince audiences it is real. Not even Paranormal Activity attempted that, and for understandable reasons. In the age of the Internet and of social media, would anyone buy into a hoax like this again? It couldn’t be done, right?
The Fourth Kind took a novel approach: the filmmakers would not try to dupe audiences into believing the movie is literally the presentation of actual footage, as The Blair Witch Project had done in 1999. Instead, they would assert that the movie is a dramatic recreation of actual footage, with the supposedly legitimate video and audio occasionally displayed side-by-side with the actors’ performances. In that way, it’s sort of a mix of a found-footage film, a mockumentary, and a standard horror movie.
Like The Blair Witch Project, The Fourth Kind was promoted using a website that featured news clippings of the allegedly real events. The filmmakers didn’t wind up fooling many people, though. By 2009, it was rather easy to uncover hoaxes. For instance, Universal Pictures claimed that The Fourth Kind was based on the experience of psychologist Abigail Tyler, but a quick Google search showed that there were no records of any psychologist with that name ever working in Alaska. The only websites with information about her had been registered by the producers one month before the theatrical release.
Clearly the attempt to fool audiences did not work, and that left a sour taste in a lot of viewers’ mouths, who dismissed the movie in the same way you might dismiss a spam email that’s trying to get you to download a virus. But while the experiment failed, it’s somewhat admirable that the filmmakers at least tried out a different approach, not relying on the same tired setup of a mysterious tape apparently winding up in the hands of a movie studio for unexplained reasons. Besides, it almost doesn’t matter whether we believe the movie is real in a literal sense. Because Osunsanmi is so darn committed to maintaining his fake reality, it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief and get sucked in, forgetting everything we know about the phony websites and newspaper articles.
It’s easy in part because The Fourth Kind goes out of its way to provide believable explanations as to why the characters would be filming and why Universal Pictures would have their footage. Even in Paranormal Activity, one of the great found-footage entries, it’s jarring that Micah so often picks up the camcorder and runs around the house with it, even when any normal human would have abandoned the thing on its tripod. This is often a necessary evil so that the audience can follow the action, but it’s not required in The Fourth Kind, where the only first-person sequences take place in the hypnotherapy sessions. It makes sense that Dr. Tyler is taping when she is, and in several scenes, we even see the characters specifically setting up the camera and hitting record. Never do we throw up our hands and find our immersion is broken. Movies like V/H/S would later start providing even more creative answers to the “why are they still filming” question, but lest we forget how bad things were in 2009 when The Fourth Kind came out.
Plus, Olatunde Osunsanmi clearly put thought into how a studio like Universal might hypothetically present this video if it were authentic. That’s something barely any horror filmmakers bother addressing, especially not in 2009; with nearly all found-footage movies, supposedly real people are being brutally murdered on camera, and we’re just supposed to accept that a Hollywood studio would be fine with releasing that to the local AMC and selling it as an entertainment product. The Fourth Kind tackles this issue early on: when Tommy kills himself and his family, the graphic bits are blurred out, as if Universal felt wary about making an uncensored murder public.
That philosophy of not ignoring any minor detail continues all throughout, with dozens of little moments adding up to a whole that is surprisingly plausible, in spite of some admittedly poor acting. When we see interview footage of Dr. Tyler, it has a Chapman University watermark on it, and the video is quite grainy like such a tape probably would be. Compare that to Cloverfield or The Gallows, where all the footage shot by amateurs resembles something from the latest RED camera. Pieces of audio are also accompanied by stock footage of a tape recorder or by a transcript, exactly how documentaries typically make conversations visually interesting.
All of this isn’t necessarily just a way of trying to trick the audience. It’s more that by building a credible movie universe, we can forget, even if only briefly, that what we’re watching is entirely fabricated, whereas the ludicrous nature of other found-footage movies prevents us from losing ourselves in their reality. Usually the characters are holding the camera, but no other attempt is made to ground the scenario; we have to constantly make our own excuses in an attempt to maintain the illusion that we’re seeing legitimate video, as if we’re doing the work for the filmmakers. Not here, though.
The Fourth Kind also manages to make alien abductions terrifying, something that only a handful of movies have accomplished. It does so by applying to aliens the same principles that are usually applied to ghosts: they are kept off screen and ambiguous, and the audience never once sees a single alien. Alien horror movies frequently lose us when the director shoves in an unrealistic creature – something that would probably look less crummy if a larger budget was available – but The Fourth Kind forces us to fill in the blanks. Granted, that’s in part just due to the financial restrictions.
