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PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION

The original 2009 “Paranormal Activity”—the “Blair Witch” of its time—has been sequeled and copied so often by now that the latest installment in the franchise, “The Ghost Dimension,” would probably have worked better as a parody, so long as the Wayan brothers weren’t involved. Unfortunately, it’s being played straight, and the result is a deadly bore. The hapless priest who’s an obligatory presence certainly gets it right when, after opining that an exorcism would be useless, says “What we need is an extermination,” because the series has by now become the cinematic equivalent of an infestation that really needs to be wiped out.

The four installments preceding this one (not counting last year’s one-off “The Marked Ones”) have constructed, in shards, a fractured narrative involving a demon that haunts houses and targets those unlucky enough to live in them. But they’ve left important elements of the story out, or fudged them. This, purportedly the final picture in the series, tries to draw the fragments together into a complete explanation, but darned if the denouement doesn’t turn out to be both prosaic and irritatingly inconclusive.

But that’s only the last failing in a movie that for the most part just plows over the same well-worn ground as the earlier ones. Cheerful couple Ryan and Emily Fleege (Chris J. Murray and Brit Shaw) move with their little girl Leila (Ivy George) into a house in Santa Rosa that seemed like a real bargain. They’re joined by a couple of guests—Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill), still nursing a broken heart after a bad breakup, and Emily’s chum Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley). It’s just before Christmas, and all are ready to celebrate.

But among the former occupants’ stuff Ryan finds a box of junk that includes an old video camera and a collection of family tapes. He gets the camera operating again, but finds that while he’s looking through the viewfinder it reveals strange, bubbly bits of energy in the house that can’t be seen with the naked eye. And the tapes show two girls being inducted into witchcraft by a strange man; these are obviously the younger Katie and Kristi from the previous films, who were trained by their coven-leading grandmother Lois. The house must be a rebuilt version of her place.

At the same time Leila begins acting strangely, exhibiting a predilection for creepy symbols and talking to an invisible friend named Toby, a name familiar to fans of the PA franchise, and poltergeist-like phenomena begin to occur throughout the house. So the Fleeges set up video cameras to capture the phenomena while protecting Leila. They even go so far as to call in that priest, Father Todd (Michael Kravic), whom they think might be able to help. But he explains that simply moving won’t solve anything, since demons follow their victims. And it’s pointed out that Leila, born 6/6/05, represents the devil’s number 666, since 2005 was the sixth year of the decade.

So what’s going on? It seems that everything the poor Fleeges are experiencing goes back to Grandma Lois’ arrangement with Toby, which involved providing him with the children he needs to assume human form (though why he should want to do that is never made clear). And with the acquisition of Leila—who’s seduced by a hallway that appears through the wall above her bed—he’ll have all the children he needs.

Most of what happens in “The Ghost Dimension” is overly reminiscent of the previous pictures, but though the bad acting and slovenly editing are constants, a couple of differences are apparent here. One is that first-time director Gregory Plotkin and his cinematographer John W. Rutland lean less on the series’ signature gimmick—those static camera shots that show manifestations occurring around the frame; here one gets more often the frantic camera-follows-action technique that’s in line with “Blair Witch.” (It doesn’t help.) The other is that for the first time the 3D format is employed. It adds a bit to the earlier instances of supernatural doings in the house, but it’s not until the big finale that the makers go for broke with it. Unfortunately, they wind up with swirling apparitions that are no more frightening than what you’d find in a chintzy carnival attraction. Otherwise the scares are meant to come from sudden bursts of paranormal exhibitionism that appear throughout the picture, always accompanied by a crack of sound. These interruptions are by now so commonplace that they don’t cause even a flinch, let alone a gasp.

Even the most dedicated fan will find this a soporific conclusion to a series that has been careening downhill since the first installment and now reaches a dead end in more ways than one.

LABYRINTH OF LIES (IM LABYRINTH DES SCHWEIGENS)

The Frankfurt Holocaust trials of 1963-65 are nowhere near as well known as the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, but in a very real sense they were more important to the post-war rehabilitation of Germany, and the background to them is presented earnestly, if a little loosely, by Giulio Ricciarelli in “Labyrinth of Lies.” The film, which mixes fact with fiction, is an honorable if sometimes melodramatically facile attempt to portray a watershed moment in modern German history.

