“Loose threads.” It’s all anyone involved with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension could talk about these last several months. This sixth entry in the Paranormal Activity franchise was said to be the last, and, as such, all questions would be answered. The loose threads, they said, would all be tied up. Toby, for example, what is he? Is he a demon? What does he look like?
Toby is a major part of The Ghost Dimension, a limp noodle of a finale that focuses, as Paranormal Activity 4 did, on a brand new family. After moving into a new house, patriarch Ryan (Chris J. Murray) uncovers a camera, as well as a series of VHS tapes that reveal what happened to young Katie and Kristi in the aftermath of Paranormal Activity 3. Also the camera itself seems to have the ability to peer into another dimension — a ghost dimension? — that, along with the tapes, helps Ryan make sense of his daughter Leila’s (Ivy George) eccentric behavior. Creepy kid stuff follows, as do oodles of shrieking CGI that go completely against everything that made the first Paranormal Activity so effective.
It’s been sad to watch, but Paranormal Activity has gone the way of nearly every other popular horror franchise. The low-budget original gripped audiences with terror, ingenuity, and ambiguity, then explained it away until nobody cared anymore. The same goes for Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, Saw, and, most recently, the V/H/S series, which could’ve been a nifty annual anthology had it not crumbled beneath its own horseshit mythology. Horror sequels tend to suck because sequels imply an emphasis on story and story serves to demystify. To demystify horror is more often than not to diffuse it. That’s why tension, atmosphere, and character are horror’s best friends.
Now, as horror franchises go, Paranormal Activity is, pound for pound, one of the better ones. But that has nothing to do with its needlessly convoluted mythology. At its best, Paranormal Activity terrified by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the unconscious, the dark, silent minutes of midnight. The chaos and obfuscation found in most mainstream found footage was absent from Paranormal Activity’s most effective sequences, such as the much-ballyhooed oscillating fan set piece from the third film, which patiently built dread through rhythm and inevitability.
Unfortunately, there’s no such ingenuity in The Ghost Dimension, unless you factor in that it was filmed in 3D. There’s nothing special to the 3D, but it certainly adds texture to the film’s familiar string of jump scares, most of which rely far too much on ear-shredding audio pops than any kind of orchestrated tension. The 3D effects also, curiously, lend themselves to the twitchy fuzz of analog video, lending a grittiness that’s sorely missing from the action itself.
That said, The Ghost Dimension boasts a few nice performances. Found footage is always trying to cull naturalistic performances, but the Paranormal Activity franchise is one of the few to actually get them. Murray and Dan Gill are believable as both brothers and friends, and the young George turns in a nuanced, lovely performance as the possessed Leila. There’s no depth to any of them, but you don’t hate being around them, which is a rare and welcome find in mainstream horror.
The Ghost Dimension gets fun in its last 10 minutes, as it finally puts found footage’s 360º accessibility to good use. And it concludes the overarching Paranormal Activity narrative in a way that makes sense, even if it’s not all that satisfying. There’s a few “loose ends” that still aren’t tied up — wait, there’s time travel now? — but these movies were never about loose ends or unanswered questions or what, exactly, Toby looks like. They were about dread, the bogeyman, the thing that goes bump in the night, whatever you want to call it.
SPOILER ALERT: Toby looks like every other horror movie demon. And The Ghost Dimension just looks like every other horror movie.