Unknown Dimension: The Story of Paranormal Activity

4 out of 5

Directed by: Joe Bandelli

While I don’t think there’s anything especially mind blowing to be found in this doc – it didn’t rattle my feelings toward the franchise, or expose any behind-the-scenes that were far from expectations – it is very steady, and open, stepping through the first 6 flicks (the 7th was in production at the time of the doc) and allowing people to seemingly speak rather honestly about them, and I can’t say what else I would’ve wanted from this. I mean, I can demand dirt or wild production snafus, but if those things don’t exist, then I’m asking for controversy where maybe there isn’t any. So the polish and fandom fueling this definitely make it a worthwhile viewing, but I’d say what pushes it over the line is that it did make me appreciate the people behind the lenses for each production, even if we’re maybe getting a very sanitized version of them. You can see the same names behind the credits on each flick – writer Christopher Landon, creator Oren Peli hanging around as a producer, editor Gregory Hoblit, Jason Blum – and you do get more of a sense of “family” than is often the case with franchises. We circle through all of the main actors – Katie and Micah getting the most facetime, rightfully so – and that same vibe exists, with everyone coming across as quite human and not just PR machines. Peli himself comes across as incredibly genuine and grateful, and also pretty content to just, like, have made his one big film and mostly checked out from directing thereafter. Yes, a lot of the downs the series would suffer can be supposed as consequences of the corporate machine, and we get some pleasant-on-camera studio bigwig people who we can guess are likely not pleasant when shouting commands at a lackey through a speakerphone, but the appreciation for the money pot that grew from that first, small-potatoes flick lends them a certain earnestness in their interviews as well.

As to the first movie, that’s surely one of the reasons to check this out: never-before-seen behind the scenes shots and detailed insight into the production, and though we may know some of the history apocryphally, it’s fun to find out that it’s not so apocryphal, and Peli really did push for his movie to remain as-is, slowly gaining fans amongst the Dreamworks crew, up through Steven Spielberg!… (who, y’know, isn’t interviewed here, but still) The movie was a passion project, but not a happy accident – it was purposeful, and once people experienced it, they quite easily got on board.

Cycling through the others, the coverage gets less and less; that’s understandable, though it’d be interesting to have dived deeper into the later entries when the formula was being shaken up. Opinions also start to get a bit more choosy on those entries, with most toeing the party line about which ones were “bad” – the ones that didn’t make us much money. So while it totally makes sense that the un-studio first (and to an extent second) movies take up the major runtime, there could’ve been some of that aforementioned controversy in digging further into the struggles transitioning to larger budget productions, but then again, maybe we wouldn’t have gotten such laid back interviews with all of the principles – in front of and behind the cameras – in that case.

Besides the clear love for the series that made this doc happen, and the light it dutifully shines on the talents that’ve made the best aspects and entries work, I liked that this is also punchy enough to work as an intro to the series, in a way. While it definitely spoils some plot points, I feel like you can show this to someone who doesn’t “get” horror, or found footage, or why you want to pay money to see entry XX in some long-running franchise, and it communicates the event nature of it really well, and also the fun feeling of being part of an evolving idea, for better or worse.