Last year came and went without any progression of the Paranormal Activity behemoth in cinemas. There was a teaser for this “Latin-American oriented” spin-off in the credits of 2012’s Paranormal Activity 4, but it was pushed back from its original release date to the now-lucrative horror month of January.
And so, The Marked Ones serves as the series’ first offering of 2014, with Paranormal Activity 5 to follow on its traditional Halloween-ish release date. The filmmakers have described the spin-off as a “cousin” to the series’ main storyline, set within the same universe.
In the tradition of introducing new characters in each instalment, our protagonists are Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector, (Jorge Diaz) two teens who film themselves dicking around in their apartment complex in Oxnard, California.
When their reclusive downstairs neighbour is murdered, seemingly by their class valedictorian, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), they begin a tentative investigation. What they discover is a world of demons, cult worship, and a curse that seems to have been passed onto Jesse, causing drastic changes in his physical capabilities and his personality.
Fans who were left cold by the dreary, perfunctory fourth instalment will be pleased to hear that this film has more going on than any of its predecessors. With the earlier sequels having adhered so closely to the formula of a family being spooked out by recordings of their house for about an hour before the third act goes bananas, this film breaks out of that mould, and the paranormal stuff is pretty active throughout.
Does that necessarily make for a good film? Well, the rule I’ve personally noticed is kind of inverse to the famous rule about Star Trek movies, in that the even-numbered films tend to be weaker. By contrast, the first film remains a master class in deriving tension from absolutely nothing for an extended period, which was somewhat undercut by the huge marketing push. The third film improved on Paranormal Activity 2 by bringing in a 1980s horror movie vibe, and conjuring up some of the series’ most inventive and surprising scares.
The “One” in The Marked Ones is technically an odd number, and the spin-off is definitely a step up from Paranormal Activity 4. Then again, the bar is so low by this point in the series, it’s not enough to merely be better than part four.
On the plus side, there’s more of the innovation that made Paranormal Activity 3 such a riot. For the first time in the series, the film never refers to a static camera or CCTV of overnight occurrences, instead relying solely on the handheld exploits of our two protagonists.
Aside from provoking more questions than ever about why the characters would still be filming, this successfully adds to the more energetic pace of the sequel. Christopher B Landon (directing his first film for the series, after writing the previous sequels) has a few interesting new scares up his sleeve too, and the film seldom resorts to cheap jumps at any point.
Like a ghost train, it doesn’t slow down for long enough to let you notice that some of the scares are a little hollow, but it’s not enough to disguise that this one feels awfully similar to Chronicle, a far better found footage movie. Aside from sequences in which Jesse and Hector fool around with the extent of the former’s newly discovered paranormal capabilities on camera, there’s a downward progression for Jesse as his power corrupts him.
If it is a conscious homage or outright lift from Josh Trank’s film, then Landon fails to carry over the sympathy that we had for Andrew, the protagonist in Chronicle. Jesse is reasonably well-adjusted, and doesn’t really have a chip on his shoulder when he suddenly gains the same powers that we’ve seen the invisible demons use in the first four films, and his violent transition to the dark side is neither justified, nor quick enough to cover up its own discrepancies.
It might be a little easier to swallow if Landon gave a few more answers about the tangled Paranormal Activity mythology, of which he has been the main architect since branching out from the original, standalone film. There’s a welcome return for a character who was left hanging in a previous instalment, but disappointingly, they play Basil Exposition instead of driving the story forward.
Instead, Landon provides more clues, but also a lot more questions, as well as throwing in an enormous bombshell that echoes a development in last year’s Insidious Chapter 2. I’d like to believe it was a coincidence, but the two horror series both share a producer, Jason Blum – shouldn’t he have spoken up about the similarity?
Without spoiling it, it’s not to say that both series couldn’t use this same plot device, and I’ll actually be much more intrigued to see this October’s sequel, if Landon sticks to his guns and delivers on the crazy possibilities opened up by it. But we know by now that the sequels are quite content within their own formula.
You get a bad feeling from the start, when the film is prefaced with a special version of the Paramount studio ident, a formality that all of the other films discarded for the sake of verisimilitude. Granted, we all know that they’re produced by a studio now, and aren’t genuine home footage, but the pretence made for some nicely jarring openings in previous instalments. It feels more careless now.
But anyone who has seen the last couple of sequels will have some idea of where this one is eventually headed, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that always ends on the same page. The journey is enlivened, briefly, by that aforementioned, utterly bonkers twist on the mythology, but that’s telegraphed ages in advance of the actual moment, and the pay-off isn’t necessarily worth all the page-turning.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones definitely aroused more laughter than screams at the screening in which we saw it. That’s fine, early on, because it’s intentionally much lighter than any of the other films, and it’s a solid attempt to provide contrast with our expectations for the dénouement.
But when the adrenaline-fuelled shock ending leaves people laughing as the credits roll, that signifies something of a failure to land. Here’s hoping that the fifth instalment follows through on some of the clues and questions set up by this cousin film, because there’s an odd-number rule to uphold. As for The Marked Ones? I’d mark it as a two.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is out in UK cinemas now.
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