Released just in time for Halloween and promoted as the final installment of the series, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension arrives in cinemas with the mission to answer all our questions of the slow-burning franchise. A short clip before the screening this reviewer attended even had producer Jason Blum appear to say just that. Yet, the Paranormal Activity franchise, like other horror franchises such as Saw, sees regular installments that attempt to build the mythos of their world without seemingly much foresight into the future of the story. Ghost Dimension is no different, and it’s a daunting task to connect and make sense of past storylines that have been continuously one-upped, while also paving over some fairly ludicrous plot holes.
When the Fleeges family moves into a new home, parents Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily (Brit Shaw) find that their normally bubbly daughter, Leila, (Ivy George) soon starts exhibiting rather strange behavior. When a box of old creepy VHS family movies and a camcorder that is able to pick up otherworldly frequencies mysteriously finds its way into their possession, Ryan soon discovers that this bargain house may have actually been too good to be true. With the help of his brother, Mike (Dan Gill), and Emily’s friend, Skylar (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the family sets out to stop this haunting before Leila’s imaginary friend, Tobi, makes good on his promise of taking her away.
Surprisingly, the cast is one of the stronger elements of the film. Murray’s (Bad Roomies) Ryan and Gill’s (The Wedding Ringer) Mike provide quite a few laughs and deliver somewhat of an amusing commentary on the normal happenings of a Paranormal Activity film. There’s a mix of sarcastic banter with a pinch of meta and a dash of tongue-in-cheek humor, which makes their ghost hunting much more entertaining than that of possibly any other characters in the series. It’s also helped by the fact that the two men have a natural brotherly rapport. Shaw (Nashville) and Dudley (Chernobyl Diaries) also do well to not be left out of the action, but it’s newcomer Ivy George that delivers a memorable performance.
The first Paranormal Activity was delivered as a minimalistic take on the modern supernatural horror genre, made on a minimal budget as an independent film and utilizing the ‘found footage’ format. It’s depiction of a normal couple was fairly ordinary, chronicling their day to day – sometimes without any kind of supernatural event occurring, but it was this mundane approach that made the story relatable and the scares seem that much more real. But with each proceeding chapter, the franchise has moved further and further away from its humble beginnings, and instead adopted for more Hollywood-esque effects to scare and engage audiences.
In Ghost Dimension, first-time feature director Gregory Plotkin seems to have taken this a step further, deciding that it was time to finally show Tobi, the demonic force that has plagued households throughout the series. Taking on the form of what could easily be mistaken for the smoke monster from Lost, there’s less of the usual bump in the night-type scares, and more of the dark figure lurking in the shadows. This is where the film encounters its first problem. Building tension is fairly easy to do when your characters wander around dark hallways waiting to encounter ghosts, but it becomes fairly routine when every scare involves the shadowy figure launching at the camera or zooming past, accompanied by the appropriate booming thud to ensure that you’re startled. It doesn’t take long before it becomes clear: Ghost Dimension could easily have the worst use of jump scares in the last decade, if not in all of modern cinema.
The next problem arises when you consider that most of the ghostly attacks are filmed on this special camcorder, made especially to capture the supernatural. While it’s essentially a staple of this genre that there’s a back and forth between a believer and a skeptic, it just doesn’t work under these circumstances. While it is Shaw’s Emily that gets to wear the disbeliever pants here, it becomes almost laughable when the story has to ignore the fact that it has caught this ghostly apparition on film multiple times, in order to stretch a further half an hour out of the plot. Admittedly, the footage is reviewed a few times, but even then it’s shrugged off with zero consideration.
A mainstay of the earlier films was that they relied heavily on leaving the source of the haunting up to the viewer’s imagination. Not knowing what Tobi looks like is actually much scarier than seeing that he amounts to not much more than sentient air pollution. It’s understandable that this is something fans would want to see, but the visuals here push the film into much more of a B-grade horror, and at times even reaches the unintentional campiness of an 80’s monster flick. Perhaps if the smoke monster had been used more sparingly or reserved for later in the film it could have been palatable, but as is, the film tries to push into the territory of films like Insidious and Sinister without any of the substance that make those outings more effective.
Ghost Dimension is also the first film in the series to be released in 3D. It’s clear that this was done to capitalize on the appearance of the smoke monster, as well as making the last installment that much more of a spectacle, but its use is rarely necessitated. The only other time it’s employed is to show what looks like pockets of floating ash, the residual otherworldly energy left from Tobi entering our world, and is actually as close as the film gets in depicting any form of a “ghost dimension”. It also doesn’t help that the conversion to 3D naturally makes the film darker, which arises complications then when most of the film is set in a house without lights on.
As an end to the series, Ghost Dimension perhaps works better as an epilogue than as an actual conclusion. Yes, there are answers given to the mysteries that have been built up over the multiple films, and the film wastes no time in giving them out right away, but they’re mainly answers to questions that aren’t that important and were kind of assumed anyway. The film lacks the return of any substantial character you assumed may play a vital role in the final chapter, and instead of a climax that works to tie the whole series together, the story finishes with what feels like a rather tacked on ending, as if Plotkin was told at the eleventh hour to wrap it all up and call it a day.
At this point, the franchise probably won’t be garnering the interest of too many new fans, and any that it does find will probably be somewhat confused when comparing the new flashier effects to the original’s more realistic approach. How satisfying this conclusion will be to devout fans, on the other hand, might depend entirely on the expectations they have of a franchise that has ranged from enjoyable to mediocre.
THE REEL SCORE: 5/10