OCTOBER 23, 2015
I used to always rewatch at least the previous entry of a franchise before heading out for a new sequel, if not a few of them if the series had been going long enough. However, time does not allow for such things anymore, and usually I'm lucky if I even find time to skim the films' Wikipedia entries beforehand. But I was asked to moderate a Q&A for the first Paranormal Activity just two nights ago, giving me my first viewing of the original/best film in the series in probably 4 years, and I spent a good chunk of that viewing wondering how in just six years it went from a series that worked because it was so simple (and largely believable) to one that was in 3D and promised to explain all of the "mythology" that had been building over the previous four sequels. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension retains the found footage element (and the "Night #_" title cards) but is otherwise unrecognizable as a followup to that perfectly simple and effective film - and hits a new low for a franchise that hadn't been exactly knocking it out of the park lately.
Based on the grosses for the last two films, maybe some of you haven't kept up with this convoluted and increasingly uninteresting saga, but if you're in the mood to return to its world I have some good news for you - the only ones you really need to see are the first and third films, which are also the best. As this is the last one (they say, though tracking suggests that the box office won't be strong enough for them to change their minds) we will apparently never get any explanations for the unanswered questions from Paranormal Activity 4 (no expensive fork backstory!) or The Marked Ones, as those films are barely acknowledged (Hunter makes a brief appearance, and since there's a magic door I guess we can count it as a callback to Marked Ones' climax). Katie only appears as a little girl, leaving Katie Featherston completely out of this one for the first time - a bizarre choice considering its supposed position as the series closer. At this point it's more or less for fans only - why not give them one last scene with the series' most prominent player? It'd be like sending Jason to hell in a movie where he barely appear- oh, wait.
Anyway, the movie takes place in 2013 and focuses on the family that lives in a brand new (and impossibly gorgeous) home that, as we learn around halfway through, was built on the spot where Katie and Kristy's home was, before it burned down. While setting up Christmas decorations (and filming themselves doing it, even though it seems like the sort of task that would be easier to do with two hands) they find a box that doesn't belong to them, and wouldn't you know it - it contains an ancient video camera and the box of tapes that we first saw in PA3. Tapes get watched, freaky shit starts happening, more cameras are set up... you know how this goes by now. The trailer highlighted one of the film's few fun ideas, which is the idea that the girls on the 25 year old tapes were somehow seeing our heroes in the present and even communicating with them - but the film barely uses it. It only happens twice (and you've already seen one), so you can't help but feel kind of deflated when such moments come and go so quickly, only to be followed up by yet another two minutes of watching everyone sleep via multiple camera angles before anything happens.
The other new wrinkle for this entry is the 3D, which sounds wholly ridiculous on paper - why is a found footage movie in 3D? Better yet, HOW is a found footage movie in 3D, given that the consumer cameras these people use don't have that function. But oddly enough, it's one of the film's few bright spots, as director Gregory Plotkin wisely keeps everything flat except for when the ghost is out and about, with its floating particles and the things it's "touching" being given the extra dimension over an otherwise standard 2D image. So yeah, you're spending a giant chunk of the movie's runtime wearing 3D glasses for no reason, but at least it's movie-logical in its implementation, and gives the film most of the faint pulse that it has.
But at the same time, it's sort of representative of everything that's wrong with the movie. The first one terrified people with little more than loud bumps on the steps and a few shadows moving around - this one relies on a giant CGI black swirl to get those boo moments. On occasion Plotkin trusts in the audience's imagination - there's a fun little bit where the mom (who, in keeping with the film's attempt to remind us of 1 and 3, is once again a gorgeous brunette) sticks her head in the fireplace to get something that the spooky daughter threw in the back of it, and the unseen ghost turns the gas on - that's the stuff that works! The thing that will give you House on Haunted Hill (the remake) flashbacks - not so much. And not only is it not scary, but it also runs perpendicular to the very thing that made the original movie work: its natural believability. You could probably fool a younger audience member into thinking that the first film was a legitimate recording of a couple who got haunted, but even my infant son would recognize this one as a scripted Hollywood movie from start to finish. Recognizable actors, 3D, and CGI by no less than ILM itself will keep you from ever buying into the "reality" of the movie, which is the whole point of a POV movie in the first place. I mean, Christ, when you need the FX wizards behind Star Wars to create the scares in your Paranormal Activity movie, you're obviously doing something very wrong.
