There’s a pretty substantial trap that most modern horror movies fall into these days, and I’d like to spend some time explaining it to you — not because it’s confusing or elusive, but because it’s worth talking about.
“Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” proves to be an excellent case study. As the alleged final installment to a highly successful (and some would argue influential) franchise, “Ghost Dimension” had its work cut out. With a strong, well-developed backstory involving a relatively likeable family, with its cinematographic style already established, with a history of box-office brawn and boom — all “Ghost Dimension” had to do was simply glide by. It just needed to be OK. It failed at even that.
This brings us to the trap, which dulls the latest “Paranormal Activity” film like an ugly dose of NyQuil. I’m going to walk you through it. Are you ready? Paying attention? Keep your eyes poised on the screen, on these words because it’s about to get very GGGGRRRAWAWAWRRRRRR.
Did that scare you? Did you jump? Because that’s it, that’s the whole trap: the jump scare.
For various reasons — weak stories, boring characters, poor style choices, inexperience — more and more horror movies resort to the jump scare for a good pump of adrenaline. Instead of relying on the natural suspense of a scene that’s been building because of its well-positioned place in the story, some horror movies rely on the cheap effect of surprise: not the respectable twist-inspired kind of alarm, but the annoying dumbed-down version of shock. “Ghost Dimension” does this again and again.
What makes this especially difficult to come to terms with is the fact that the film didn’t have to rely on jump scares. The first three “Paranormal Activity” movies were all good and inventive to some degree, and though the franchise has certainly been slipping since then, it has a reliable formula to fall back on: tricks with mounted cameras, eerie sequences without music, kids terrorized by malevolent spirits, creepy and mysterious rituals, you know the drill. “Ghost Dimension” gives a middle finger to all of these.
And then there’s the plot. I’ll do it justice with one sentence. A cult demon named Toby preys on a suburban family, latches onto one of the younger girls and uses her to breach a ghostly portal and travel back in time to terrorize the family. Eighty-eight minutes do nothing to make this mundane plotline more compelling or intelligible.
While I try to bring this review to a conclusion (hopefully with more success than the franchise), I’m struck by something I hadn’t considered until now. “Ghost Dimension,” like its predecessors, spends a great deal of time focusing on static, empty places. The mounted cameras show empty halls, staircases and bedrooms for minutes at a time. This is where the true horror and fear of the movie resides: in the deliberate vacancy — the promise of emptiness.