Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) - Movie Review

Franchise additions are nothing new to the big screen. Franchise conclusions, on the other hand, not so much. Sure, if we’re talking about adaptations of pre-existing works, there has to be an end point. However, studios are savvy enough to milk the cash cows while they are still standing, and even long after they drop dead, which means that they usually don’t have the guts to kill off the potential for future sequels. This seems to ring especially true when it comes to horror franchises: Friday The 13thand Saw's respective series went through a handful of 'final chapters' in their time, and even now there’s talk about continuing the saga that Jigsaw built; the Amityville series didn’t even let the story about a possessed lamp stop them; and the Witchcraft films still haunt the nightmares of video rental junkies for all the wrong reasons (all 13 of them). With all this in mind, despite how they’re touting this as the finale of the Paranormal Activity story, I’m not holding my breath on that front.

The plot: Father and husband Ryan (Chris J. Murray), while setting up his house for his brother Mike (Dan Gill), discovers a box full of old VHS tapes and a video camera that picks up some strange images through its lens. As the two of them mill over the footage, Ryan’s wife Emily (Brit Shaw) is noticing that their daughter Leila (Ivy George) has been acting strange and has found a new imaginary friend to play with. It seems that the Midwives are close to completing their plan and Leila is the final piece of the puzzle.

Okay, maybe my scepticism about this truly being the finale may be a bit much; after all, the film seems more focused on answering the other films’ questions than delivering on its own terms. As much as I hate PA 4, even that film gave some form of character to the people we’d essentially watch sleep for the duration of the film. It was pretty sketchy characterisation that made the boyfriend look like a creeper, but character nonetheless. Here, Ryan and his family are essentially just playthings to shriek and shudder at the spooky happenings going on; even more so than the previous entries. The only person who gets anything close to a personality, aside from characters that return from previous films, is Mike. Unfortunately, he is written to be a complete douchebag in classic 'meant to hate them in horror' fashion, never once shutting his mouth while he’s on screen. Or, considering he’s often manning the camera, even when he’s off­ screen.

It doesn’t help that in terms of answering the long-running questions of the series, it works in spots but mostly just settles for incredibly lazy cop-outs. I’d recommend not caring when it comes to this movie, but here’s a *SPOILER* tag just in case.

It turns out that the Midwives are using numerous children in a ritual to make Toby, the series' resident spectre, into a flesh-and-blood person. Each of the children, all of whom were born on the 6th of June, are taken when they are six years old, and feel free to face-palm if you think the 666 motif is as trite as I do. They are brought back in time through portals to 1988, the setting of the third film, and get drops of blood taken for the ritual.

Not since the devouring of Jason’s heart in Jason Goes To Hell have I seen a series completely jump the shark for its conclusion. This is inevitably what happens when filmmakers continue a franchise with no clear endgame in mind at the start: They make it up as they go along and it ceases to make sense before too long. Credit where it’s due for at least tying things together, like why Toby seems to get more aggressive as time passes, and it even incorporates the end of The Marked Ones into the equation. However, retcons are sometimes a very good thing; this situation is one of those times.

From the tag line “For the first time, you will see the activity” to the trailer footage… actually, even before those two were out, the idea of actually showing the presences on screen just had to look like an incredibly bad idea. I’ve explained before about the rule of thumb concerning fear of the unknown, and it’s as if this film actively wanted to prove it wrong. Well, not only did it fail in all the obvious fashions, it somehow managed to find new ways to screw up with how it implements this idea. First off, let’s go with the obvious one: We can see what’s happening, which removes any tension in the scene. Yeah, even in a series that uses noises to signal when scary stuff is going to happen, this is when the suspense officially dies. Now, to the film’s credit, they occasionally do go with showing the disturbances without showing what’s responsible for it in some scenes; they don’t completely abandon the old formula, not by a long shot.

However, we are still essentially watching particles floating in the air and a humanoid blob of oil, as if this was a horror film written by Al Gore, flying through people and knocking things over; chills aren’t happening, and I’m not counting the jump scares that got an involuntary reaction out of me. If anything, it becomes unintentionally hilarious at times with how bizarre the actual effects work is. This is not helped by a scare that I predicted would happen as soon as I saw the Christmas setting of the film: Jump scare by way of Christmas carol singing bauble. Then, as the final cherry on top, the family try to bring Toby out so that they can kill him… by throwing a sheet over him. We then proceed to see a guy shift around the room covered in a bed sheet, like this is the EXTREME version of Beetlejuice. Even Deliver Us From Evil didn't showcase hackery of this magnitude.

This is hurt even more by the fact that, aside from the one camera that can see the activity, it’s still the exact same formula as the rest of the films: Day time is spent talking about the disturbances through a handheld camera, while night time involves several static cameras picking weird things while people sleep, while low humming is used to announce their arrival. Repeat for a week in film time and have at least one character calmly walking away for the finale. As someone who freely admits to liking the Paranormal Activity movies (most of them, anyway), even I’m getting sick of the repetition.

The secondary effect of this is that it ends up bringing serious questioning to why the characters are acting the way they are. In any haunted house film, it’s customary for some of the characters to doubt that there is anything supernatural going on; we’re sceptical by nature, it’s to be expected at first. Here, it is even more forced and nonsensical than usual when you have video evidence that things are going bump in the night. Even when the previous films did this, they still had characters doubting only to a certain point. With this film, Emily keeps denying it even though, with the ghost camera picking up Toby’s visage, it would take a special kind of dumb/naivety to just dismiss the evidence. And no, I’m not accepting the idea that maybe there would be doubt because the ghostly image are easy to fake with today’s technology: This entire premise exists because I’m fairly certain that the filmmakers have never considered that prospect, nor will they ever.

All in all, despite its pretences of both solving all the riddles and bringing new life to the concept, it feels tailor made to answer just enough questions to keep things open for a sequel (for the love of Toby, just leave it alone) and it still sticks to its already worn-out formula regardless of the new watered-down effects. I’m kind of torn about this in comparison to the fourth film for the place of worst in the series. On one hand, this film didn’t anger me as much as that film did and I don’t have as strong a sense of betrayal coming out of it. On the other hand, this film’s camera gimmick managed to outdo the Kinect product placement in terms of amazingly misguided ideas. I’ll split it down the middle and just say that this is shite that shouldn’t be sat through, unless you’re just that curious about the answers. But even then, I’d point towards Wikipedia long before I would to this film. However, even with how all that said, this was STILL a better way to spend Halloween than what I did last year.

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