‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’ Ends This Series with a Whimper Instead of a Bang

Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension poster

With “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” we have finally reached the end of this long running horror franchise. At least, this is what Paramount Pictures is saying. They said the same thing after “Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” and looked what happened there. When asked to explain the end of his movie “Halloween,” John Carpenter said it shows how evil never dies. This is a perfect explanation, and it helps explain why Michael Meyers keeps coming back to Haddonfield, why Freddy Krueger continues to haunt the dreams of teenagers, why Jason Voorhees continues to hack up camp counselors, and why Pinhead continues to lure the infinitely curious to that crazy box of his. Could the ever-malevolent demon known as Toby finally be stopped once and for all?

Well, let’s hope so because “The Ghost Dimension” confirms the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has finally run out of gas to where I wished the filmmakers ended it after “The Marked Ones.” This sequel returns the series to another tale of a white suburban family terrorized by Toby, and the family keeps looking into the things which go bump in the night even as the story get progressively worse. On the upside, this sequel does attempt to answer all the questions we have about this series and doesn’t just tease us endlessly the way “Paranormal Activity 4” did, but nothing is as scary as it once was.

This movie opens with a quick throwback to the literally back-breaking finale of “Paranormal Activity 3” where young Katie and Kristi are gathered up by their grandma Lois and taken to a room where a man tells them they are a critical part of Toby’s plan. We then move forward to 2013 where we meet the Fleeges, a family comprised of Ryan (Chris J. Murray), his wife Emily (Brit Shaw), and their young daughter Leila (Ivy George). They are later joined by Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill) who just broke up with his girlfriend, and also Skylar (Olivia Taylor Dudley) who is a nanny or a yoga instructor or something along those lines.

Each “Paranormal Activity” movie has a twist on the technology used to exploit the presence of the demonic Toby, and this one is no exception. Ryan and Mike end up coming across this giant video camera (and yes, they used to be that big) which actually allows them to see the spiritual forces hovering around the home which take the form of an oil slick that moves around ominously. Pretty soon, young Leila is talking to Toby because impressionable kids are easily for demons to influence, and the family comes to discover they are living in the same house that grandma Lois lived in years ago. Yes, there are no such things as coincidences in a “Paranormal Activity” movie.

Let me start with “The Ghost Dimension’s” biggest problem, it feels like a movie. The previous installments, even “Paranormal Activity 4,” never made me feel like I was watching a movie. Instead, they felt like documents of real people being haunted by forces they can’t control and which encroach mercilessly on their safety. They felt real, but here everything feels highly scripted as the actors are forced to utter a lot of exposition in an effort to explain to the audience what Toby’s big plan is. As a result, everything feels contrived, and the movie comes across as just another exercise in found footage terror.

Furthermore, the characters are frustratingly one-dimensional and incredibly idiotic to put it mildly. A lot of opportunities to make them relatable or the least but likable are blown by the screenwriters as I never came to care much about them. After a while, I became more eager to see them become devilish entertainment for Toby. I do have to say, however, that Ivy George does very good work here as Leila, and she provides “The Ghost Dimension” with some of its most haunting moments as her face becomes a mask of possession which makes her intensely unpredictable.

The real big news about “The Ghost Dimension” is it’s the first “Paranormal Activity” movie to be shown in 3D. Now I’ve seen 3D used to great effect in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” and Gaspar Noe’s “Love,” but watching it here only reminded me of how “The Ghost Dimension” feels more like a movie and less like an experience. In the end, the extra dimension feels like a stunt which adds nothing to the proceedings.

Also, in its attempts to answer many of the questions we have about Toby, it makes this horrifically violent demon look no different from so many others in cinematic history. Just as it was with the first two “Alien” movies, the thought of the monster is far scarier than the sight of it, and seeing Toby in his demonic form just takes away from what’s frightening about him. And the explanation of Toby’s “plan” feels like something out of a dozen other horror movies.

The original “Paranormal Activity” was supposed to be a stand-alone movie. It was supposed to end with Katie dying, but Paramount Pictures decided to change this ending and made Katie look like she was invaded by some evil force. The movie’s amazing success ensured sequels would be made whether we liked it or not, but the first two actually added to the original’s ending and built up a mythology which left audiences endlessly intrigued. But watching “The Ghost Dimension” makes me realize there was no way anyone could have concluded this mythology in a satisfactory manner. The revelation of Toby’s big plan sounds like something out of a dozen other horror movies, and it made me wish I knew a lot less about him.

“Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” does leave the door open for another sequel as the demonic force takes on a new form, but this really should be the last one for a while at the very least. It’s sad to see this franchise end on a banal note as things began feeling fresh again after “The Marked Ones,” but many horror franchises tend to overstay their welcome, and “Paranormal Activity” is just the latest example. We need to face the facts; the thrill is gone.

* ½ out of * * * *

Please check out the following reviews:

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

 

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Poltergeist’

poltergeist-movie-poster

I got the Blu-ray of “Poltergeist” around the time Circuit City was closing all their stores forever. I had seen bits and pieces of the movie before, but I had never watched it all the way through until a couple of years ago. What finally spurred me to watch it was having watched “Poltergeist III” on cable, and that sequel was a true abomination. I figured what came before that needless sequel had to be so much better. Getting past all the trivia surrounding “Poltergeist” and its so-called “curse,” it remains remarkably frightening for a PG-rated movie.

