It was fun while it lasted. With the sixth Paranormal Activity, subtitled The Ghost Dimension, the novelty of what was, at times, our greatest minimalist horror franchise has worn off. At its best – most of 1, all of 3, and bits of the rest – simple strategies like locking down the camera for agonizing long takes, establishing repetitive editing and patterns of behavior, allowed the audience to lean in and really scrutinize the frame. Scares came slow, but rewarded patience and attention, creeping up on normal situations until the ghostly invasions were less and less easy to dismiss. Through this subtlety, jump scares really popped, and the basic elements of horror filmmaking – dark shadows, mysteriously moving objects, sudden noises, and footsteps of unknown provenance – were far scarier than a more baroque, explicit approach would manage.
Until now, the series featured admirable restraint, resisting the temptation to go big, to show more, to use additional items from the modern horror toolbox. Where the series has gone wrong in the past has been its moments where too much was revealed: flat answers to supernatural mysteries, intimations of larger importance, or a crowd of cultists nefariously standing around. The problem with The Ghost Dimension is the ghost, which director Gregory Plotkin (editor on four previous entries) and screenwriters Jason Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, and Gavin Heffernan see fit to reveal. The movie pulls back the curtain on the heretofore invisible haunting, revealing the being’s ultimate goal, and tying up as many loose ends from across the entire series as it can manage. It still tries the whole setting-up-cameras-around-the-house thing, but it escalates so quickly and develops so stupidly that’s by the time we arrive at an overly literal nihilistic conclusion, it’s only mildly unsettling at best.
We start with a new family living in what used to be the house from the 80s-set Paranormal Activity 3. They’re the most boring of all the families featured in the franchise. Best is an adorable little girl (Ivy George) ready to talk with Toby, an imaginary friend who’s really the house ghost. The parents (Chris J. Murray and Brit Shaw) are having her sister (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and his brother (Dan Gill) staying with them because Christmas is right around the corner. Holiday decorations are everywhere in the set, but are exploited too rarely. A battery-powered Frosty the Snowman comes to life singing in the middle of the night, and that’s worth a jolt, but why put two plastic Santas next to a fireplace if they were never going to be set ablaze? Talk about your missed opportunities. Anyway, the father finds an old camcorder left in a corner of the basement. Through it he sees otherwise invisible spectral dust. He thinks it’s a glitch, but quickly has more than enough evidence to know their house is infected with, you guessed it, paranormal activity.
Soon enough the family is setting up cameras all over the house, catching the disruptions that grow more violent and dangerous by the night. They know what’s wrong so much faster than any other family, and yet seem the least capable with figuring out their next best move. By the time they’re calling around looking for a priest, it’s too late. Toby is on the move, preparing a portal to his ultimate aims. The vintage camcorder shows us the underwhelming ghost as a mass of smoky dark CG tendrils materializing out of floating dust. The trick is that somehow this movie is both shot on VHS and in 3D, allowing the fuzz of video noise to float in front of the audience while the spirit’s components float in an overly-dimensional space. It’s a weird effect, unsettling and odd. Seeing the being behind the otherwise unknowable thunks and grabs sucks the air out of the scares. You can see them coming.
Like most long-running franchises, Paranormal Activity is no longer about anything but itself. It even has the characters find tapes that are what we know to be the raw footage of some previous installments, setting up a funny meta line: “They filmed everything!” We know the deal. Now, instead of midnight jolts setting your mind racing with questions about just what does happen in your house while you’re asleep, the narrative is all tied up in the tropes of its own making. We need to proceed through a variety of nights as the people are slow to understand the problem. They’ll ask the girl why she was out of her bed, pressing her mysteriously bloody hand against the bathroom mirror in the middle of the night. She says she doesn’t know. They shrug and set up the tape for the next night. It’s endless. Then it becomes long murky shaky shots of people running down dark hallways calling each others’ names and swearing. The filmmakers have hit the bottom of the series’ bag of tricks, and the last remaining ones – showing and explaining the ghost while unnecessarily providing answers – are only disappointing.