‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’: Film Review

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Over-promises, then under-delivers.

Attempting to unravel many of the knotty questions raised by the franchise’s convoluted mythology, this sixth installment in the series brings events to an overdue conclusion.

An unprecedented phenomenon when it debuted from Paramount in 2009 (following the substitution of a revised ending), Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity launched a six-film franchise based on an urban legend-like haunted house tale. Earning more than $193 million worldwide on a $15,000 budget, it also helped spawn the sometimes regrettable found-footage horror genre.

So Peli’s and producer Jason Blum’s decision to bring the series to a conclusion with this final installment may seem surprising in comparison to the typical strategy of overexploiting a horror franchise, but in truth Peli hasn’t directed another film in the series since the original, moving on to a producing role instead, while Blumhouse has taken the low-budget, high-concept Paranormal Activity model and created similar successes with horror series The Purge, Sinister and Insidious.

With their first 3D release, the producers turn the directing role over to longtime Paranormal Activity series editor and producer Gregory Plotkin (making his feature directorial debut), although this time out Paramount is launching a very different distribution strategy for the film. Along with its upcoming Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse release, the studio has negotiated much briefer theatrical windows than normal with a group of theater chains, reportedly in return for a percentage of the stepped-up VOD release receipts. Other exhibitors have emphatically spurned the arrangement, however, limiting the opening to an estimated 1,600 theaters. The low-budget feature will also be directly competing with Vin Diesel’s blockbuster-scaled supernatural thriller The Last Witch Hunter, leaving the opening-weekend outcome for The Ghost Dimension uncharacteristically uncertain.

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Rather than meaningfully reconnecting with the most compelling characters from the earlier films, the final installment returns to the original house haunted by the demonic entity known as Toby, or more precisely the property, since the home in Santa Rosa, Calif. where Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Brown) were indoctrinated into a mysterious cult, burned down when they were children. The new owners of the rebuilt home are Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily (Brit Shaw), a married couple with a young daughter. As Christmas quickly approaches, Leila (Ivy George) is excited when her uncle Mike (Dan Gill) arrives to spend the holiday with his brother and sister-in-law, along with Emily’s friend Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley).

While adorning the house with decorations removed from storage, Mike finds an 80s-era, custom-built VHS camera and a box of tapes. Technophile Ryan gets the device working and discovers that its sophisticated lens reveals some type of mysterious energy field manifesting in the house that’s only visible to the video-cam, a phenomenon lamely described as "spirit photography." Playing back the tapes, Ryan and Mike review disturbing footage of Kristi’s and Katie’s grandma Lois (Hallie Foote) and a strange man training the girls to communicate with the spirit world. As the manifestation of the aberrant energy field intensifies in his home and Leila begins speaking aloud to an ominous invisible friend, Ryan begins to suspect that the same evil presence that stalked Katie and Kristi may be after his daughter as well.

Narratively, thematically and stylistically The Ghost Dimension barely diverges from the format of the first three films, as nervous homeowners take up video cameras to record the mysterious occurrences that appear to be targeting their loved ones. Even at this late stage in the evolution of the franchise, logical lapses in filmmaking technique undercut the integrity of the found-footage format, but continuity was never one of the series’ strong points, a shortcoming easily forgiven by fans.

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What may be less acceptable, however, is the film’s unaccountably weak effort to sort out the mythology concerning the series of demonic hauntings, instead stacking the deck with a tricked-out plot device that’s an awkward fit with the more traditionally supernatural events that occurred earlier. Primarily referencing, and occasionally depicting, events from Paranormal Activity 3, the current film’s team of four screenwriters, replacing longtime scripter Christopher Landon, fails to sufficiently clarify the actions and motivations of the series’ principal characters, who at this point have practically vanished from the storyline anyway. Performances are fairly perfunctory overall, never achieving a level of terror commensurate with the threats that the characters face.

Plotkin proceeds much in the manner of the foregoing lineup of rotating directors, setting up a chronology of nightly video shoots, roaming the house with a handheld camera, then relying primarily on loud noises and jump scares for impact, although the 3D format allows for more sophisticated special effects, particularly those recorded by the mysterious video camera. Some may remain nostalgic for the low-budget practical effects that enlivened the first few movies, while a major ripoff of a climactic scene from a classic supernatural thriller may even turn off those loyalists as well, limiting Paranormal Activity’s legacy to the first few installments.

Overall, it’s been a fairly entertaining run, but it’s unclear whether the films as a whole will ever rate as a classic horror franchise, although it may be unwise to rule out any further occurrences of Paranormal Activity at this point. 

Production companies: Blumhouse, Solana Films, Room 101

Cast: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Dan Gill, Jessica Brown, Chloe Csengery, Don McManus, Hallie Foote, Cara Pifko, Michael Krawic, Alden Lovekamp, Mark Steger
Director: Gregory Plotkin
Screenwriters: Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, Gavin Heffernan
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli
Executive producers:  Steven R. Molen Steven Schneider 
Director of photography: John W. Rutland
Production designer:  Nathan Amondson    
Costume designer:  Lisa Lovaas
Editor:  Michel Aller
Rated R, 88 minutes