Review: Can the final ‘Paranormal Activity’ wrap the series up with some dignity?

Who knew you could get this much mileage out of a ghost named Toby?

Nine years ago this week, Oren Peli started production on “Paranormal Activity,” which was made for $27, a box of Band-Aids, and three plates of ham sandwiches. Truly independent in every way, the film premiered a year later at ScreamFest, and then… didn't come out for two more years. While “Paranormal Activity” is a remarkable success story, it's also not an instant one. Peli had to struggle to get his film from that first screening to a major theatrical release, and there were plenty of fine-tuning that had to be done to get it there. “Paranormal” has many godfathers, and by the time the film came out in 2009, it had been through many hands. The result, though, has been one of the biggest horror franchises in recent memory, and it laid the foundation for Jason Blum's entire horror empire.

Not many horror franchises get to go out on their own terms. Hell, not many horror franchises should even exist. It's almost counter-intuitive. Great horror films, like great comedies, rely in part on shock, a primal and completely involuntary reflex reaction, and the more times you go back to the well, the more you risk killing all chance of the thing working. I can barely express how much I hate watching them slowly strangle all the joy out of a character or a premise over the course of six or seven or eight films. Some series have managed to do it in two or three films. It's all dependent on how clever and inventive the people following up the original are, whether it's the same filmmakers or different ones. How many truly great horror sequels are there? Check out our massive HitFix Horror Poll of 100 different horror professionals and see how many sequels made their list of the 100 greatest horror films of all time.

With “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” it feels like they've managed to ride the train into the station just before they ran out of gas, and that's a good thing. Gregory Plotkin, who has been editing the films since the second entry in the series, is the director this time, and that feels like a fairly smart choice. If there's been any secret weapon in the series as a whole, it's the way it relies largely on rhythm over almost anything else. The entire point of each film has been setting up a series of sequences where we watch the same angles, the same cuts, the same patterns, and there's something hypnotic about it. You start looking around the entire frame waiting for the disruption. Everything's the same, everything's the same, everything's the same… but wait. Right there. In that corner of the pool. Is that… could it be? There's really no other series that's ever done quite what this one does, and I'm intrigued by the way they've worked variations on that idea, the ways they've taken what could easily be creative handcuffs and instead turned it into part of the narrative. The tapes have gone from being the movie we're watching (the first is a true found footage movie, with the premise being that we are simply watching footage that was left behind after a supernatural event) to being physical artifacts that play a vital role in the events we're watching. “The Ring” and the various sequels made to both the American and Japanese versions of the film tried to play with ideas like this but never pulled it off in the way that “Paranormal” has.

The mythology of the films has been developed over time, with the first film serving as a very stripped down and suggestive version of what the series has become. The script is credited to Jason Pagan & Andrew Deutschman and Adam Robitel & Gavin Heffernan, with story credit going to Brantley Aufill and Jason Pagon & Andrew Deutschman. Lots of brainpower went into pulling together threads from the five previous films in the series, and the ending they've crafted for the series is both very simple and fiendishly complicated to make work. When you see the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film, there is a linear simplicity to it that feels like as “happy” an ending as this series can have. After all, you have to ask yourself who the main characters really are. What do they want? What is it that they're trying to accomplish? And can they do it? The last movie, “The Marked Ones,” played with repetition less than any of the other films, and in some ways, it broke the mold to less successful effect. But it was a big film for the narrative threads. It had to happen, too, because “Paranormal Activity 4” really felt like they had started running in place.

Before that, though, each film at least tried to do something different. The first film just told the story of Katie and Micah, a young couple destroyed by a haunting in their house. The second film focuses on Katie's sister Kristi and her family, and now that I've seen the final film, I actually want to go back and look at how they handled things in that film to see how many seeds they were laying for what the films eventually became. They folded the events of the first film into the events of the second so that the timeline of the two movies becomes very unusual, building to an ending that changes what we saw at the end of the first one.

Part three plays with the timeline even more, showing us tapes that were made during the childhood of Kristi and Katie, and part four jumps forward five years to show us where Katie went at the end of part two, but only for a few quick moments. The majority of the film was about the people living across the street, and it felt like a way of stretching things out without really moving them forward. The more I think about all of the groundwork laid, the more it feels like this last movie is the only way to kind of bring it all together, ignoring what would become a burden and just using the parts that serve this particular endgame. I'm going to guess that Robitel and Heffernan were hired because of their film “The Taking Of Deborah Logan,” a movie that has a lot of powerful nightmare fuel in the tank. I don't love everything about that movie, but I think it does some great creepy things very well, and features some brutally effective sequences and images. There are some definite echoes of that film's best moments in things that work in this film, and while I think this is a collaboration between many voices, I hope its inevitable success leads to more films from Robitel and Heffernan where they hone what they do even further.

The big hook this final time is that there's a ghost camera that allows you, the audience (as well as the characters in the film) to finally see the ghosts that have, until now, only been suggested by their actions, by the things they influenced. But that plays less of a role in how things unfold than the tapes that show up in the new home of Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily (Brit Shaw) and their little girl Leila (Ivy George), tapes that feature moments from the other films and that introduce a fair amount of new material as well. One of the things I had a huge reaction to was one of those weird personal things. There's a character who has a very disturbing connection to young Katie and young Kristi, and he's played by Don McManus. You've seen Don in something at this point. He's one of those dudes. He's been in a bazillion things. He also directed a play of mine starring Willie Garson and Michelle Joyner back in 1995. I love Don. He's in a new production of “Uncle Vanya” in LA right now that's getting great reviews, and he's one of those pure love-of-the-craft guys I love so much. Knowing Don so well pulled me out of the film in a way that the rest of the series has avoided by largely using total unknowns in from of the camera. I doubt anyone else will have the same reaction; it just made me laugh.

But it also made me think, and I believe one of the things that has made this series so effective even at its most repetitive or convoluted is the way it has made the mundane terrifying. There's nothing memorable about any of the locations or any of the people. This is a series about the ordinary, and it's more effective because of that, not in spite of it. Yes, there's a sense this time that they sort of rush to tie everything up, and I'm not sure any of this is going to add up when the entire series is watched together. But to the bitter end, the series manages to wring some fun, solid scares out of something other invading something utterly familiar. There was one image in this one that made me cackle, and that's more than I can say for many horror films. I feel like they should probably wrap it up here because it feels like they've told as much story as they can without throwing the entire stylistic framework of the series out the window. There's no way they can ever make a sequel to this that goes back to the slow methodical approach, because story-wise, that time is over.

No one is going to walk out of this shocked by a reinvention of the entire series; that's not the point. But as horror sequels go, all involved should feel proud that they managed to steer it home in a way that will be largely satisfying to audiences that have spent the last six years supporting the series.

“Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” is in theaters today.