This is a spoiler-free review, which includes plot details from the previous five instalments in the Paranormal Activity series.
Back in 2009, Paramount masterminded a revolutionary marketing campaign for Oren Peli’s micro-budget found footage horror movie Paranormal Activity. With endorsements from the likes of Steven Spielberg, it was arguably the most hyped film of its year and certainly the most profitable, returning $193m on a $15,000 budget.
Sequels abounded and the films comfortably usurped the annual Halloween slot occupied by the Saw franchise over the course of the following three sequels. 2013 was supposed to see two Paranormal Activity movies – a “Latin-American oriented” spin-off at the beginning of the year and then a fifth instalment at Halloween as usual, but the cool reception to Paranormal Activity 4 apparently led to a rethink and the schedule changed.
The Marked Ones eventually landed in January last year and the fifth film was bumped around the schedule quite a bit before it settled. After four movies and a spin-off, the most unlikely horror franchise of recent years finally comes to an end in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.
The film is set in December 2013, with a new family, the Fleeges, spending their first Christmas in the childhood home of sisters Katie and Kristi Featherston. Dad Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and his brother Mike (Dan Gill) discover a hefty and antiquated VHS camcorder in storage, along with a bunch of tapes of the events we saw in Paranormal Activity 3 and the immediate aftermath.
Upon closer inspection, the camera has been custom-made to contain twice as many picture tubes as an ordinary model, and while they’re dicking around with it, they pick up something unusual. Ryan’s daughter Leila (Ivy George) suddenly meets an imaginary friend she calls Toby and you can probably fill in the gaps if you’ve seen any one of the previous films.
“For the first time, you will see the activity”, proclaimed the marketing campaign for this one, which is a ballsy banner to put on the sixth film in a franchise if nothing else. Now that all is said and done, there is one regard in which we can be certain that the franchise will not last long in the memory – in its genre, it is uniquely devoid of iconography. There are few returning characters over the course of the six films and for most of the series, despite having more budget to play with, the monster is invisible.
In addition to finally letting us see Toby, the final instalment should answer any lingering questions we have about the previous films. What is the demon’s endgame? Why are the witch-like old ladies helping him? How on Earth did Jesse and Hector travel back in time to the first film at the end of The Marked Ones? And the one that you’ve asked out loud on multiple occasions while watching this series – why are they still filming?!
The piecemeal mythology that each successive sequel has strapped onto the indie original has essentially been made up as we went along. This one had four different screenwriters – Jason Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel and Gavin Heffernan – and it feels like they and new director Gregory Plotkin had a lot of loose ends to grab onto in their bid to tie up this round robin story. Even with that in mind, you’re unlikely to walk away from this one feeling satisfied, particularly given the complete absence of one recurring player who you would think would be the key to everything.
Furthermore, when Ryan and Mike are basically watching Paranormal Activity 3, you expect footage from other instalments to appear so that they can connect the dots and we can get a bit of closure. When that doesn’t happen, you’re left watching the usual rigmarole, in which some newbies catching up to where the audience were going in, filming themselves all the while – they film themselves filming new footage, watching said footage and talking about what to do next before everything kicks off at the end. Lather, rinse, make a killing at the box office, repeat.
It’s true that these films are efficient ghost train rides, each adding gags and setpieces into the hotch-potch tapestry of the franchise rather than escalating the story. But if you haven’t even been a little invested in the story, then this is no more climactic than any of the other films. Visually, it’s “the Christmas one”, but the new characters are so interchangeable with the casts of the previous films that there’s little here for either casual viewers or completists.
From its found footage origins, the series has gradually shed all verisimilitude by including studio logos and end credits, where the original was ambiguously free of such presentational tells. Making this one in 3D is the final apotheosis of that process. At least there’s a good in-story reason for it with the makeshift ghost-busting camera and Plotkin executes some nice pointy horror gags throughout, but you’ll have the sneaking suspicion that they were merely looking for an excuse to put the surcharge on another horror sequel.
Plotkin’s background is in editing and there’s a reason why editors transition comfortably into making mainstream horror – these films are more about sudden noises and discomfiting transitions than anything genuinely unsettling, and so it goes with The Ghost Dimension. By the magic of 3D glasses, we’re allowed to see what’s really going on for the first time and it confirms what those who tuned out after the fourth instalment may have already gleaned – as much as he parades around, the demon emperor has a distinct lack of demon pants to show off.
The thing that makes the most sense about this is the studio’s decision to release the film on video on demand 17 days after its US cinema release is done, a decision which has reportedly led to a much-diminished screen count for its opening weekend. Paramount’s marketing campaigns have always insisted upon the cinematic experience, (most stridently with the 3D release of this one) but they’re probably most effective when watched at home in the dark, as your own abode turns against you with all of those weird settling noises.
With that in mind, if you’re planning to see how it all ends, it’s best to wait to watch it at home. It’s definitely a better, more eventful film than a couple of the previous sequels, but Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension buckles under the extra weight of having to come up with a satisfying conclusion. Out of six films, it’s not even in the top three best entries.
For a climactic visual extravaganza in a series that has thrived upon invisible action, it’s not even as striking as the ones where we couldn’t “see the activity”, and the end result for a franchise that reaped huge profits from relatively miniscule budgets is a whole lot of money for the filmmakers and a whole lot less satisfaction for audiences. Until the inevitable reboot or Peli-driven New Nightmare style reboot, there’s little to keep this soporific sextet in mind.