Horror franchises are nothing new, but the Paranormal Activity series stands apart as the only one to consist solely of found-footage films. It’s an overused and troublesome format that features very few successes, but not only have the four four earlier PA films been box-office hits they’ve also featured some really solid scares and/or sequences.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones itself marks the series’ return after taking 2013 off, but while it’s too early to say if it will scare up some healthy ticket sales it’s already clear that it’s not quite as scary as the four that came before. It is better written and acted though, and that alone is a triumph for a found-footage film.
Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) is celebrating his eighteenth birthday with friends, family, and a brand new video camera. The night after his weird downstairs neighbor is murdered Jesse and his two best friends, Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh), sneak into her apartment to snoop around. Their trespasses trigger a connection to the unknown, and soon they’re toying with strange powers, discovering deadly secrets, and communicating with the other side through a Simon game. And it’s all caught on video!
The film makes a distinct departure for the franchise in more than a few ways including its predominantly Latino cast, its male lead, and its decision to move the action well beyond a single location. Characters move around their apartment complex, through the streets, and to other homes, and this opening up of the geography allows for a wider variety of set-pieces, gags, and tricks designed to make you leap out of your seat.
This is why it’s such a bummer that the damn movie just isn’t very scary. There are a handful of smaller jump scares throughout, some fairly effective, but there’s nothing here to match the intensity of Katie being toyed with before being dragged out of bed screaming in the first film. There are no scenes here that rival the tension and genius choreography of the third film’s “fan-cam” sequence. The camerawork is part of the problem as the third act becomes a litany of known found-footage issues. Why/how are we seeing what we’re seeing? It’s especially nonsensical as the film introduces a GoPro camera early on only to discard it after one sequence. Stick it on your “cameraman” and the issues inherent in someone carrying a handheld become obsolete. Or don’t and have viewers wondering why your character is running for his life yet struggling to open a window one-handed while he films with the other.
Luckily the film finds strengths elsewhere. Writer/director Christopher Landon is no stranger to the franchise as he also wrote the first three sequels. This is his first time in the director’s chair on the series, but the found footage format makes it difficult to identify specific strengths or weaknesses in that regard as there’s little room for style or directorial flair. That said, he surely deserves some of the credit for this being the first film in the series to feature lead characters who don’t annoy with their every action.
The cast is equally deserving of praise in this regard as Jacobs and Diaz in particular contribute performances that are natural, real, and entertaining. Neither annoy or frustrate viewers as is common for the format in general and these films in particular, and they manage some real warmth and humor between them and the others.
Landon’s script introduces several new elements to the overarching mythology, but he also ties in a surprising amount of what we already know. This means the film works far better as the fifth in a series than it does as a stand alone, but it also means we’re treated to a richer, deeper experience than the format usually allows. Clues and connections, some slight and others quite blatant, are scattered about to the degree that the series is well on its way to being a supernatural riff on the Marvel Universe with characters and story threads crossing over each other in myriad ways.
Perhaps damningly, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones isn’t up to snuff with the earlier films when it comes to the level of pants-shitting you can expect to endure in a packed theater. This is unfortunate, what with this being a horror film and all, but it remains an enjoyable film all the same. Is it worth trading the big scares for better characters, more humor, and a bigger world? That’s for you to decide.
The Upside: Characters are fun and far from annoying; adds interesting elements to the PA world; engaging as the story unfolds
The Downside: Not all that scary; 3rd act camera handling is ridiculous and dumb; a few scenes featuring Spanish dialogue w/o subtitles; dogs shouldn’t be allowed to star in horror films
On the Side: Paranormal Activity 5 opens October 24, 2014.