Way to Ruin Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, Human Characters

Broken glass is a wonderful babysitter. Photo: Paramount Pictures

It’s somewhat shocking to discover that this latest Paranormal Activity — the sixth and supposedly final one in the series — is the first to take advantage of 3-D. The technology’s ability to enhance depth seems like it would have been perfect for the extreme-wide-angle, surveillance-footage aesthetic of these movies. But perhaps it flew against their DIY ethos: The first Paranormal Activity, after all, made back in 2009, was a low-budget Slamdance title that wore its cheapness on its sleeve, with its digital, fixed-camera look at a family tormented in their new McMansion by unseen forces. The concept was not just novel, but scary in its own right: The unfeeling stillness of the frame contrasted unnervingly with the hysteria of what was happening within it.

Novel, yes. Endlessly repeatable, no. With each installment, the basic Paranormal Activity concept has felt more and more tired, especially as the characters have seemed infinitely replaceable. (Yes, that’s par for the course with slasher flicks … but these aren’t really slasher flicks.) Still, in each new movie, you sense the filmmakers trying to find new ways to get old scares. Number four did interesting stuff technically, using Skype and toying with wind (and other things) hitting the microphones. The Marked Ones (a.k.a. number five) ventured beyond the bland, middle-class milieus of the previous films and placed the horror in a tough neighborhood in Oxnard, CA. None of these movies really worked, but they had their moments.
Ghost Dimension offers an interesting paradox. Plot-wise, it doesn’t even try to reinvent or revitalize itself. We get yet another bland, suburban family tormented by demons, with dad Ryan (Chris J. Murphy), mom Emily (Brit Shaw), and their young daughter Leila (Ivy George) getting ready for Christmas with nary a care in the world. But we’ll also need some extra hands to hold cameras and run around screaming in front of them, so the film adds Ryan’s hipster-y brother Mike (Dan Gill) and Emily’s beautiful blonde friend Skylar (Olivia Taylor Dudley) to the mix as houseguests. (Skylar’s in town, apparently, on a yoga retreat. I don’t know why this detail stuck out at me. Maybe they’re setting us up for Paranormal Activity: Yoga Retreat.)
Yeah, the people are here mostly to run around and look around corners and scream, but one still wishes — foolishly — that these movies would find a way to make them do so plausibly. The film’s start-stop approach to narrative won’t allow it: By about the third time it cuts away in the middle of some sudden, horrific event to the next day, when things seem to have (hilariously) returned to normal, you might find yourself groaning. Unlikely human behavior is always a challenge with these movies, and Ghost Dimension practically bathes in it. Maybe that’s its way of involving the viewer: The series’s patented longueurs allow for plenty of quiet downtime for restless horror audiences to start shouting at the screen.
Still, though, there’s something here. Occasionally, the frame comes alive. Early on, Ryan and Mike find a box with an old, clunky camcorder in it, and the lined, old-school image turns what we’re seeing into something fuzzier, more uncertain. Suddenly, the mundane objects of the home seem to float, hovering between us and the screen. And with this ancient camera we can also now sorta-maybe-kinda see the ghosts and demons and otherworldly apparitions tormenting the humans. It’s surprisingly unnerving, especially in 3-D, and as a result, there are probably a few more effective jump-scares in this installment than there were in the last several Paranormal Activity films. Unfortunately, there’s still the matter of the people in the movie. If only Ghost Dimension spent more time in the ghost dimension and less time in the people dimension, we might have had something.