This Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension review contains slight spoilers.
And so the end is upon us (or least that’s what they’re saying – more on that later). After seven years, one of the most successful horror franchises in recent history draws to a close with entry number six, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. And while I wish I could say that the series is going out on a high note, the fact is that The Ghost Dimension at once takes the saga away from what made it special in the first place even as it recycles some of the series’ other trademark aspects and adds a larger-than-normal dose of dumb to the proceedings.
Director Gregory Plotkin and an army of screenwriters (the official credits are screenplay by Jason Pagan & Andrew Deutschman and Adam Robitel & Gavin Heffernan, story by Brantley Aufill and Jason Pagon & Andrew Deutschman) try to tie up some loose ends while leaving others dangling, with this film pretty much ignoring the events of Paranormal Activity 4 and 2013’s strong yet underappreciated Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Instead of forging into new territory like that movie, however, The Ghost Dimension returns to the template of the first three as a family is attacked in its home by a malevolent entity, with the “activity” captured on home videos.
The Fleeges – game designer Ryan (Chris J. Murray), wife Emily (Brit Shaw), and seven-year-old daughter Leila (Ivy George) – move into their new house and are joined there by Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill) and Emily’s friend Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley, whose character should have just been named “Eye Candy” to simplify things) for the Christmas holidays. But Ryan discovers a camera left behind by the previous owners of the property — whose original house burned down and who will be familiar to viewers of Paranormal Activity 3 — that can apparently “see” things that the human eye can’t.
No sooner does Ryan begin spotting bizarre manifestations through his viewfinder than inexplicable and increasingly dangerous things begin happening in the house, prompting Ryan and Mike to set up cameras for those well-worn nighttime recording sessions that have become the narrative hook of the entire series. At the same time, a box of VHS tapes also left with the camera provide a glimpse into what happened in the house 20 years earlier (after the end of Paranormal Activity 3), as young sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Brown) are indoctrinated by a cult into making contact with the series’ boogeyman, the demonic “Toby,” while also seemingly peering into the future at the Fleeges as well.
The marketing for The Ghost Dimension promises that this time, we’ll “see the activity,” and that is exactly where this movie shockingly departs from everything that came before. The strength of the first Paranormal Activity – famously made for nothing by Oren Peli (who has been a producer on every entry since) and released with just a revised ending by Paramount – was that you saw next to nothing: no monsters, no visual effects, just an occasional object moving by itself in the bedroom of Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (series mainstay Katie Featherston, who is namechecked here but finally sits out this last film). The tension and dread was created all through shadows, silence and stillness, and was thoroughly unnerving.
The Ghost Dimension, on the other hand, shows you everything: a black mist that occasionally takes vaguely human or tentacle-like form is the primary effect on display, rendered in pretty cheap-looking CG and shown in 3D to boot (which adds nothing to the experience). There are other manifestations later in a third act that pretty much pulls out all the stops (while lifting images from Poltergeist, The Exorcist and The Devil Rides Out), but the abundance of visual effects makes it seem as if all the filmmakers just threw up their hands and said, “Fuck it, let’s just pile this shit on like everyone else does.” It’s a sad refutation of the original movie’s intent and only adds insult to injury with an over-reliance on cheap jump scares as well.
The repetitive night recordings still manage to maintain some sense of dread among the more predictable proceedings, even if they themselves have become formulaic as well, and one has to admit that even at the end of its creative rope, this film occasionally ekes out some of the skincrawling chills that made the first film (and to a lesser extent, the two that followed) such a refreshing change of pace after several years of Saw-inspired torture porn. But now the Paranormal Activity format, and the found-footage esthetic it helped relaunch, have gone full circle and become exhausted themselves.
As for the cast, no one is outright bad but none of them are anything beyond average either, with the possible exception of Ivy George as poor little Leila. Ryan and Mike come across as more stupid than some of their predecessors, with Ryan recording all this footage and either not looking at it all or having absolutely nothing to say about the black amorphous goo that his camera spots slithering around the house. The two bros are good for basically screaming “what the fuck?” at each other in record numbers, while Emily and Skylar disappear for long stretches until it’s time for Emily to run to Leila’s side. No one could ever accuse the Paranormal Activity movies of deep characterization or complex performances, but there’s more phoning in going on this time than at a pizza place during the Super Bowl.
Paranormal Activity, the first movie, was groundbreaking in many ways: it showed that a truly terrifying and crowdpleasing film could be made for little money and rake in $100 million. It proved that horror could rely more on atmosphere and the unseen instead of special effects, dizzying editing, gore and violence. It reinvigorated (for a while) the found-footage movie, and it more or less launched Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Films, which has provided us with films like Insidious, Sinister, The Purge and many others. Like just about any successful horror film, it spawned a lucrative franchise, but as franchises tend to do, the novelty and freshness began to diminish over time. Yes, The Ghost Dimension wraps up the overall storyline in some fundamental ways, but unfortunately it does not close the door completely for future installments. We can only hope that Blum, Peli, Paramount Pictures and all other involved parties will just take a bow, shut off the cameras, and let the activity cease.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is out in theaters now.