Allegedly the final film in the Paranormal Activity series – an unlikely eventuality given the history of conclusion horror franchises (see: Saw, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) – Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension returns the series well and truly to its conceptual roots while respecting the dire throughline that has tied together all of the films. The feature debut of Gregory Plotkin – who worked in the editor’s chair on films 2 through 5, and has since shifted his attention to the medium of virtual reality – is by no means a great film, but it is clearly the second best of the franchise, and worthy of much more praise and analysis that most critics seem willing to give it.1
As in all of the franchise, The Ghost Dimension follows a small group of characters: Ryan Fleege (Chris J. Murray), brother Mike (Dan Gill), Ryan’s wife Emily (Brit Shaw), her best friend’s daughter Leila (Ivy George), and Emily’s best friend Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley). Ryan becomes obsessed with a freaky camera that seems capable of capturing a 4th – may I posit, ghost – dimension and a collection of home videos that he stumbles upon in his garage. He methodically records happenings in the house and filters through the existing tape footage, trying to unravel the secrets hidden within them. From here we are introduced to apparitions in sequences that can only be seen in 3D; shot using a mystical camera these scenes comes with an outrageous, superimposed low-rent VHS filter – a clever economic ploy to justify and constrain the use of 3D, without blowing out the budget on total post-conversion – as Plotkin begins to flesh out the film’s hokey plot. It’s actually a far more satisfying tale than most of its predecessors, fully aware of its place in the franchise’s cinematic universe and willing to pull for cheap, self-aware scares rather than claim to be anything other than what the series has devolved into.
Let’s not kid ourselves; after the first instalment this series ceased to be about legitimate tension or tone and morphed into an endless stream of set-ups followed by cheap scares. It’s in this that The Ghost Dimension thrives, adhering much more to a set-up/punchline structure, and packed with more heart than has been on display in the series for a while. It’s far more akin to a Sega 4-D horror game in an arcade or a ghost house carnival attraction than it is a film, with spooky figures consistently jumping out at you and moving abstract objects bombarding your field of vision. Even goofy looking demons in the film’s final third have their joys, shifting us directly into a sort of rail-shooter mode, as the character holding the camera seemingly drifts across the screen as they flee from the monsters pursuing them.
The film is Blumhouse through and through, preferencing technical innovation and ingenuity over big budgets. The 3D – which is post-converted, but with good reason – is an extra layer over the spectator’s field of vision, a literal ghost dimension superimposed over the traditional 2D realm of cinematic comprehension. For the film’s first third, the 3D is just abstract imagery, without any substantive form. It’s almost psychedelic in a sense, a mushroom trip at the cinema with muted colours. This unique approach bears two major financial advantages for Blumhouse: firstly, as there is no prior form to compare this specific style of animation to, it can look realistic and remain cheap, and secondly, as the film only jumps into 3D when sequences are shot with a special camera, the amount of three-dimensional screen-time is greatly reduced, lowering the budget of producing a 3D film. In fact, you can take the 3D glasses off for much of the film, with no difference to image quality – they haven’t even bothered to post-convert these scenes.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension also acts to conclude the series on more than just a plot level. The franchise itself not only reflects fears about apparitions, possession, poltergeists, and things that go bump in the night, but also comments on a fear of surveillance. Much of the strength in the first film’s scares is the unnerving nature of watching oneself while sleeping – in fact, that’s how most of the fake out scares occur. It’s something that the later films lost, which The Ghost Dimension recaptures through Ryan’s obsessive analysis of the tapes he found in his garage. In this sense, the series is rooted in an extension of The X-Files’ and The Blair Witch Project’s conspiracy theory-sploitation, updating it for an age of global surveillance. The Ghost Dimension also touches on questions about governmental interference despite the fact that no Paranormal film has grappled with this beyond the original cut of the first film.2
Surprisingly, the Paranormal Activity series has actually developed a rich canon over its 6 year stint amidst the constant gimmicks (fan camera anyone?) and dumb jump-scare set-ups. It’s a plotline that has seen the introduction of Toby, the demon who orchestrates the parade of terror in each film and preys especially on children; the establishment of a wiccan cult, and a story that has moved across generations – The Ghost Dimension directly mines this lore throughout. The ongoing story that has stretched across the Paranormal films isn’t particularly satisfying, in fact it’s almost paper-thin – probably resulting from the fact that the first film was initially self-contained – however the commitment The Ghost Dimension shows to concluding the narrative arc, diluting the lazy writing of prior entries into a cohesive, if weak, whole is admirable. It’s a far cry from the intriguing throughline in the Saw series, but it’s definitely something that The Ghost Dimension pulls together much more cleverly and cohesively than the overarching narrative driving the Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th movies.
As much as some may hate them, the Paranormal Activity films are an important part of the contemporary horror canon; a film like Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension acts as a portal, both figuratively and literally, for the introduction of horror cinema to a new generation.3 I was seventeen when the original cut of Paranormal Activity cropped up online – long before any sort of formal release had been announced. To be frank, the film scared the shit out of me, not yet anesthetised to the tropes and quirks of found-footage cinema; a lot of my friends relay similar experiences. Something like The Ghost Dimension will be seen by my 14-year old cousin, and it will scare the shit out of him, and it will spark an interest in horror that will eventually lead him down the path towards Giallo cinema, South Korean horror, American and Canadian mumblecore indies, or whatever else crops up that is acceptable to the collective horror group-think in the future. This is the current generation’s Saw, it’s their Hostel, it’s even their Scream – a series that also has its fair share of detractors – that introduces the thrills of horror to a new generation and, for better or worse, spawns a new movement (or revives one, depending on how you see it) and encourages younger generations to dip their toes into the horrific abyss.
Taking this into account, I’m glad that it’s a film as unashamedly fun and idiotic as this that will be holding their hand. It’s a style that Jason Blum has been championing for years, and while not all of the Blumhouse output is even halfway decent – see: the woeful The Gallows, and The Lazarus Effect – it’s not that unlikely of a prediction that Blumhouse Productions will be a household name with a place in the current crop of youthful horror fans hearts in the same vein as Cannon, Troma, and even Platinum Dunes before it. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is a great addition into their catalogue: it’s spooky, it’s goofy, and – for better or worse – reflects all of the tropes of the Blumhouse stable, complete with thrills, spills, and a clearly discarded and rewritten third act that is much to the film’s detriment. Sign me up; we’ve got another critical failure that’ll be a massive fan-pleaser.4