(Also wrong: needing three credited writing teams. To make a sequel to a movie one guy made by himself in his own house.)
It also has its own internal problems, starting with the vague characterization we're given for its leads. In a nice nod to Oren Peli's early days, the dad is a video game designer (or programmer? Bug tester? It's never clear, but we only see him frowning at an iPad once saying he needs to get the game finished, so it doesn't matter), but whatever mom does is a total mystery, and neither of them ever have to leave the house, I guess (the film never once goes beyond their front yard - even when they try to escape by going to a hotel, we just hear about it when they return, defeated). And yet, they apparently require a live-in nanny? Olivia Dudley from Vatican Tapes is always nice to see, but I honestly couldn't tell you why she needed to be in this movie, and the film offers no real explanation either. At first I thought she was a friend who was kind of always hanging around, but there's a scene where the little girl wakes up in the middle of the night and it's Dudley, not the mom, who comes in to comfort her. I also considered the idea that maybe she was just the wife's sister, but if so it's kind of creepy that the dad's brother would be hitting on her so much, as they were in-laws. So two stay at home parents have a nanny and a gorgeous, gigantic home (the little girl has a bedroom AND a playroom) with a Christmas tree that would make Clark Griswold jealous, and as always with these things also apparently live in a bubble where neighbors are never concerned with all the screaming and crashes that occur. Again: why operate under the guise of reality if you're more unbelievable than the average Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Why not drop the video camera angle completely?
Speaking of the camera, I had to laugh at the idea that these folks were already filming every stupid thing they did for no reason BEFORE they find the box of tapes and magic video camera. Toby the ghost has incredibly weird luck when it comes to choosing victims, as they all just love filming things all the time. And yet it doesn't stop the brother from mocking the family from PA3, saying "Did these people just film EVERYTHING?" as he himself is being filmed for no reason (and this of course leads to the inevitable scene where a man tapes his brother and sister-in-law as they watch a tape of them watching a tape). Exposition is a frequent problem as well; Dudley is CLEARLY dubbed in one major scene, rattling off nonsense about the witch cult, and other bits of backstory reveals are similarly dropped in voice-over by dad or whoever is holding the camera. They also throw in the idea that Katie posed as a real estate agent to make sure that THIS family moved into THIS home, which doesn't jive with PA4's narrative. If you recall, that one took place in Nevada, so clearly Toby can get around - why would Katie have to go to all that (seemingly impossible) trouble to make sure this targeted family lived in that particular house? Couldn't he just go anywhere they ended up?
This is the series that killed Saw, which is amusing because it attempted the same sort of annual longevity and ran out of gas way earlier. Saw rebounded creatively with its 6th film (albeit not financially, that was the one that went up against the first Paranormal), but this, essentially Paranormal 6 since the "spinoff" Marked Ones ultimately opted to spend its third act bending over backwards to be connected, is possibly its nadir. Even Paranormal 4 had a pretty good ending (this one's is terrible, for the record) and the fun Kinect stuff - here, without 3D it will have nothing of note really going for it. I find it funny that they took down Saw but ended up with one less entry and not even half of the goodwill - people are still asking about a Saw 8, but I can't imagine too many people will be bugging Blumhouse and Paramount to continue the series after three dud entries in a row (Marked Ones was better than this or PA4, yes, but hardly a return to the heights of the first three, and the grosses were only half of what PA4 made, itself a major disappointment). Somewhere along the line they lost sight of what made the first three movies so successful and interesting, and ended up with a baffling, half-baked mythology that this finale only partially resolves. Maybe they're not totally ready to call it a day on this series, but I'm sad to say as a major champion of the original - I think I am. Good luck with the video game.
What say you?