It begins in 1958, when idealistic, ambitious lawyer Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) begins working at the public prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt. Irritated by the trivial cases he’s assigned—traffic infractions and the like—he undergoes something of an epiphany when he meets Thomas Gneilka (Andre Szymanski), a pushy journalist trying to get the office to act on the complaint of his friend Simon Kirsch (Johannes Krisch), a Holocaust survivor who has accidentally encountered a former Auschwitz guard now working as a teacher—a position he should not, under the law, be allowed to hold.

Radmann, like so many his age in West Germany, doesn’t even know of Auschwitz or the other camps; brought up in what amounts to a conspiracy of silence about the atrocities committed during the war—and in a society that tolerates, and in some cases positively encourages, the quiet acceptance of ex-Nazis in ordinary life, he’s ignorant of the realities of the Final Solution. But unlike his colleagues—who brush off Gneilka with ridicule or contempt—he takes the newspaperman seriously, meets Kirsch, and eventually comes to a growing recognition of the horrors perpetrated by the wartime regime and the need for the law to act against those who participated in them. His diligence is noticed by the district’s Attorney General Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), a Jew who spent the war in Sweden, and he assigns the young man the task of prosecuting a case against the ordinary war criminals who are now hiding, as it were, in plain sight. He must overcome obstacles put in his way by the bureaucracy, and eventually overcome a personal crisis of conscience, to do the job and bring the guilty to justice, forcing the German populace as a whole to come to terms with the Nazi legacy.

In crafting the script, Ricciarelli and his co-writer Elisabeth Bartel have taken substantial liberties and added some very formulaic elements. Radmann is actually a composite character standing in for three prosecutors actually involved in the case (and, of course, he’s actually standing in for a whole generation of Germans ignorant about the genocide). His naivete can appear incredible at times. Moreover, he’s given a romantic subplot—a relationship with a young girl he meets “cute” when he prosecutes her on a traffic violation and pays her fine when she can’t—that comes across as the stuff of fifties comedy. A thread involving his obsession with tracking down Josef Mengele leads down paths (including too many nightmare sequences ending with him waking up in a sweat) that of course go nowhere. And it’s almost inevitable that his researches will produce revelations about his girlfriend’s father—and his own—that will cause him to question how much good, if any, he can do—and, of course, threatens their relationship. (This last-act bout of despair, which even includes his briefly taking a job with a wealthy litigator whose motives are clearly not pure, comes across as a dramatic contrivance out of screenwriting 1-A.) Even a visit to Auschwitz with Thomas, during which the journalist reveals why he’s so dedicated to the cause of publicizing what happened there to the world, feels a forced effort to check off all the manipulative blanks.

But if “Labyrinth of Lies” often devolves into the sort of earnest polemic that marked many American films of the fifties and sixties, the subject matter is so inherently powerful that it remains a worthy and moving effort. Though as the handsome but rather bland Fehling portrays him Radmann may sometimes comes across like the screenwriting device he actually is, one can discern the depth of authentic emotion involved in the pursuit of justice in the person of Bauer, whose quiet demeanor cloaks a passionately personal drive to bring the criminals to the bar as he instructs his subordinate to avoid going off on tangents and keep his eye on the prize. He’s played to perfection by Voss, who brings a sense of almost unimaginable melancholy to the reserved, world-weary character. The remaining performances are solid but unexceptional, with Szymanski sometimes coming on too strong but Hansi Jochmann exuding motherly pain as the elderly secretary who’s shocked by the testimony camp survivors give. (The details are treated with restraint and decorum, with the witnesses’ words presented in a montage dominated by the mournful music of Niki Reiser and Sebastian Pille. That’s a defensible directorial decision, since presumably every viewer will be able to fill in the awful descriptions themselves.) Friederike Becht is attractive as Marlene, Radmann’s girlfriend, though in truth she’s not asked to do anything demanding. The technical side of the film is strong, with Martin Langer and Roman Osin contributing luminous widescreen cinematography and Manfred Doering an elegant production design (his recreation of the US Army Document Center, overflowing with files, is especially impressive).

Incidentally, the original German title—which would translate as “In the Labyrinth of Silence”—is more resonant than the English version, pointing not only to the maze of obfuscation that Radmann must penetrate but to the reality of Auschwitz, where so many perished, unable to tell what happened to them there.