Skip to main content

From left, Chloe Csengery as Katie, Ivy George as Leila and Chris J. Murray as Ryan in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension.<137>Photo credit: <137>Paramount Pictures

Broadly speaking, no movie needs to justify its existence: that someone felt compelled to make it is reason enough for it to be.

But when it comes to horror sequels as obscure as, say, Phantasm IV or Wrong Turn 6, the creative impulse alone no longer seems a reasonable excuse. These cases pose certain questions. Was so much really left unexplained by Phantasms I through III? Was the demand for Wrong Turn so insatiable that another five instalments were required? Finally, and most pressingly, could a distant horror sequel possibly be good?

This weekend sees the arrival of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension – the sixth and apparently final episode in a franchise for which the sequels have become, since 2009, something like an annual tradition. Its savvy producer, Jason Blum, takes justification seriously. "The Ghost Dimension is the last film in the Paranormal Activity series," he explained in an interview over the summer, "and what you can expect from this Paranormal Activity is that it answers all the questions. Every movie we've done, we've kind of given a few answers but then posed more questions. This film answers all the questions from the series."

But whether The Ghost Dimension will indeed be the final chapter seems more likely to be based on its theatrical returns than on whether some inscrutable mythology has come to a satisfying end. The original Paranormal Activity was extraordinarily successful. The nearly $200-million (U.S.) it earned against its $15,000 budget makes it technically the most profitable film ever made, and each of its sequels have proved lucrative. Their success is no reflection of their quality. Last year's outing, the Latino "spin-off" The Marked Ones, was a dreadful thing, conceptually half-baked and barely able to drum up a scare. Yet the movie made $90-million.

Blum has amassed an enviable fortune by perfecting a low-cost, high-return model: He makes blockbusters out of $3-million productions, a different approach than the one preferred by major studios. But horror movies have been following this principle for decades. It was in the early 1980s – the heydey of the slasher, and the dawn of the home-video era – that producers began to understand the profit-making potential of a low-budget horror franchise. A second or third Friday the 13th or Halloween could be put together for $1-million or $2-million, and would be almost guaranteed to earn 10 times that.

At a certain point – usually around episode four or five – every horror franchise makes the leap from theatrical glory to direct-to-video shame. But for the budget-conscious, the direct-to-video market was even better: Theatre-skipping classics such as Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror or Howling VI: The Freaks could forgo the customary expenses of a theatrical release and vault straight onto the shelves of your local Blockbuster.

You probably aren't going to get rich putting out Leprechaun in the Hood or Candyman 3: Day of the Dead. But the faint residue of a once-lucrative property clinging to your sequel's name may be enough to cajole some rentals.

In the post-Blockbuster epoch, of course, this duty has fallen to video-on-demand. Every streaming service from Netflix to iTunes enjoys its own non-theatrical horror movie deluge.

The horror film is uniquely qualified to yield sequels. Since the cynosure of a horror film is its villain, its nasty and rebarbative big bad, horror sequels tend to share an indefatigable evil force, one that looms over the action, terrorizes any number of interchangeable victims, and ultimately emerges victorious, despite valiant counterefforts, to live to see another day (and to star in another sequel). One can safely expect the ninth instalment of the Friday the 13th series to feature a knife-wielding Jason; likewise can one rely on A Nightmare on Elm Street V to defer to Freddy Krueger.

That's the appeal of a distant horror sequel: It promises more of the same even if it almost certainly won't be good. Horror movies, and especially slashers, are rigidly codified – from film to film, the fundamentals rarely change. And sometimes what one wants are those fundamentals with a particular inflection. What a title such as Paranormal Activity 6 suggests is the flavour of horror in store. One knows to expect found footage and demons, and if one is in the mood for found footage and demons, that is a pretty sensible place to look for them. It's not about questions being answered so much as desires being met.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct