Monday, October 26, 2015

Plenty Of Room For Activities

Year: 2015
Director: Gregory Plotkin
Cast: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

So, here we are. The final Paranormal Activity film. A landmark franchise is finally departing us… Ha! I couldn’t even get through that. Yeah, let’s wait to see the box office receipts before we pull the plug on that gold mine. If there’s one thing I learned from being a student of Jason Voorhees, it’s that pulling the “Final” card actually increases your chances of making another sequel. People eat that crap up and producers just can’t say no to nostalgic profit margins. Even if your movie is technically a flop, you can still rake in the cash if you spend next to no money on it. Paranormal Activity actually has a leg up, because they cast complete unknowns. Though I’m fairly certain Corey Feldman wouldn’t say no to PA7.

But here’s the thing. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is desperately clinging to a precipice. The sixth entry in a series that already forewent numbering their titles to avoid reminding people of the disastrous Paranormal Activity 4, it has been bullied and pushed around by nervous studios, surfacing a full two years after its intended release date. Other than the spin-off Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (which was actually pretty good, but had a miserable reception), this is the first film in series continuity since 2012, a deadly long stretch in the lifespan of a nascent franchise. And it’s in 3D, the last bastion of money-hemorrhaging franchises everywhere. So even though Blumhouse’s “final” announcement is a load of hogwash, there’s a lot riding on this one.

You’d think they’d have hired someone who actually knew how to tell a story.

In Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, it’s Christmas for some reason. Young couple Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily (Brit Shaw) live in an absurdly massive Southern California house with their daughter Leila (Ivy George). Staying with them over the holidays are Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill) and the sexy blonde Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley of Dude Bro Party Massacre III and therefore the biggest name in the film), who is on a “yoga retreat” and may or may not be Leila’s aunt, though the ferocity with which Mike tries to get in her pants would hopefully indicate that she’s just a friend of the family.

While setting up decorations, Ryan and Mike stumble upon a camera and a box of tapes. The former is built for spirit photography and detects strange presences around the house. The latter is composed variously of tapes from Paranormal Activity 3 and weird cult rituals with young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) that 1) were put on tape for some unfathomable reason, and 2) confidently and efficiently contradict the events of Paranormal Activities 1 and 2, the only reliably good entries in the franchise. It soon becomes apparent that the same coven of witches that kidnapped the sisters has targeted Leila. Toby the demon is once again dispatched, though Leila’s connection to any previous Paranormal film is tenuous at best and blindly infuriating at worst. Also he may or may not be attempting to build a magical demon tunnel back to 1992.

Possibly because he wants to return to a time when Destiny’s Child was still on the radio.

Now, there’s something you need to now and probably suspect about Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. It is profoundly, hyperbolically stupid on a level that approaches the mythical. To approach the film on any level whatsoever, you must accept the fact that you will encounter nuggets like a grown man who needs the Bloody Mary game explained to him, or the suggestion that an eight-year-old might never have heard of the Bible even though her mother has one in the house and is religious enough to own a rosary and they’re celebrating Christmas what the hell. I’m surprised these people even know how to tie their shoes without help. But the first step to entertainment is admitting that the film has problems.

Seeing as the franchise from Part 3 on has been constructed almost exclusively from narrative and structural flaws. The Ghost Dimension’s anemic storytelling is hardly a shock to the system. Six films in, they’ve utterly given up even attempting to justify why an otherwise normal seeming family man would suddenly record his every move (even when hanging out and watching tapes with his brother), or why the hell he doesn’t look over the tapes once they’ve witnessed the overnight activity, even though he set them up for that express purpose. The found footage tropes have long been wearing thin, but here in 2015 the subgenre is hanging by the thinnest of threads, a Sword of Damocles over the heads of low budget producers.

