The Paranormal Activity series has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, by which I don’t mean that it was thrilling; rather, that it’s had extreme ups and downs. The ultra-cheap original became a horror sensation and gained good reviews to boot, inspiring a found-footage craze which still isn’t finished, though it may be mutating, to judge by Jeruzalem, Unfriended, and the latest Doctor Who episode “Sleep No More”. It even had a porn parody, though you may have difficulty distinguishing it from 1 Night in Paris. The more-of-the-same sequel generated little excitement, and then the terrifying third instalment came along to re-ignite the franchise. The fourth was fairly similar to the second, though with a couple of neat ideas, and then came Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a dull and confusing “spin-off” that wasn’t really a spin-off at all. Throughout those five films emerged a confusing and often inconsistent overarching plot about a demonic conspiracy, occasionally almost uncovered by cameramen who inexplicably failed to show anyone their frightening and illuminating footage. Now Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension has come along to bring the once-successful franchise to a suitably thrilling conclusion, just like Saw: The Final Chapter, The Final Destination (which generated one prequel), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (followed by nine more instalments plus a remake), Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (two more and a remake), and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (time will tell).
Do they really mean it? On the evidence of what’s been delivered, probably not. With each successive instalment, the amount of unanswered questions in the series has increased and increased, and this film almost goes out of its way to ignore most of the important hanging plot-threads in favour of something that bears a closer resemblance to Poltergeist than Paranormal Activity, delivering its own, mostly standalone, plot, and finishing with an ending that simply can not have been intended to tie up the franchise, no way no how.
Good Christian Emily, her video-loving husband Ryan (why can’t we ever have a video-loving female in these films?), their daughter Leila, Ryan’s moustachioed brother Mike, and some big-boobed lady all live together in a spacious, open-plan house, and it’s nearly Christmas. While putting up decorations, Mike and Ryan discover some interesting tapes from 1988 and a poorly-explored magic camera that can see demons thanks to an extra focus unit, or something. Hey, that’s kind of a cool concept, sounds a bit like a gimmick from one of William Castle’s films, or one of the many Robert Zemeckis-approved remakes and faithful ripoffs, doesn’t it? Actually, it fatally misunderstands the way these films, and their many relatives, fundamentally work. We generally ignore the implausibility of these characters continuing to lug around heavy equipment – and to keep it pointed at interesting sights – when their lives are in danger, because the films are essentially first-person. By allowing the camera whose viewfinder we’re almost always looking through – there is another, standard camera, which can’t see demons, in the mix – to see things our characters can’t, an undesirable subjectivity is thrown in. Is X event visible to the naked eye? Half the time in the scary scenes I wanted the film to drop the found-footage conceit entirely, or at least intercut between the standard camera and the magic one. It raises too many distracting questions in scenes that are supposed to be plain creepy. It also misses what scared audiences about the previous films in the series, which was their minimalism. Personally, I never found the first one scary, but there were some great moments in the second, third and fourth films. A shape is seen under a sheet, until it drops harmlessly to the floor like there was never anything there. In an ordinary kitchen, every single cupboard bangs open at once. The Xbox Kinect dots record some invisible figure moving through the living room. All of this is gone in The Ghost Dimension, where we see the true face of paranormal activity. Surprise, it’s the same kind of inky CG ectoplasm you’ve seen in, oh, every other ghost film? Ever? The pathetically-named villain of the series, Toby – does he get pushed around in Hell by the real demons, the Damiens and Pazuzus? – is finally seen in his true form, which is a sort of smoke skeleton. I believe it’s a low-level random encounter for 30 XP. A couple of basic fireballs should do the trick.
In another scene, Toby – here in the form not of a smoke skeleton, but a pillar of ink – watches Leila sleep for hours – you know, like Katie does to Micah in the first film. It’s unclear why a demon would feel the need to do this, but then hey, demons have never really had any clear rules on how they work anyway. It’s clearly just in there so that the film can play out like a celebration of the series up to this point. It’s the same as the way that Skyfall celebrated 50 years of James Bond, or the way Spectre celebrates 10 years of Daniel Craig’s Bond. It even gets all tongue-in-cheek meta, as Ryan and Mike watch an abridged version of Paranormal Activity 3 – the scary bits are all cut, but there is an extended epilogue about Katie and Kristi and a creepy guy – and MST3K it: “Why’s this guy filming everything?”, asks a guy who, himself, films everything. But as much as it makes fun of the series’ own tropes, The Ghost Dimension actually needs them, desperately: it’s the first film, in the series of six, not to feature Katie Featherstone’s Katie character, and it seems desperate to assure us everything is otherwise on the level, by indulging as hard as it can in all of the assorted idiosyncrasies the series has accumulated, some weirdly specific: the obnoxious male character; the characters forgetting the evidence in their hands that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt demons are real; the implausibly spacious homes inhabited by people without proper jobs; the brief, cock-teasy suggestion of sex tape, unfollowed through on; and the process by which the demon must level-grind by annoying its hosts until it is strong enough to actually do anything that matters. He has to start the process all over again with each film, poor Toby. Some of these – OK, all of these – have become incredibly tired, and it isn’t enough to engage in half-hearted self-parody when they’re still going to drag out over the universally-accepted-as-boring first half of yet another PA. The other recurring trope of the series, and the only one that ever mattered, its ability to deliver superior scares, is not in evidence for the first time in the series. There is nothing here to keep you awake at nights, unless you’re a child up past your bed. Even then, you might find the big black scary hand a little sub-Goosebumps.
So farewell, Paranormal Activity. You were quite rubbish at times, but you were pretty outstanding at others, and you made a lot of money and achieved a lot of influence. With you and Saw gone, who’s to say what franchise will rule the roost in the next generation of horror? Here’s hoping it’s something good, eh? Oh, and I’m sorry you never got a chance to actually wrap anything up satisfactorily – no, no don’t worry about it really, it isn’t worth it now.
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