Monday, October 5, 2015

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

I recall Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones being marketed as a spin-off, rather than a direct continuation of Paranormal Activity 4 (after all, they opted for a subtitle, instead of calling it "Paranormal Activity 5"). Maybe they needed to switch things up a bit, and at least partially distance themselves from what had surely become a sinking franchise (critically, if not financially). Or maybe they just wanted to buffer fans' expectations, since this movie veers away from the tried (and some might say tired) formula of house-centered hauntings explored nightly via security camera footage. I'd like to say that it's too bad they'd have to resort to such measures just to try something new, but I was a little disappointed not to get (yet) another reiteration of the formula that had worked so well in the past, so maybe their concerns were justified. In any case, this movie does dovetail with the rest of the series (making direct connections to each one of the previous movies). I'd consider that a possible spoiler, given how the film was marketed, but since it may be the only thing to warrant giving this movie a view, I figure it's worthwhile for me to mention it.

In this movie we are introduced to a Latino family - complete with a chihuahua, and a superstitious grandmother - living in a two-story "garden apartment" complex. The film focuses on a small group of recent high school grads who gradually become mixed up with a witch that lives in their building. I think I would enjoy a movie about witches and their Satanic rituals (as stereotypical and un-PC as that would be), but you only get brief glimpses of it in this movie. What you do get to see a lot of is the hijinks that these young adults get up to (some of them approaching Jackass-level), in a slow build (note: I watched the "extended cut", so keep that in mind whenever I mention pacing) that plays like a standard, dime-a-dozen found footage movie. I presume these scenes are designed to enable the audience to relate to the main characters, but that's hard when they end up doing dumb shit that's clearly designed only to advance the plot - like smearing their fingerprints all over a fresh crime scene.

Or when they're hiding in the cellar, and not only do they leave their camera's light on, but they actively shine it through the floorboards while somebody is walking around above them! In their defense, the unidentified figure behaves no more rationally than they do. It climbs all the way down into the cellar, and just stands there, with the protagonists hidden behind nothing more than a clear plastic sheet (with the camera's light still on!), only to turn around and leave without incident. I can understand utilizing scare tactics, but it seems like there are more effective ways to pull it off. The scares in this movie seem designed to hide a small budget, rather than make the most of it, and instead of masterfully wielding the limited tools at their disposal, you get the feeling that the filmmakers threw a bunch of shit at the wall just to see what would stick (besides the dog). That some of it does work seems, therefore, to be in spite of the production, and not because of it.

I'm pretty sure that the first Paranormal Activity was an unprecedented success, making a big return on its bare bones budget. Maybe those funds have dried up by the fifth installment, but I think that rather than stick to the formula, this franchise should maybe have invested some of that money into special effects. There are a few good scenes of suspense in this movie - although not to the level of past titles - but you never really get a good payoff. (This does, however, ably demonstrate the theory that anticipation is a lot scarier than anything you could possibly throw at the audience - which is why the first Paranormal Activity was so effective). There are a few good ideas, as well - like that the protective demon force (the one we all rolled our eyes at in the third and fourth movies) could manifest as something like super powers, and then there's this concept of a door of space and time, which manages to be as evocative as it is hokey. But none of them are developed quite enough.

The best parts of this movie, though, are when it tries to align itself with the overarching mythos of the series (note: the rest of this review may contain spoilers). I gave up a long time ago trying to put the pieces of the plots of these movies together, after it got more and more convoluted in the third and especially the fourth movie. The Marked Ones would seem to serve as an example proving that the family we followed in the first three movies was not an isolated case, and that the witches in the fourth movie are working in tandem with demonic forces to create some kind of army of possessed firstborns (towards what end - if it's anything more sophisticated than the creation of a vague Hell on Earth - remains a mystery), referred to in this movie as the Marked Ones. I was very happy to see Ali (the delightful Molly Ephraim) from Paranormal Activity 2 return, although I don't know how she managed to become an expert on the witches' plans. I would have liked to have seen more of her than just the brief scene she got in this movie.

