Killtoberfest 4 – #24: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

In All, Movies by Kyu

“Father, please. You are the only one that believes us. … We have to do something. If we don’t, we’re going to end up like Hunter Rey and his family.”

Wow. You did it, Paranormal Activity! You finally made another movie that isn’t terrible. To continue my metaphor from The Marked Ones, the train did hit the ground, but at least that arrested the downward arc, and it turns out that some of the people on the train are still alive! Hooray!

Is The Ghost Dimension some kind of masterpiece? Of course not. I wouldn’t even say getting here makes the rest of the series worth it. But it was a nice parting gift to have PA go out on not the lowest note ever. Not only does The Ghost Dimension go back to the series’ roots in a few important ways, but it also addresses several of my ongoing series complaints (even a few I haven’t bothered to mention). It took five entire human beings to write this script, but they did it, and the result is dumb fun instead of painfully stupid.

The story this time involves another family, the Fleeges. There’s Ryan (Chris J. Murray), Emily (Brit Shaw) and their daughter Leila (Ivy George), who is about seven years old, plus a few assorted side characters, most notably Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill), whose mustache pretty much sums up how this movie makes me feel:

By that I mean it’s ridiculous but in an entertaining rather than aggravating fashion. That kinda describes Mike, too, who is kind of the fuck-up of the family. He crashes at his brother’s new house at the start of the movie after a bad break-up, and it’s clear through his interactions with Ryan and Leila that he’s both a good person and a bad influence. Even when he’s making dumb jokes or giving Ryan chocolate “from Amsterdam” that he swears isn’t “an edible,” you can tell he loves his family. He’s also eager to explore the tapes and weird old camera equipment he and Ryan find in the house, always an endearing quality in a found footage movie. It turns out that Ryan has purchased the home from Paranormal Activity 3, the place where this whole series’ plot began in the late ’80s, and some of this stuff is pretty neat–especially a special camera that can see ghosts. Maybe not quite so neat for the Fleeges is that their daughter has made a new invisible friend named Toby. Uh-oh.

That special camera is a great example of how The Ghost Dimension embraces some of the series’ wackier instincts in a way that makes the story more fun. The inexplicably modified VHS camera starts to pick up some weird CG swirls in the air–and soon it’s giving us our first real glimpse of Toby, who far from being the traditional tail-and-horns-and-abs-for-days demon I’ve been imagining is actually a cool-looking motile pile of floating black sludge, like a sentient oil spill. Ever since PA2 the series has been trying to find away around its own basic paradigm of an invisible entity moving things around in plain view, I guess because they thought that was boring instead of scary, but for several movies now they’ve been using sheets and witches and demon-possessed people. The Ghost Dimension cheerfully throws those half-measures out the window in favor of visible spectral energies flying around the house knocking people over. This is just one instance of the movie’s directness being a refreshing change from the vagueness of the previous few entries in the franchise.

Another instance, and perhaps the most important, is that The Ghost Dimension is finally willing to lay all of the series’ overaching plot cards on the table. Most of my questions are answered, like what happened to Katie and Kristi after their parents were killed, what the coven’s plans are, and why the demon is so interested in Hunter and now Leila. There’s a lot of blatant exposition dumps livened up by scenes of Mike and Ryan watching their stash of VHS tapes, which not only recap the third film but show Katie and Kristi being brought up in their own house by the coven. The witches are training the girls, ala Firestarter or Stranger Things, to use their paranormal abilities to help the coven–in fact, there’s a really nifty part where Kristi uses remote viewing to describe… Mike and Ryan as they watch her describing them. (“Bless you,” says Kristi on the tape after Leila sneezes.) As Ryan breathlessly explains, the coven has always been after Hunter and Leila because it needs their blood to perform a ritual to give Toby a human body. To that end, the coven has manipulated events and even tricked the Fleeges into buying the PA3 house so that they can use the “time travel door but only between evil places” magic from The Marked Ones to steal Leila away. Is all of this ridiculous? Sure. But it’s coherent and kinda cool, world-building that makes sense and demonstrates clear stakes for the story, as opposed to being mysterious for mystery’s sake.

Even better, having the family so clued into what’s going on makes for a more dynamic and active plot, because they can actually take steps to try and save Leila. Chief among them is bringing in a priest with some clever ideas about how to trap a demon–my favorite being the part where he blesses a tub-full of water and then soaks a bed sheet in the tub so they can throw it on the invisible entity to hold it in place. Actually trying to trap Toby is the sensible next step after deciding not to leave the house, and it’s great to see the protagonists doing something besides waiting to die. Like PA2, the plot progression builds an actual arc, too. Although virtually every PA movie at some point mentions that interacting with the demon (filming, discussing, fearing, etc) makes it stronger, this is the first movie where we can see that happening, which makes the film feel like a journey, not a grind. Likewise, it finally makes sense why characters would continue filming even in dangerous situations, because only somebody looking through the special camera can see where Toby is. This leads to some fun scenes where characters trade off the camera or one person has to look and relay information to another about the location and movement of the spirit.

All in all, it seems like my prescriptions for the series weren’t too far off. The Ghost Dimension goes back to being set in a house and focusing on a family. In fact, it says that the whole series has always been about witches stealing children to give them to a demon. The film adds more cameras into the mix, and returns to the classic day/night cycle, while also innovating via the ghost-vision camera. It’s very low on any kind of sexism (mostly dumb comments from Mike) and the characters are likable and rational, without the movie spending too much time waiting for them to believe in what’s happening. This still isn’t a deep or super scary film, but by trading out some of the series’ worst impulses for a more colorful supernatural adventure story, The Ghost Dimension finally provides a decent follow-up to PA2 and a welcome conclusion to the series. Wikipedia confirms that this is, in fact, the end:

Though series writer Christopher B. Landon told that several sequels would follow The Ghost Dimension to wrap up the story, producer Jason Blum later confirmed that the film will indeed be the last in the series. He said:

“It’s coming to an end. This is it, the finale. We’re saying it before the movie opens. We’re not going to grind this horror franchise into the ground. This will keep Paranormal Activity as part of this culture and this particular time in a really fantastic way… All the questions that everyone has asked from the past ‘Paranormal Activity’ films: What does Toby look like? What’s the backstory to the families? These questions have been teased out. Now they will be answered.”

Intelligent people can quibble with whether or not they ran this franchise into the ground, but I can respect the decision to leave, if not after the loss of all dignity (that happened right around the time the haunted Simon Says came out), at least after regaining some of it. When it comes to horror, that’s a victory. This is always going to be a genre that struggles between the excitement of innovation and the temptations of complacency, and bad horror sequels are everywhere. What matters are the same things that always matter when it comes to horror: finding ways to scare and surprise, showing people we care about, knowing what works and what doesn’t. The original Paranormal Activity was a half-finished promise, something new and scary that maybe could never have been duplicated, and even though most of the rest of the series failed to fulfill that promise, I can’t help but respect the drive to try. We’re all of us chasing ideals–the perfect home, the perfect family, the perfect scary movie. Most of us fall short. If only we all had a demon to blame.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because even this election eventually comes to an end. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.