The 'Paranormal Activity' Movies, Ranked

This weekend's traitorous flop 'The Ghost Dimension' was the horror franchise's final installment. Today, we take a look back at the profitable and influential series as a whole.

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It would be hard for even the most diehard Paranormal Activity fan to argue that this year’s The Ghost Dimension is anything other than the worst in the series. The movie — which opened and flopped in selected theaters this weekend — is ostensibly the final installment in the beloved, Oren Peli-helmed series, and on every level, is a whimper of a conclusion for the greatest and most successful horror movie franchise of the past decade. This is true commercially as well as artistically: Paramount’s desire to accelerate the movie’s On Demand release resulted in The Ghost Dimension being shown at less than half the amount of theaters as the other Paranormals. It returned only $8.2 million on its opening weekend: a mere fourth of what the previous in the series made.

Still from 'The Ghost Dimension'

This failure was exacerbated by the fact that The Ghost Dimension racked up twice the production costs of the series’ last installment, The Marked Ones, a fact which points to the new film’s major problem. Those who have seen previews know that the concept of The Ghost Dimension is that the viewer, for the first time, “sees the activity,” a modus operandi which feels less like an expansion of the scope of the series, and more like a wholesale betrayal of its original aims. Cut-scene-looking ghosts made of burbling smoke shoot across the screen with loud blasts of noise in feeble attempts to effect jump scares, while consideration for overall pacing, logic, and character development are largely abandoned.

Katie Featherston in 'Paranormal Activity'

Maybe the Paranormal team needed a break from their formula, but there could have been no worse left-field direction to go than relentless second-rate CGI, which Peli recently described as “a new reason to get people to think this one is going to be different from the others.” The series initially made waves by updating the kind of el cheapo horror tactics that made ‘40s and ‘50s horror so fantastic and evocative: Don’t show the force, only the effect they are having.

Not all of the other Paranormals are great, but The Ghost Dimension — with its misbegotten new vision — is the first with almost no redeeming qualities. Today, as the sun sets on Paranormal Activity, let’s remember the last eight years fondly — some of the good times, so we’re not just left with a bad taste in our mouth. It’s worth assessing the legacies of these influential movies.

Below is Inverse’s definitive ranking of the films in the series.

6. ‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’ (2015)


5. ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ (2012)

The dropoff in quality for the Paranormals has certainly been gradual, and it’s in 4 where poor planning really shows. 4’s missteps come mostly in the form of the writers allowing extremely irritating teens to control the camera — see also: The Gallows. More egregiously, it frequently neglects to justify why anyone would be holding onto a camera during some of its scenes. It’s muddle; there’s a little too much happening.

On the plus side, it is possibly a scarier film than 3, at least, due largely to an effective demon-child performance by Aiden Lovekamp as Hunter Rey, the child the possessed Katie abducts in the second movie.

4. ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ (2011)

This is the period piece of the series, set in 1988 when the stars of the first two films — Katie and Kristi — are children. It loses points for being the most generic plot-wise, focusing around ‘Toby,’ the demon of the series, forcing the little girls to play his ‘games,’ which has been a dominant plot gambit in horror since the ‘70s, and there’s little that feels inventive in these sequences. 3 crams its serious scares into the final sequence, when Katie and Kristi’s mother’s boyfriend Dennis encounters a coven attempting to create a portal to Hell, and conscript the girls into their ranks.

3. ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ (2014)

There’s unexpected charm in The Marked Ones, a spin-off movie that detours away from Katie and Kristi’s family. Yes, teenagers hold the camera, but the idea that the obsession with filming everything — and mind numbingly stupid forays into other people’s crumbling basements — would be done by bored Southern California skater kids looking for something that could go viral is an effective conceit. The Oxnard apartment complex is also a welcome change from the series’ default setting of drab L.A. suburbia. The slow descent of one of the teenage stars, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) into aggressiveness, violence, and full-on demonic transformation is legitimately scary and often surprising. The final time-warping conclusion is both campy and compelling, as our hero Hector (Jorge Diaz) enters a portal to the 2006 house of Katie and Micah, who are in the midst of action from the end of the first movie.

2. ‘Paranormal Activity’ (2009)

This is where it all began — the one that cost only $15,000 and inspired endless copycats in the B and C-grade horror circuit. The Peli-directed film is often brilliant, making little changes, building up tension with an expert pacing, making the sound of a door slamming unprecedentedly bone-chilling. It throws in an Ouija board and a wonderfully out-of-his-depth demonologist for good measure. Micah’s ultimate end is one of the best moments of the series. It is, in many ways, the best-made Paranormal film, paying homage to horror movie tradition and focusing in on making its characters rich and relatable.

1. ‘Paranormal Activity 2’ (2010)

Filmed three years later, 2 was not as well-received as its predecessor (or even its sequel), but it has an eerie, sometimes glacial pacing that makes it the most unnerving of the series. It follows Kristi’s family as their suburban palazzo is slowly overcome by a demonic force. Its greatest strength is that it is filmed mostly on surveillance cameras; also, the film is often silent. Characters are a bit more out of the way here, in a way that is welcome. 2s hands-off approach — the audience spends long, tense moments scanning the security footage from ceiling cams — makes tiny, supernatural movements in the background grist for the mill. It’s a wonderfully simple film, as good of an entry point for the series as the first, and as good a testament to the unique power of well-executed found-footage horror.

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