For all of its faults (of which there are many), I have a soft spot for the Paranormal Activity franchise. I can appreciate its tireless attempts to set mood and atmosphere, to scare with as little as possible, even if it doesn’t work most of the time. I can at least appreciate the effort. With Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, the sixth film in the franchise, Paramount Pictures has shown a level of awareness unusual for a movie studio when a successful franchise is concerned and elected to put the series out to pasture before the wheels fall off completely. It’s this renewed freedom that makes Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension work, and while it isn’t without its faults, it remains the best installment of the franchise since 2009’s ground-breaking original.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is given the unenviable job of wrapping up the series’ ongoing plot lines, which became increasingly convoluted as the years went on. It’s clear that the original film was never intended to be continued, and it wasn’t until the third film that a clear plan began to emerge, however vague. Paranormal Activity 3 (the prequel installment set thirty years ago) and last year’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (the fifth installment in the series) both figure heavily into the plot of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, to the point that the film actually begins with the final scene of the third installment. From there, we’re treated by a brief but incredibly surprising excursion to traditional film without the found-footage concept, before the film fast forwards to 2013 and restores the franchise’s traditional gimmick.
The past figures heavily into the story of this movie, with the house from Paranormal Activity 3 retaking the stage as a new family moves in and quickly become victimized by the sinister demon Toby. The interesting thing this time around is how the film works the franchise’s signature found footage conceit further into the story as Ryan, the father of the family (Chris J. Murray; Bad Roomies, Grand Theft Auto IV), discovers the tapes that the third film was comprised of as well as a tricked out camera with the added feature of being able to pick up the sinister creature that’s terrorising them.
The franchise’s whole story is held together with duct tape and paper clips but Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, directed by Gregory Plotkin (making his feature film debut) from a screenplay by Jason Pagan (Project Almanac, Adam), Andrew Deutschman (Project Almanac, Double Vision), Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Love Your Customers) and Gavin Heffernan (Expiration, The Taking of Deborah Logan), does a decent job of concluding it. The franchise re-treads familiar ground here (another child is in peril and another priest is called in) but there’s a sense of finality that has been missing from every movie since the first.
Toby’s motives and his end goals are indeed revealed, but those revelations are questionable in their quality and fall apart as soon as you think about them too hard. Still, given the messy nature of the storyline up to this point it’s actually pretty impressive how cleanly things fall into place.
Paranormal Activity movies never regained the suspense of the first one for the simple fact that they repeated themselves. The first installment played that quiet build of dread perfectly, but there’s only so many times you can watch a door open and close by itself and not grow immune to it. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension attempts to remedy that by finally showing the demonic presence turning the lights on and off in a visual form. It’s a gimmick, there’s no doubt, but it works because it allows the filmmakers to do something different with the franchise.
It’s surprisingly effective and Plotkin is confident enough to show only what is absolutely necessary, rather than have his villain waltz around in full view for the entire film. It may seem like such a minor thing, but it goes a long way in establishing the movie’s genuinely frightening atmosphere. And this is a scary movie. None of the other sequels ever gave me the same sense of dread and suspense as The Ghost Dimension does, because with them I’d seen the trick before. The Ghost Dimension uses its newly found freedom to explore a bit, and the results can be terrifying.
Also on the film’s side is the fact that it’s characters are some of it’s best in years. Paranormal Activity has always had trouble making its leads likable, with the only film not to be populated by terrible people being the third one. But there’s a genuine warmth to the family we’re following this time, and while some of its members aren’t exactly showcases for good character development, they get us to root for them. Ditto for the aforementioned priest, who proves to be perhaps the most capable good guy in the whole franchise and brings an authority to the proceedings that hasn’t been present in the other films.
Sadly, the ending is a very poor one. It plays as if the writers were instructed to leave the door open, just in case Paramount reversed its decision and ordered a seventh installment. For the most part though, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is a better ending to the struggling series than I expected, and a sharper film overall than any in the franchise since the first. It’s scary, it’s suspenseful and even when it drops the ball on occasion it remains a great deal of fun. It’s a surprisingly good conclusion for a franchise that has failed to impress for a long time.