However, there is one and exactly one unique idea that pumps a little helium into the film’s deflated stature: the spirit photography camera provides an interesting (though hardly explicitly mentioned) justification for continuing to record once the Toby hits the fan. The parents need to be able to see the demonic presence in order to run away from it properly. It’s simple but effective, and the camera also introduces the movie’s only unique visual premise. Of the half dozen high-def cameras the family can somehow afford to scatter around the house despite not having any discernible form of income, only one can actually see Toby himself. Of course, he manifests as a crappy screensaver-esque CG effect, but cutting between the true activity and the invisible antics that the other cameras record provides a feeling somewhere within the realm of tension.

It’s like the generic Safeway Select brand of fear.

As a jack-in-the-box horror picture, The Ghost Dimension is decent enough. There’s a long pause, the spooky thing goes boo, and you go home for a good night’s sleep. It won’t haunt you for a nanosecond following the closing credits (especially if your theater decides to jam an obnoxious Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse ad right in there like mine did), but it keeps the adrenaline pumping at an acceptable rate. There are at least two scenes that are striking, the first being the actually pretty beautiful tunnel shot spoiled by the poster, the second being an incredible gag involving a sheet that proves that implied monstrosities remain far superior to substandard CGI. Another good gag involving the old cult tapes is totally ignored by the film, so I shall follow suit here.

Yeah, that’s only two and a half moments, but in a Part 6 you take what you can get. The film’s other major accomplishment is the character of Mike, who Dan Gill plays as a sort of Joe Blow answer to Michael Cera. He’s a bald-faced comic relief character, but his naturalistic charms really gel with the movie’s atmosphere, though one line in particular slides a little too far toward Schwarzeneggerian quippery.

So, there’s that. The Ghost Dimension is a totally tolerable horror picture thanks to those unique elements, but the entire remainder of the film is made up of pure, jumbled, cinematic fecal matter. Allow me to run trough some choice grips in a feature I shall dub The Ghost Dissention:
  • First off, that title is putrescent garbage. There are neither ghosts nor a dimension in the film, unless you count shoddy 3D effects, of which there are 4, all of which require Toby to lunge at a camera tripod for no particular reason.
  • The film abrupt slams full tilt into exorcism territory, a useless attempt to incorporate silly religious iconography that the series had largely avoided up to this point.
  • Every time the camera cuts. Ryan magically acquires more knowledge about Katie, with covens, and demons, attributed to “research.” No matter how hard he Googles, even he can’t connect Part 4 to the rest of the series.
  • Series mainstay Katie Featherston makes not a single appearance, except to imply that somehow included among her demonic activities is the acquisition of a real estate license. Actually, that might be the evilest thing she’s ever done.
  • They never do know how to end these films save for batting a camera about like a ping pong ball, but I dare you to find a worse acted BS anticlimax than this film.
  • If you’re trying collect a child for a ritual in 1992, why go to the trouble of building a magic tunnel to Christmas 2013? Just grab someone off the street!
  • [SPOILERS How the hell did Katie and Kristi grow up within a cult but somehow forget it all in time for the first two films? And how the hell could Toby gain corporeal form in 1992 if he still haunts them as an invisible presence in 2010? I feel like the screenwriters haven’t even heard of their own franchise, and that is intensely frustrating.]

Sometimes being a horror fan is like trying to find hay in a needle stack.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is a blithering excuse for a motion picture that ignores most of what made the franchise unique in the first place. But it hits its mark and performs its duty without being as offensively unscary as PA4, so at least that’s something. It’s a film that’s impossible to recommend on any level, but as a late franchise piece, it’s an acceptable – if bland – treat. Like a Fig Newton.

It must be said that I dearly hope that this film makes enough moolah not to be the true final chapter, because fans of the franchise (they exist, for some reason) deserve much more than this contradictory dreck.

TL;DR: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is an utterly stupid, but basically enjoyable routine horror picture.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1628
Reviews In This Series
Paranormal Activity 4 (Joost & Schulman, 2012)
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Landon, 2014)
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Plotkin, 2015)

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