Saturday, October 24, 2015

Review: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

Rated R for language and some horror violence

Score: 1 out of 5 (quality), 3 out of 5 (pure, pants-pissing, unintentional comedy)

When people look back on the Paranormal Activity series about ten years from now, they're gonna see a wildly uneven franchise marked by one or two really good movies and a whole lot of crap in between. It's likely that the first one will be seen as the best, but beyond that, the title of "second-best" will be fiercely disputed, to say nothing of those who think that the first movie was the only one worth watching -- and those who write off the entire franchise as nothing but junk. I'm personally in the camp that there were actually three good movies in this series -- the original, the third, and the side-story The Marked Ones, which for some reason I never got around to reviewing. What won't be so fiercely disputed, however, is the title of the worst movie in the series. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, purported to be the "final chapter" that would end the series with a bang, has officially displaced the middling fourth film for that dubious honor, feeling like the precise moment when the people making these movies just stopped giving a flying fuck. The minimalist atmosphere and (tenuous) grounding in reality that defined the series is gone, out with a vengeance in favor of an effects-laden joyride (in three-dee!!!). The stupidity of the plot and characters, which has long been a noticeable and mounting problem with the series, reaches its apex. The cheap-but-effective scares, which redeemed even the lesser entries, are virtually gone. With this film, the series has hit rock bottom.

And I had an absolute motherfucking blast watching it crash and burn.

The Ghost Dimension is the Freddy's Dead of the Paranormal Activity series. It is a swaggering, staggering, hot fucking mess of a movie, the sort of moviegoing experience that only comes once every couple of years. This is up there with The Happening, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 in terms of movies whose badness looped back around and made them amazing instead of insufferable. It's the sort of badness that makes them cult classics down the line, and which "ironic" filmmakers have repeatedly tried, and almost always failed, to imitate. It's a film that would've killed the franchise stone-dead even if it hadn't been intended as a grand finale. It's a mainstream horror movie released in 2015 in which, during the climax, the protagonists try to trap the demon by throwing a bedsheet washed in holy water on top of it, in a scene that is played completely straight.

Let me repeat that: THEY ACTUALLY HAVE AN ACTUAL, HONEST-TO-GOD, MOTHERFUCKING BEDSHEET GHOST IN THIS OSTENSIBLY SERIOUS HORROR MOVIE, MADE ON A $10 MILLION BUDGET.

I don't know if the makers of this film (which has four credited writers) were either so lacking in self-awareness that they thought they could pull that off, so cynical that they just decided to throw that on the screen thinking that people would see anything, or so bitter about the series' continued success that they made a scene like that just to spite us. "Bedsheet ghost, played dead seriously" is all that needs to be said, really.

But, since this is an actual review, I have to describe the plot and my thoughts on the whole production. Well, here goes: the main twist of this movie distinguishing it from past entries is that the main characters, a family who have just moved into a suburban California home, discover a unique video camera designed to capture spirits on film, as well as a treasure trove of creepy videotapes left behind by the people that used to live in the house -- people that include young Katie and Kristi Featherston, names that are quite important to the series. The camera, of course, detects Toby, the familiar demon menace of the series who, in this film, is specifically targeting the family's young daughter Leila. As the parents Ryan and Emily, along with Ryan's brother Mike, research the video tapes in order to figure out the haunting that's going on, they learn more about the witches' coven/Satanic cult that's trying to use Leila and other children as part of some a to bring about the birth of their god.

For a film that's been billed as revealing all the secrets of the series' overarching story, it does surprisingly little to advance it beyond explaining things that were already shown or otherwise implied in the last two films -- when it isn't ignoring what those films laid out. Whatever happened to the titular characters from last year's surprisingly enjoyable The Marked Ones, and the army of the devil that the witches were raising with them? Speaking of the devil's minions, where the hell is Katie in the present day? She's been a staple of the series and a recurring character in every film, implied to be working with the witches in her demonically-possessed state, yet here, she and her sister are treated as afterthoughts, only showing up in archival footage from her childhood and once in person at the very end. As a conclusion to the franchise, this film drops the ball big-time, closing few loose ends while opening up many more. The story feels like it was hacked together to make a quick buck, and if I'd been seriously invested in the long-term continuity, I would've been angry.

However, even as someone who's fairly forgiving of this series, I never really cared that much about the overarching story, at least so long as it wasn't getting tied up in knots as badly as it does here. No, the reason I kept watching these movies was to be scared. And it's in this category where The Ghost Dimension not only fails, it fails awesomely. This is a series that, for better or worse, had long defined itself on the basis of what it didn't show; at worst, this produced the common (and not entirely unfounded) complaint that nothing ever really happened in these films until the last five minutes, but at best, it could make a still shot of a bedroom the scariest thing in the world. Well, this film has none of that. The big gimmicks this time are that a) the main characters have a special camera that can actually see the ghosts, and b) it's the first 3-D found-footage movie, a concept that someone must've come up with just to piss me off. When these two gimmicks combine, they produce an orgy of bad jump-scares and shots designed solely to throw spooky shit in your face. Even discounting the aforementioned MOTHERFUCKING BEDSHEET GHOST (I can't stress that part enough), this film often winds up feeling like a 4-D dark ride at Universal minus the moving seats (though I can only imagine how this would play with D-Box). Having only seen this in 2-D (because I'm not a total fool), I can't vouch personally, but I could still tell that there were countless shots designed to pander to 3-D, throwing all manner of foreign objects and ghostly apparitions directly in my face, including Toby's ghostly hand literally reaching out at the camera. Speaking of, finally seeing Kunta Kinte- sorry, Toby in full form, he stops being scary after about five minutes, resembling nothing less than a big, black, vaguely humanoid blob of darkness that makes me appreciate the lengths prior films went to in not showing him. The monster of past films has gone from scary to laughable, a mess of overused CGI that started giving me flashbacks to the House on Haunted Hill remake; the special effects aren't as egregiously ugly as in that film, but it fails purely on a design level. And when he finally gets down to business and starts killing people... well, let's just say the deaths are pure gold, and not because they're scary in any way.

As for the other technical aspects... honestly, no big complaints here. Yeah, I know, it's shocking given how much I hated about this, but the actors were actually pretty competent. This, of course, merely highlights all the things that go wrong in terms of story and scares, but even playing thoroughly one-note characters, the actors here didn't completely suck. There's a silver lining to everything, and here, it's the fact that the actors are just good enough that you kind of feel sorry for them, working on a film that's just this bad.

The Bottom Line:

This is not a movie that is merely described. It must be experienced. I sat for 88 minutes watching in a crowded theater with a bunch of people doing the same, and our reactions were a mix of dumbfounded shock and uproarious laughter at a movie that implodes so completely. At the end, one guy said he walked out three times. As for me, on the other hand, my morbid curiosity made me stay just to watch how low this film got, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. If you want a scary movie, stay far away. However, for aficionados of garbage cinema who want to see a hit film franchise take an eager swan dive into the worst pits of hell, this is a gold mine.

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