Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Gregory Plotkin
Writer: Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, Gavin Heffernan, Brantley Aufill
Producer: Jason Blum, Oren Peli
Stars: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Dan Gill, Ivy George, Jessica Brown, Chloe Csengery, Don McManus, Hallie Foote, Cara Pifko
An unusual video camera uncovers an evil connection between a haunted young girl and a supernatural doorway.
Six flicks deep into the series, not including the unofficially official Japanese spinoff “Tokyo Night” (review here), and “Paranormal Activity” has not quite painted itself into a corner where sequels have to choose one continuity over another (“Halloween”) or send someone into space (“Jason X”) to renew the fresh scent. Yet the saga has grown convoluted enough that a formula founded on lo-fi frights sees its simple bumps in the night supplanted by CGI smoke tendrils and multilayered mythology involving portals, time travel, possession, witches, and demons.
(“A Nightmare on Elm Street” found itself in a similar circumstance of three-dimensional gimmicks at the half-dozen mark. Maybe this puts a seventh “Paranormal Activity” on pace to be more “New Nightmare” than “Freddy’s Dead.”)
Picking up where “Paranormal Activity 3” left off, never mind “Paranormal Activity 4” for now and forget about “The Marked Ones” entirely, “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” opens with an epilogue to that movie’s 1988 ending. Grandma Lois leads little Katie and Kristi upstairs to meet Kent, a mysterious man sent to school the girls in psychic abilities and the otherworldly entity known as “Tobi,” with an “i” not a “y” according to end credits.
Flash forward to 2013. A new family lives in a new home, but built on the property where Lois’ house once hosted a coven engaged in unspeakable acts. With the family’s eight-year-old daughter Leila as his new target, Tobi is up to old tricks of whispering naughty notes in the girl’s ear while flickering lights and flipping over furniture to keep the adults on edge. The difference in this haunting is that an unusual camcorder left behind by Lois allows Leila’s family to see the paranormal activity with their very own eyes.
I might need to retract that opening statement about not having its back against the wall. Fact is, “Paranormal Activity” has advanced to a point where it is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.
Think about how “Halloween,” to use that example again, ended up dizzily chasing its tail by forcing every sequel storyline to fit together. Previously nonexistent family ties, druid cults, pagan holidays, cursed bloodlines. It gets to be an unenviable mess trying to simultaneously expand in two directions, moving forward into the future while connecting to what came before.
“The Ghost Dimension” confronts that same conundrum. A formerly reliable pattern of slow-rolling chills ramping to a big bang conclusion over surveillance cameras barely had gas for one movie. It won’t work for a sixth. Franchise stewards have to come up with something bigger and bolder than what already was. Except in this case, what is bigger and bolder is limited to visual flash and surround sound scares. The script on the other hand, frays collective storyline threads more than it ties them together.
When “The Ghost Dimension” does fall back on formula, it seems to do so out of habit or obligation. The film waits until about a half hour in before revving up the familiar “Night #X” intertitle texts, yet it is unclear what the point is anymore. Although noteworthy events happen on night #5 for instance, that date card is skipped for some reason, as though even the movie loses track of why it still bothers with outmoded conventions.
Realistically, the movie shouldn’t take place over multiple nights anyway. The four adult characters buy into the supernatural insanity plaguing Leila and the house almost instantly. There is one initial instance of “maybe it’s just…” rationalization, but that goes out the window once every character has suffered at least one direct paranormal attack. So why would anyone let momentum slow down back to a lull?
Videotaped evidence of a black smoke monster knocking over fixtures and a little girl showing signs of possession should result only in a 24/7 commitment to digging up as much information and setting up as many protective measures as possible. Leila’s father Ryan finds videotapes from 1988 with Kristi seeing into present day 2013 before the activity starts in earnest and watches similar footage again on night #4. By night #6, he is still watching new tapes for the first time. After the first indication that you are in possession of tapes predicting the future, wouldn’t you watch every available minute right away? How is it that these people have such a “let’s check into this tomorrow” mentality when a demon is literally tearing up their household?
The answer to that question is that the script needs it this way. Kind of like how it needs Ryan to be the only person on the planet who has never heard of “Bloody Mary,” requiring the haunted mirror game to be explained to him presumably for the benefit of any in-the-dark viewers.
70 minutes into the cursed craziness and Ryan kisses his wife goodbye, leaving her and Leila alone in a verified haunted house so he and his brother can take a tape to the police. (It takes two men to carry one videocassette, apparently.) That four credited screenwriters and an additional name under “Story by” couldn’t come up with more sensible behavior to move characters raises an eyebrow so high it touches the hairline.
Credibility in the fiction fully unravels when Ryan comes home from the police station carrying a “missing” poster for Kristi’s son Hunter Rey. While not impossible, it is unlikely that a police station in Santa Rosa, California would have up a poster for a boy who went missing in Henderson, Nevada two years earlier. Within seconds, the first thing Aunt Skyler notices about the poster is that Hunter and Leila share the same birthday. Maybe I’m a bad uncle for needing a calendar to remind me of my niece and nephew’s respective DOBS, but this seems like a curious detail for someone to see straight away.
This is the chief problem “The Ghost Dimension” has fitting in with its predecessors. It simply isn’t believable as remotely realistic. The whole “found footage” foundation that gave the series its relatable roots holds back “The Ghost Dimension” from being the mainstream multiplex shocker it badly wants to be. Gone are the full-frame creeps that made the first film effective. This is about in-your-face lens lunges and loud music suddenly turning on for those false sugar high scares good for a brief jumpstart, but not for lasting terror.
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that approach. It merely bears noting that “The Ghost Dimension” fashions itself as a palatably passable horror film first, with its tangential relationship to a preexisting property being of secondary importance.
In spite of a largely ludicrous script, there are still elements to appreciate about “The Ghost Dimension,” primarily the special effects and casting. Ivy George is incredibly natural as Leila, without any hint of rehearsed reading stiltedness or a licking up the limelight persona that can come from inexperienced or too professional child actors. And Mark Steger’s appearance as Tobi gives him enough similar credits to officially be the Pepsi to Doug Jones’ Coke when it comes to go-to thin men commonly cast as lanky creatures.
The movie is easy, perhaps understandably so, for franchise faithful to hate if they wish. It is styled with so much pop, pomp, and circumstance that it is only vaguely reminiscent of the streamlined scariness that popularized “Paranormal Activity” in the first place. But disassociate it from the first five films, just like the writers virtually did, and it functions as fine as any other teen-targeted Blumhouse fare. That’s not intended as an insult. That’s merely an observation that what this movie actually is, a “good enough” popcorn fright film, is off book with the usual agenda or expectations of a “Paranormal Activity” movie.
Review Score: 55