[3 January 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If he brought anything original to the staid found footage, first person POV horror subgenre first made famous by The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli can be credited for introducing the concept of everyday surveillance to the otherwise uninspired macabre mix. Living in a social realm where everything is captured and recorded, where selfies and webcams allow the real world into our once very private realm, this filmmaker figured that setting up a camera and allowing it to reveal things going “bump” in the night (and much, much more) would be a novel way of instilling some new shivers to an obviously overdone idea…and for the most part, he was right. Audiences responded with turnstile twists while critics climbed over each other to praise the unique approach.
Now, five films in, the franchise is abandoning its foundation to turn everything into another Last Exorcism, Burkittsville free-for-all, including Saturday Morning Cartoon like meddling kids who kind of, sort of uncover the origins of the witch’s coven that’s been haunting the participants of the last few installments. As mythologies go, the PA saga is pretty scattered. As someone whose seen each and every one of these increasingly pointless productions, the story seems to center around a devil cult, demonic possession, the kidnapping of first born boys, and…well, that’s really it. No rhyme or reason to the motives behind these ancient hags, just a lot of jolts and false scares inspired by noises and other ordinary occurrences.
Few films have gotten away with such gullibility, but the entirety of Paranormal Activity seems vested in making otherwise simple everyday problems the stuff of spooks. Put another way, all those comments we heard as kids about houses “settling” and “wind in the rafters” are now considered potent personal threats and signs of supernatural terror. True, the original film went so far as to show us an “unseen” entity tormenting our couple, but for Parts Two and Three, it was all clamor and nonsense. Part Four was probably the worst installment of this incredibly uneven series, suggesting something about the kidnapped males and their ability to interfere with a young teen girl’s otherwise busy personal life.
Now, we get The Marked Ones (avoiding the standard numerical nomenclature for reasons that will become abundantly clear shortly). This time around, a Hispanic teen named Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) discovers that the woman living below him in a California barrio apartment complex is actually a member of the aforementioned cult. She does weird rituals at night and our hero can hear strange incantations and screams through their shared air vents. When she dies, and the high school valedictorian (Carols Pratts) is linked to her death, Jesse and his pals Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) turn amateur sleuth, breaking into the dead woman’s digs and uncovering a bunch of unconnected clues. With a camera that never stays still (not ONCE) and a definitive Scooby Doo approach to their ghost-busting, the trio of meddling adolescents do their damnedest to take on the Satanists. Naturally, even with guns (!) blazing, things don’t turn out too well.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is truly a departure for the scary movie series. It no longer uses the static positioning of a single lens to eavesdrop on the various demonic goings on among suburban simps. Instead, we are in the heart of Hispanic California (an obvious marketing ploy towards a more diverse demographic) and it’s back to one idiot holding a recording device when logic dictates said item would have been jettisoned a long time ago. Remember how every monster attack was documented in Cloverfield, the cameraperson never once just giving up the implausible plan and simply running for their life? Here, spooky figures appear before the vehicle of our heroes and they continued to grab footage instead of making a phone call or escaping. A strange altar set-up in the basement is not abandoned by the viewfinder even when various spectral entities show up. Heck, even at the end, when a firefight breaks out, our guides are still getting b-roll.
But the illogic of this set-up and approach is minor compared to the desire on the part of writer/director Christopher B. Landon (Michael’s boy and scribe behind Disturbia, along with Paranormal Activity 2,3 & 4) to create a complete universe for this garbage. We get callbacks to each of the previous installments, sidetracks into Santeria, a bizarre moment of Project X like escapades, and an overall lack of a cohesive whole. At least Katie and Micah stayed on script - find the source of the spooky noises in their house. Here, we have research on the coven, the missing children, the lady living downstairs, the weird crawlspace shrine, a trip to see some random girl (call her “Missy Exposition”) and a return to the first film’s finale - and that doesn’t included the pissed off gang member who wants vengeance for his brother’s possession-death.
In fact, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is fashioned in full blown vignette style. Each scene gets a set-up, a false start, and then a shock. Over and over again, the screen fades to black only to load up another of these meaningless jolts. Disorientation and a bunch of “BOOS!” do not make horror. In fact, it’s unfair to call this film a member of the cinematic genre. Instead, it’s a carnival dark ride, a local haunted house that throws a bunch of red paint on the walls and then hires pot smoking college kids to put on Leatherface masks and jump out of the bushes at you. While there is an audience who wants nothing more for their expensive trip to the Cineplex, those of us who truly understand the dynamics of terror (see The Conjuring, Insidious, etc.) will simply sit back and hold onto our stomachs (truly the filmmaking style makes the motion sickness strides of Blair Witch seem tame by comparison).
By abandoning its origins to go all Ghost Hunters on its viewers, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones shows how defiantly desperate it is. Tweaking a formerly successful formula is one thing. Getting rid of it for something we’ve already seen - and dismissed - before is the height of sloppy scary movie sequeling.