Actually, it’s quite fitting I watched “Poltergeist” during the period of the wildly successful “Paranormal Activity” movies since they all focus on the strange and bizarre happenings around suburban households. These days it seems like the “found footage” genre is the only way to make a horror movie set in the suburbs seem all the more frightening. But “Poltergeist” showed if you get the details just right, then you can find yourself relating to characters and their surroundings completely and without any question.

“Poltergeist” was directed by Tobe Hooper, but Steven Spielberg’s name is all over the movie as he came up with the story, co-wrote the screenplay and served as one of its producers. It’s hard to escape the influence he had over this production as, like “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” it takes place in the suburbs of America where many of us grew up.

We drop in at the home of the Freeling family which is located in the nice, clean California town of Cuesta Verde, and it’s the kind of neighborhood where the houses don’t look all that different from one another. The cars are parked out front because they aren’t parked in the garage for some odd reason, and the kids are riding their bikes all over the neighborhood.

Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful realtor and his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), is a stay at home mom caring for their children Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne. One night, Carol Anne goes downstairs and sits in front of the television which is showing nothing but static. It’s an especially frightening image on the Blu-ray release as the flickering creates an eerie strobe light effect as if the house’s inhabitants are in the process of being brainwashed. Carol Anne begins talking to the television as if she’s having a conversation with someone invisible to everybody else. We can’t even hear what that someone is saying to her, but we believe Carol Anne is communicating with another and our imagination runs amuck at who that might be.

Following this, strange things begin to happen around the Freeling household like chairs moving by themselves and the furniture being rearranged in a heartbeat. One night while sitting in front of the television, a hand reaches out and pushes Carol Anne away which is followed by a force of energy penetrating the walls. Her parents wake up to see their daughter telling them, “They’re here…”

What makes “Poltergeist” so effective is how the filmmakers play on those childhood fears we all had. Whether it’s that creepy looking tree outside the bedroom window or the clown puppet which you fear will come alive and attack you in the night, we can all relate to what goes on here except, of course, for being sucked into another dimension. I remember always asking my mom to put my AT-AT toy, the Imperial walker from “The Empire Strikes Back”, on its side so it wouldn’t crawl over to me while I slept. I also kept having these dreams where this green school desk I had would end up rushing at my bed to attack me. Now imagine if these things happened in real life, and you will get a sense of what “Poltergeist” is all about.

There’s nothing too unique about the characters who live in Cuesta Verde, and this makes them all the more relatable. Seeing the kids’ room with those “Star Wars” posters and bed covers bring back a lot of memories. When these supernatural occurrences start happening and get increasingly worse, we can easily see it happening in our own homes. Then again, this might make our own households far more exciting than they usually are as living in the suburbs can be too low key for some.

“Poltergeist” is also perfectly cast with actors who inhabit their suburban characters with what seems like relative ease. Nelson and Williams still seem like the typical American parents we all know. Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne and Oliver Robins are perfectly natural as their children, and they appear very comfortable in front of a camera. You also have Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, a parapsychologist, and she gives this movie a strong dramatic weight.

There is also something to be said for Zelda Rubinstein’s performance as spiritual medium Tangina Barrons. While her high-pitched voiced might seem a little annoying, she makes her strange dialogue sound very believable as Tangina becomes the family’s last hope to save Carol Anne. It’s no wonder her presence in “Poltergeist” is so unforgettable, and not just for her immortal line, “This house is clean.”

Movies like “Poltergeist” usually have filmmakers getting too caught up in perfecting the special effects at the expense of everything else, but Hooper manages to balance everything out to create one of the most terrifying haunted house movies ever. As much as Spielberg’s name is all over this movie, I have to believe Hooper is the one who made this movie as scary as it is. While it may not be as unnerving as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (and very few movies are), he really packs in a lot of scares for a PG-rated movie.

You could also say that “Poltergeist” is a serious dig at the cutthroat world of real estate as Steven makes the horrifying discovery of how certain sacred things which were not moved from their original location. People will do anything for the perfect property when there’s a ton of money involved, and if they can cut corners to make house building go faster they will. Heck, this almost sounds like a supernatural version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

I can’t help but wonder if home insurance even covers supernatural occurrences like this. Would the Freeling’s insurance carrier find an excuse to deny them any financial compensation? Could you imagine the looks on their faces if their agent denied their claim for negligence as if it’s their fault for not reporting this to the authorities sooner? If I were on the receiving end of that, I would be pissed!

It says a lot about an 80’s movie like “Poltergeist” that it still holds up so well all these years later. Its portrayal of suburban America doesn’t look much different from what we see today. I guess the only real difference, aside from cell phones and iPads, are the number of bank foreclosures going on, and you certainly don’t see this happening here. While it may have been ruined a bit by sequels (and this movie really didn’t need any), it still is worth re-discovering and would make an interesting double feature with “Paranormal Activity.”