This ambiguity doesn’t only apply to the aliens’ physical appearance, either. It also applies to the entire experience of alien abduction, with Osunsanmi’s approach being that it is so horrifying that it is impossible to put into words. In one scene, Scott has difficulty explaining what has happened; he simply says that after what he went through, he suddenly understands why Tommy would have killed his family and then himself. How awful must an ordeal be to suddenly make murder-suicide seem like a reasonable next step? The Fourth Kind barely even tries to paint a picture of alien abduction for us, instead drawing on our preexisting anxiety about aliens. This can be read as brilliance or laziness, and if you don’t already find the idea of aliens frightening, the film may not click.
But Osunsanmi makes use of some genuinely creative bits of filmmaking that elevate the movie beyond typical genre fare. Take the depiction of the owl, the film’s most striking piece of imagery. The first time we see it, Osunsanmi utilizes a 360 shot, with the camera moving in precise synchronicity with the owl’s head so that the bird’s movement is disguised while its black eyes stare us down. What about the scene during which Dr. Tyler is speaking with her patients? Osunsanmi wants to communicate in a short period of time that many of Tyler’s clients are having the same issue, and so he pans back and forth from her to the couch. Within the same shot, every time Osunsanmi reaches the sofa, there’s a different person on it. Every few minutes in The Fourth Kind, there’s some sort of cool little idea that we can’t help but appreciate.
There’s another tense sequence that involves nothing more than Dr. Tyler listening to a tape recording. Her assistant checks it out first and is so baffled that she doesn’t know what to say and runs out of the office. What did the assistant hear? We aren’t sure. What could have possibly warranted that reaction? Dr. Tyler decides to listen to the tape herself. The tape rolls, and it takes an excruciatingly long time for the punchline to hit. Obviously, we know that something nightmare-inducing has been recorded, but the tension builds and builds and builds, and when the screaming finally starts, the lead-up has made it more effective than such a basic reveal would otherwise have been.
Speaking of lead-up, the first major jump scare does not happen until about 40 minutes into the movie, but it’s worth the wait. None of the previous hypnotherapy scenes have had any major shocks, relying mostly on tension and an eerie atmosphere. So when Scott suddenly jumps up in his bed and begins wailing in terror, all of that patience from earlier pays off. Osunsanmi shows a clear understanding of the power of jump scares and the importance of using them strategically. Can you recall another found-footage film where there’s no jump scares until about halfway through?
All in all, there’s a feeling of passion for the material that comes across in The Fourth Kind. A similar film like The Gallows is a cynical exercise consisting entirely of genre tropes, lazy dialogue, cheap scares, and absolutely no attempt to show the audience anything unexpected. The Fourth Kind isn’t perfect, but it’s difficult to argue Olatunde Osunsanmi was phoning it in. He had a novel approach to this story and wanted to try something new. Whether he pulled it off is up to you, but his ambition should at least be applauded.
So where does the movie falter? Well, in terms of breaking the audience’s immersion, it becomes quite distracting how many times the tape becomes corrupted. Whenever the movie comes close to revealing the aliens, the video suddenly and conveniently cuts to static and the audio gets damaged. This is used as a technique to obscure the monsters, but Osunsanmi goes to that well far too many times. It’s similar to the way Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla continues to cut away from the titular monster at key moments, showing him in the background or on TV screens. Once, twice or even three times is clever; by the fourth and fifth time, it’s just frustrating.
The dialogue is rough as well. Take the early scene where Dr. Tyler and her son argue over dinner. Everything they’re saying is extremely stilted and functions completely to relay backstory and character motivations. “You go helping other people with their problems, but you can’t even help yourself,” Ronnie says to his mother. When Abigail forgets the minor details of Ronnie’s soccer game, he says out of absolutely nowhere, “Dad never forgot.”
And though much of the filmmaking is inventive, the plot isn’t as much, with the story beats all being familiar right down to Dr. Tyler calling up an expert in languages who explains exactly what’s happening and emphasizes how darn scary it is that the voice is speaking in an ancient dialect. Oh, and don’t forget your skeptic character who remains so weirdly incredulous long after it becomes clear that there’s something obviously supernatural going on.
Finally, the ending, as it often is in found-footage, is unsatisfying. Not only is no situation remotely resolved, but Osunsanmi throws in a bogus half twist in the final act to make us question whether the whole thing was in Dr. Tyler’s head. It’s a complete afterthought – the language of the movie clearly tells us it’s not all in her head – yet it’s shoehorned in to provide some illusion of nuance.
The Fourth Kind’s reputation isn’t totally surprising, then. It’s an average horror movie with below average dialogue, a predictable storyline and a dumb ending. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching, and it doesn’t mean we should discuss it in the same breath as complete trainwrecks like Hollow and Paranormal Activity 4. The Fourth Kind is a fascinating and entirely watchable film with a real sense of passion on display, and sometimes an interesting failure is preferable to an unremarkable success.