The "box of tapes" puts in another appearance, although it really seems to be little more than a prop at this point, as it's not as though anybody watches any of the tapes anymore. And there's no explanation whatsoever as to why this one particular witch should have them stashed in her closet. The movie's climax almost makes up for the rest of its runtime, although some of what occurs is as (unintentionally) funny as it is scary (like when the protagonists storm the witches' house from PA4 with a couple of Mexican gangsters in tow). It's a testament to how scary the first PA was, that when we return to that house at the end of this movie, I instantly got a cold chill over my whole body - which was, by far, the most scared I felt in this whole movie. There's supposedly another installment in the Paranormal Activity franchise coming out this season. I don't hold much in the way of hope that it will recapture what made the first two movies so good (or latch onto something new that's just as compelling), but I have to admit I'm a little bit curious to see where they're going with all of this. Call me a sucker, but now that it's gone this far, I kind of want to see just how ridiculous it's going to get.


  1. The box of tapes should be a tie in with V/H/S. And then they can add [REC] ( the audio tapes from Rec 1/2) and Atrocious (the girl was possessed by Tobi) and we can have a found footage shared universe. Leading up to the battle with the Blair Witch. I'm only half-kidding, a lot of people wanted the mysterious fork in PA4 to belong to Ellie Kedward (the Blair Witch) and the PA franchise has spun so many tops that you could connect it to pretty much any franchise in a pretty logical way.

    I found this film to be quite serviceable but I ended up giving up on it about halfway in. I just have a hard time getting excited about this franchise anymore, knowing that it's just going to be some invisible ghost. Now if this was a film unrelated to PA and there's a possibility in my mind while watching that it could be some kind of flesh and blood demon or something, then it'd be a good movie. I mean, the scene in the bathroom stalls, that was pretty scary.

    You make a fair point about special effects -- maybe next time don't just give us an invisible ghost. It's fine for one or two films, sure. But going on the sixth film and by now we need to see something! When the franchise was based on our innate, personal fears of what goes bump in the night, not seeing anything was a strength. But now that they've switched gears into focusing on an actual mythology, that doesn't work anymore.

  2. The Marked Ones certainly had no trouble connecting itself back to each of the past Paranormal Activities, that's for sure. Katie, Ali, the two girls from PA3, and the witches' coven all made an appearance.

    You're right that the era for being excited about the PA movies has long past - I still think PA4 should have been a porno. That would've been something worth getting excited about.

    If you're looking for something to give you chills, I recommend The Nightmare, a documentary on sleep paralysis. Just watched it today on Netflix (review to come). Most scary of all is the fact that it's 100% real.

  3. I would be inclined to say your idea of a PA movie being a porno is absurd -- but then the use of nudity in the original V/H/S film was such a revelation, it was a real act of artistic genius. One thing that takes me right out of found footage movies is when they play so openly to the techniques of traditional filmmaking, and this happens so very often in terms of nudity: showing nude people just from the back, or just out of frame, or cutting to the next scene right before the nudity or sex happen. That's not how people act -- or film -- in real life. V/H/S used completely realistic nudity and that made it one of the more immersive found footage films. So while I don't care particularly about seeing nudity, I definitely support a return to that ideology in found footage. Sadly that dedication to realism hasn't made it into many films, including the VHS sequels.

    Glad to hear the Nightmare is good! It's been #1 on my to-watch list for this Halloween for months and I was afraid it wouldn't live up to my expectations. Actually I was ready to pay for it but luckily it has come on Netflix now. Sadly though, Oren Peli's Area 51 has been pulled, to try to drum up money during the Halloween season. A transparent tactic that I shall not indulge by renting the film.

  4. Yeah, I was pissed when I loaded up my Netflix Watchlist after October 1, only to find both Area 51 and PA: The Marked Ones nowhere to be seen. Luckily, the latter is available for free on Amazon Prime, but now I doubt I'll have a chance to watch Area 51 in the immediate future. I've also been wanting to watch The Purge and its sequel for awhile now, but it's hard to get a hold of. I saw a double disc edition at Walmart, but unfortunately, going from the lackluster reviews, I don't feel very inclined to shell out money for it...