One other thing; is it just me or does that white spidery creature who blocks Williams from her children’s bedroom have the voice of MGM’s roaring lion?

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters 2016 poster

After being stuck in development hell for much longer than it took to get “Independence Day: Resurgence” to the silver screen, the new “Ghostbusters” movie is now playing in theaters everywhere. The filmmakers should get an award for actually getting this movie made as we spent years hearing news that production was on again and off again, that Bill Murray wasn’t interested in playing Dr. Peter Venkman again, and whether Ivan Reitman or Harold Ramis was going to direct. Well, it’s just as well we never got a “Ghostbusters 3” as the reasons to not make it kept piling up. Instead we have this reboot which proves to be a lot of fun for fans and a new generation eager to prove they ain’t afraid of no ghost.

We meet Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a teacher at Columbia University who is ever so eager to get tenure. The problem is that her former friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) is once again promoting a book they wrote together that deals with the existence of ghosts and paranormal activity. This book, however, proved to be unpopular and Erin has tried to distance herself from it ever since. But upon meeting Abby at her laboratory where she works with eccentric engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), they get word of a ghost sighting at a haunted museum that is actually haunted, and from there they start their own paranormal business that Erin calls the Department of the Metaphysical Examination. Of course, we all know they will be blessed with a catchier name before they know it.

This “Ghostbusters” starts off following the same path as the 1984 original as our heroes get tossed out of the world of academia as their love of the paranormal makes them untrustworthy and frauds in the eyes of non-believers everywhere. But being cast out of “normal society” forces them to go into business for themselves, and they set up shop in an office on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant. From there, the movie takes on a tone all its own to where it cannot be considered a shot-for-shot remake.

I found myself laughing a lot as the jokes came at a rapid pace, and if the pace ever slackened the actresses were quick to pull it back up. My only real issue with the humor is that it threatens to be too broad throughout. The 1984 original was very funny, but it was nowhere as broad because Reitman kept the characters grounded in a reality that separated them from the ghosts they pursued. Director Paul Feig doesn’t have that same success here as things are played up a little too much. Still, I can only complain about that so much.

Many are still apoplectic about this being an all-female “Ghostbusters” movie as if it were some of sacrilege that should be hidden from moviegoers everywhere. Frankly, the gender reversal is welcome as it gives this reboot an energy and a freshness it would not otherwise have. It was also a smart move not to have them playing the same characters from the original as those actors are irreplaceable.

Now let’s talk about this cast as they are not just female; they also have names. You really can’t go wrong with “SNL” veterans like Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and soon to be 5-timer “SNL” host Melissa McCarthy. Wiig brings her wonderfully unique sense of humor to Erin Gilbert and combines it with a vulnerability which gives us a vivid picture of the rough childhood Erin had to endure. McCarthy remains a comedic fireball, busting down everything in her path for the sake of a good joke. And then there’s McKinnon brings that same crazy energy that makes her impersonations of Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber so hilarious to the role of an engineer who seriously loves her work.

Also in the cast is Leslie Jones who steamrolls her way into becoming a Ghostbuster without any hesitation. As her work on “SNL” has proven, you better stay out of her way if she has a good punchline coming. Her street savvy character of MTA worker Patty Tolan is more than just the female Ernie Hudson of this movie. Jones makes her an unapologetic hero ready to do battle with ghosts dumb enough to get in her path. That is, unless one of those ghosts is resting on her shoulders.

Are these actresses believable as scientists and paranormal experts? Does a movie like this need them to be? Did we wonder if the male actors from the original were believable as scientists? If the cast of this reboot was instead male, would we even be asking that question?

But as terrific as this cast is, they almost get upstaged by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. He is simply hilarious here as Kevin Beckman, the Ghostbusters’ receptionist who is as sexy as he is dim-witted. Hemsworth proves to have great comic chops, and he steals every scene he has as he fumbles about his duties while trying to look cool. Be sure to stay through the end credits as he leads the NYPD and the FBI in a most hilarious dance sequence.

Feig peppers “Ghostbusters” with a number of artifacts from the original, and even the 1984 cast (with the exception of Rick Moranis) took the time to cameo in it. Still, he manages to make this “Ghostbusters” stand on its own. It has terrific special effects which look even better in 3D (I can’t believe I just said that), and even Slimer makes a return to the franchise and has a blast at everyone’s expense. The only other issue I have is with the movie’s villain, Rowan, a geeky hotel clerk and an occultist eager to open a portal to the ghost dimension. Neil Casey does good work, but Rowan is nowhere as threatening as Zuul, Gozer or even that old dude in the painting from “Ghostbusters II.” Had this movie featuring a more dangerous and despicable villain, it would have been even better.

There’s no way this “Ghostbusters” could have equaled or surpassed the original in terms of laughs or freshness, but I pretty much considered that a given when I sat down to watch it. All that matters is that this movie is a lot of fun and I think kids will get a huge kick out of it as well. In a dreary summer season where most blockbuster movies have failed to deliver, this one delivers enough to keep us riveted to our seats. For those who still fear that this reboot will “rape” your childhood, stop saying that. No one can rape your childhood, not even George Lucas.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.