‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ Review
Here’s a simple life lesson that everyone, from actual human beings to curious movie characters, should remember: there is never a good reason to break into a rancid apartment where someone was just murdered. No, not if that apartment is right below yours. No, not if you want to explore it with your best pal and you new video camera. No, not even if you saw a naked girl down there earlier. And, no, especially not if the murdered person was rumored to be a witch. Especially not if the murdered person was rumored to be a witch.
As the massively successful ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise scares ever onward, it was inevitable that the series would spin off into other stories, and the fifth film in the series, ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ gamely tries to straddle the line between being its own beast and harkening back to the four films that came before it. Written and directed by Christopher Landon (the screenwriter behind the second, third, and fourth films in the traditional series), ‘The Marked Ones’ finds its own entertaining voice for the majority of its slim 84-minute runtime, before giving itself over to the good of the franchise as a whole, sacrificing quality and coherence in the process.
While the ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise has always focused in some way on the family life of sisters Katie and Kristi, ‘The Marked Ones’ moves the action on to another family and another home. The film centers on recent high school grad Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), and their sweet gal pal Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) as they while their summer away in Oxnard, California. The trio are principally occupied with Jesse’s new camera and the weird “witch” who lives below Jesse, who turns up dead early on, apparently the victim of a crazed Oscar (Carlos Pratts), the valedictorian of Jesse’s class who should have no link to the strange lady in the dark apartment.
Like most of the films in the franchise, ‘The Marked Ones’ starts off without scares, instead moving forward with energy and amusement at the hands of Jesse and Hector, best pals who exhibit a familiar and very fun chemistry. The first act of the film effectively blends good humor and lingering chills, and the buddy comedy elements of Jesse and Hector’s relationship make the film genuinely entertaining and charming to watch. And then that damn murder happens. Intent on exploring the dead witch’s apartment just for funsies, Jesse and Hector find themselves continually sucked into a clearly wide-reaching situation that eventually changes Jesse is a deep, dark, and obvious way. Pulling from ‘Chronicle,’ Jesse begins to experience a reaction to whatever is going on in the terrifying apartment that has positive effects – strength, speed, an ability to speak to a possessed Simon machine – that soon turns nefarious (and, yes, connected to the rest of the franchise).
Now that the blockbuster franchise has hit its fifth film, it seems fairly obvious that the struggles that were clear in the second film are only par for the course – namely that the ‘Paranormal Activity’ crew is tasked with building out a mythology that was never intended to exist in the first place. Oren Peli’s first found footage film was meant as a standalone feature, and it truly became a victim of its own success, as throwaway lines and tossed off “clues” have now been gathered up, reorganized, and spat back out in the form of a massive mythos.
It doesn’t always work.
Landon certainly knows his material here (after all, he has written the last three films in the series, all productions preoccupied with expanding the series’ tangled mythology and its ballooning universe, making him perhaps the best-versed person when it comes to these concerns), and while he layers in interesting ideas and intriguing additions, there will always be a lack of complete coherence in these storylines. The ambition of such an endeavor is admirable (and, if you’re a fan, it’s certainly fun to try to unwind the various threads), but it’s become increasingly hard to fit together.
There’s plenty about ‘The Marked Ones’ that looks and feels like any other found footage film – the shaky camera (are people really still so inept at handheld cameras that they routinely shake and focus on dumb things?), the obvious creepiness of dark and unfamiliar places, bad choices about where to go, and a remarkable inability to call the cops. Like the previous entries in the series, ‘The Marked Ones’ features a handful of signature scares, and when the film isn’t cribbing from the rest of the franchise (the impact of someone randomly standing somewhere has seriously diminished over time), it does indeed pop.
And yet the best ‘Paranormal Activity’ film is still the third one, a relentless combination of forward-moving mythology (the film, technically a prequel, is still the best universe-expanding feature in the franchise) and clever camera techniques (director Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s oscillating fan gag is perhaps the best single shot in the series so far), and Landon can’t quite capture either element in his feature. The camera work is relatively straightforward for a handheld film, the world-building pushes outward in an expected (if not occasionally clever) way, but nothing about the film feels especially essential or bold.
While ‘The Marked Ones’ isn’t exactly part of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ mythology, it is very much a part of its universe, and Landon has clearly aimed to make it fit into the franchise’s messy canon. The feature adds some very big ideas and elements into the previous films (we won’t spoil them here, but yes, they are very, very big and they have far-reaching impacts, quite literally) and calls back to the other films and its characters in a satisfying way. Sure, you could probably get away with not watching ‘The Marked Ones’ and zipping right into this October’s ‘Paranormal Activity 5,’ but why would you want to?‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ is in theaters now.