The tendency of the Paranormal Activity films – and indeed, a lot of long-running horror series – is to deepen the mythology and provide more answers and motivations with each sequel. This tracks as antithetical, going against the ambiguous grain that makes the originals successful. But while it might dilute the horror, this expansive approach can work if done well, adding intrigue by way of history, symbolism, and metaphor. The Ghost Dimension, supposedly the last in the PA series, promises to answer every question. That is to say, questions that nobody has been asking. No matter – the mysteries can be made up on the fly. Thus, a demonic method of time travel is introduced to tie the whole series together. It is a clever solution – too bad the film hardly bothers to explain its mechanics or purpose.
The binding of a traditional structure sinks The Ghost Dimension. Sticking with the found footage conceit is acceptable, but the Night 1, Night 2, etc. pattern of home security footage established by the first one is now pointless. It is not even clear what the numbers represent. They do not mark the number of days the family has been living in the house, nor the days they have been haunted, nor the days that they have noticed the haunting. It might be the number of days they have set up their full array of cameras, but that does not matter.
As the series has expanded its universe, it has struggled to create interesting characters, which was never its strong suit in the first place. Katie and Kristi and their extended families were interesting enough, as they had a personal connection to the origins of the activity. From the fourth movie onward, each new family has just been the victim of circumstance, going through the motions of the original units. In The Ghost Dimension, it at times plays like the latest family is being specifically targeted, and at other times it plays like they just accidentally stumbled across it all. To wit, the discoveries in the house supposedly left behind by the past owners (a camera that can record the demonic presence, tapes with scenes that cover and expand the events of the third film) look like the key to combating the haunting. But ultimately none of this helps, and it is all probably there just to toy with the new family.
Surprisingly enough, the one unequivocally successful element is the one that had seemed the most cynical. The PA series has not established itself as a good fit for 3D – indeed, the dull, cheap quality of home security and old VHS’s would seem to be just the opposite. But the exploration of the titular “ghost dimension” utilizes the extra depth of the added spatial field in a weirdly successful manner. The paranormal presence is a dark, plasmatic blob with white specks that the 3D renders extra disorienting. Flecks of color on the edges of lamps and furniture give the disturbing sense that the projector has been improperly calibrated. Horror in this next dimension assuredly does not answer any mysteries, but it does breathe new life.
Jeff Malone is a voracious entertainment consumer and entertainment creator. He currently resides in New York City, where he received his Master’s in Media Studies at The New School. In addition to his pieces on TMRzoo.com and StarPulse.com, you can check out his blog (jmunney.wordpress.com), where he provides regular coverage of Community and Saturday Night Live, as well as other television, film, music, and the rest of pop culture.