Written by: Jason Pagan & Andrew Deutschman (screenplay), Adam Robitel & Gavin Heffernan (screenplay), Brantley Aufill (story)
Directed by: Gregory Plotkin
Starring: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, and Ivy George
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
For the first time, you will see the activity.
If you’re like me and have measured out your life in horror franchises (rather than, say, coffee spoons), the arrival of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is a distressing reminder that time fucking flies. It seems like it wasn’t all that long ago that Oren Peli’s original film arrived like a breath of fresh air to a horror genre cluttered by a half-decade of extreme gore. When its runaway success all but guaranteed to spawn the next great horror franchise, it was positioned as the antidote to a waning Saw series declining under the weight of its increasingly ludicrous story.
By comparison, Paranormal Activity was a refreshingly straightforward tale about a young couple’s terrifying encounter with a malevolent force, a struggle that climaxed with a studio-mandated reshoot that ensured the activity would continue in perpetuity—or as long as the box office receipts rolled in, of course. It was easy to imagine that these movies would haunt theaters for years much in the way slasher franchises once did: after all, sequels would only really require a fresh batch of victims to terrorize with new, inventive scares and perhaps a modicum of story to tie it all together.
But did you ever expect anyone would craft an intricate mythology out of it all? I’ll be damned if they didn’t go and just do exactly what Saw did by attempting to spin a convoluted story that spiraled out of control after a few movies. It’s sort of a testament to Hollywood’s obsession with long-form narrative arcs that studios continue to complicate the most uncomplicated formulas, whether it’s the razor-sharp minimalism of Halloween or the hack-and-slash simplicity of Friday the 13th. Eventually, most horror franchises find themselves lumbering on like some sort of Frankenstein monster, a far cry from what was originally intended, yet just hideous enough to demand your attention.
This brings us back to Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, a film that feels just as far removed from its progenitor as Saw: The Final Chapter did five years ago. Given this franchise’s newfound penchant for time-travel, it feels appropriate that it brings us back full circle with the realization that history has and will likely continue to repeat in this manner—right down to the fact that we’re all skeptical about this being the “final” entry in the franchise but feel compelled to treat it like a big deal regardless.
As a finale, Ghost Dimension attempts to get back to its roots, as it would have you kindly not worry yourself over the events of Paranormal Activity 4 or The Marked Ones, neither of which are too terribly essential (thus confirming that both amount to cinematic stall tactics). Instead, this one connects directly to the third film by picking up exactly where it left off in 1988, where young Katie and Kristi have fallen prey to their grandmother’s coven of witches. We see their formal induction before being whisked back to December 2013, which quickly becomes a distressing holiday season for the Fleeges family. Not only is patriarch Ryan’s (Chris J. Murray) boorish brother (Dan Gill) crashing at their place, but the two siblings also uncover a vintage camera and a bizarre set of tapes out in the garage. The discovery coincides with some unsettling behavior from their daughter Leila (Ivy George), who suddenly has an invisible friend named Toby that isn’t quite content to stay invisible.
Outside of promising some sort of conclusion, that’s the big hook for The Ghost Dimension: for the first time, you’ll actually see the activity (as opposed to only catching the shadowy glimpses in the previous five movies, I suppose). Having abandoned all pretense of reality or even the franchise’s faux verite stylings, the film arrives with a 3D gimmick in every sense of the term—for whatever reason, this camera (presumably the exact same one from PA 3) is now able to detect the faint impressions of another dimension, including the visible shadow of Toby himself, now rendered as—I shit you not—a formless CGI entity prone to popping up whenever activity is afoot. Heralded by similarly computer-generated particles that float about the frame, Toby is more or less reduced to an object thrusted towards the audience’s eyeballs whenever they need a jolt.
Needless to say, it’s a far cry from where this franchise once started. On the surface, it appears to be familiar enough, especially since it’s literally retreading old ground from a previous film. Many of the same plot beats are repeated: as Leila’s behavior becomes more erratic, Chris convinces his wife to install cameras throughout the house to capture anything out of the ordinary, thus treating the audience to another round of disquietingly silent footage of rooms becoming a demonic playground of sorts. Things go bump in the night, and, eventually, the family even calls in a priest. When he insists that situation doesn’t require an exorcism, it almost feels like an exciting deviation from the norm, at least until he suggests an “extermination”…which just winds up feeling like an exorcism performed on a house. After The Marked Ones dared to shake up the formula ever so slightly, The Ghost Dimension can’t wait to retreat to it.
In its rush to do so, it jumbles up the ingredients along the way. The Ghost Dimension might wear the flesh of its predecessors, but it’s a hastily-fashioned recreation, one that ultimately feels kind of hollow. Save for Gill’s lively take on the obnoxious guy who treats the haunting as a joke (you know, the platonic ideal of male Paranormal Activity characters), none of these victims feels particularly vital. It’s a cliché to insist that haunted house movies only work if you care about the inhabitants, but previous Paranormal Activity films have proven some truth lies in cliché. For the first time, the titular activity overwhelms the proceedings and reduces the characters to afterthoughts—this isn’t the really the Fleeges’ story in the same way a chess game isn’t really about the pawns.
While disconcerting, this turn wouldn’t be completely disastrous if the spookiness were as well-crafted as it once was. You miss the exquisitely arranged scares from previous films, all of which could at least boast one memorable moment (laugh all you want about Paranormal 4, but at least it had weird shit involving an X-Box and a fork). With the exception of a few drawn-out sequences, The Ghost Dimension is more concerned with loud, cheap jolts. Gone is the unsettling subtlety and creeping unease; in its place is a wonky 3D gimmick that isn’t even in effect for half of the movie, something that isn’t altogether bothersome at first since it’s at least trying to incorporate 3D into its narrative. After a while, though, you realize you’ve essentially paid 3 extra dollars to constantly fiddle with your glasses like an asshole.
The scares here eventually become so familiar and mechanical that they, too, become sort of expendable. In a sort of ironic twist, this franchise—which once boasted terrific horror elements unburdened by complex mythology—can only offer the revelations hiding within its labyrinthine narrative. You could do worse than to have an audience invested in an actual story, of course; over the past six years, I’ve become weirdly invested in the saga surrounding the core characters who continue to appear around the margins here. It must also be said that relegating them to the margins gives the impression of stringing an audience along, and it’s a feeling that hardly subsides here. For a supposed conclusion, The Ghost Dimension is remarkably light on actual resolution.
Unlike Saw, it’s not particularly worried about tying up every loose end (especially as it relates to the time travel mechanics), nor does it leave one with a sense that this franchise is really ending. A couple of sequels ago, we were assured that “all of the activity” had led to part four; three years later, it hardly feels like it’s really arrived anywhere approaching an ending. You can piece together its various events, but it mostly leaves you wondering why this coven of witches employed such convoluted methods for world domination.
Belaboring the comparison to Saw is arbitrary but apt: whereas that franchise went out in a lunatic blaze of glory, this one has just sort of sputtered to the finish line. The best bits of The Ghost Dimension relate to the scraps of mythology it leaves out, and even this mostly involves watching people read internet printouts and watching other people on ancient VHS tapes. There are some cool through-the-looking-glass moments when Chris and his family realize they’re being spied upon by the subjects of a 25-year-old VHS tape, but that’s just about the extent of the intrigue here—unless someone actually intends to follow through on the Fulci-tinged implications rumbling beneath the surface of the climax. If not, then The Ghost Dimension can only stake its claim as the best Poltergeist remake of 2015, which is hardly the sort of note you want a distinguished franchise to hit on its way out. Something tells me this isn't the last we've heard from it, though.
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