Written and Directed by: Christopher Landon
Starring: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, and Gloria Sandoval
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
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When the first sequel for Paranormal Activity bowed back in October 2010, it did so just in time for the series to take the baton from Saw, which shuttled itself out of our lives (in a blaze of batshit glory, I might add) a week later. Even though the two franchises couldn’t be any different, comparisons became inevitable, especially since audiences could mark their calendars on a yearly basis just as they once did for Jigsaw. Curiously enough, that schedule hit a snag just as Paramount was poised to shower us with more activity than ever; not only were they prepping an inevitable fifth chapter but also a Latin-flavored spin-off that was briefly glimpsed as a post-credits tease at the end of part 4.
Got all of that? If not, don’t worry: just know that the plans hit a snag along the way, and the result is The Marked Ones, a film that started life as the aforementioned spin-off but somehow contorted into a proper sequel after all. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be Paranormal Activity 5, but numbers are for assholes and accountants, so we’re in subtitle territory now. We’re also firmly in Saw territory: after its long and winding road to the screen, it’s appropriate that The Marked Ones finally earns this series a more valid comparison to its predecessor in its attempt to both shake up the formula and tangle itself in convoluted continuity porn. Just as it did for Saw, that combination here proves to be a mixed bag that provides the franchise staples and a creeping sense of fatigue as it attempts to find itself, narratively speaking.
Initially, it’s rather far removed from the first four in both focus and tone. Instead of tracking a domesticated haunting, it follows the exploits of Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his crew. Freshly graduated from high school, they have nothing better to do than piss around with their new handheld camera, so we’re treated to some Jackass-esque shenanigans and a spy-cam sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a Porky’s reboot. Their fun is interrupted once they realize they’re peeping a black magic ritual that confirms the rumors they’ve heard their entire lives: the woman next door is a witch, and, even worse, she’s targeted Jesse as her next victim.
It doesn’t seem to be much of a curse at first, as Jesse is granted astonishing powers that he naturally captures on camera. As such, the film is a little bit looser and much funnier than its predecessors, like a more ominous version of Chronicle. And things do grow ominous, of course, with the help of a haunted Simon Says board game of all things (it joins the pool cleaner and the Kinect in this franchise’s weird toolbox of haunted household items). The fresh approach is a welcome change-of-pace that allows for a different sort of dynamic, all the while grounding the characters and establishing the slightest bit of empathy for them (something this franchise has excelled at). Save for some bone-headed antics, Jesse and his buddies are a decent (and funny!) bunch that feel like unfortunate victims rather than dopes that deserve to be haunted.
When the hauntings finally arrive in full-force, they’re a bit different from the franchise’s usual sort. Gone are the stationary setups and the creepy, slow-builds, here replaced by a constant stream of jolts as the kids take their extremely portable camera on their various explorations of creepy abodes (including multiple trips to a murder scene—okay, maybe they are asking for some bad voodoo to fuck them up). The found footage aesthetic feels more obligatory than functional at this point, especially since there’s little motivation for the characters to keep filming once the activity hits (there are more than a few times where it seems downright illogical for anyone to even worry about a camera, but that comes with the territory, I suppose). If nothing else, the camera work provides some shortcuts for scares since every corner, doorway, and shower curtain could be hiding something that’ll be flung into your face.
To be fair, The Marked Ones does contain a handful of carefully constructed and truly suspenseful bits that work; however, it feels more frenetic than the other films once the silly hijinks give way to the near-constant scares. If not for the title, it could easily be mistaken as one of the found footage knock-offs inspired by Paranormal Activity. At least it’s a decent one, though, and it takes a full-on possession tact that previous entries only hinted at or held back for money shots. Jacobs must carry the film on his shoulders as the possessed and does a fine job of transitioning from Nice, Well-Adjusted Kid to Dead-Eyed, Soulless Demon. One of the more effective scenes in the film finds him inexplicably picking a fight with an unwitting kid in a store; in fact, it might be the most disturbing scene the film has to offer since it actually takes stock of the human element that’s at stake here. The typical possession beats—disturbing behavior, the requisite exorcism scene, etc.—are fine but rote in comparison, with the latter revealing just how far this film has come from subtle bumps in the night to full on explosions.
Despite the change in approach, this is Paranormal Activity, and The Marked Ones earns its title by threading into the established mythology. Small nods (like the characters stumbling onto the VHS from part 3) yield to more overt connections that culminate with Molly Ephraim’s character from part 2 returning for a cameo that doubles as a clumsy exposition dump to catch viewers up with the sparse backstory (in short: there’s a local coven of witches with a penchant for cursing first-born sons). And therein lies the problem: this is stuff that was illuminated way back in part two. Since then, the franchise has struggled with finding a sense of direction, and, while the third film was a clever diversion, its follow-ups have simply been listless digressions in the grand scheme of the series.
The Marked Ones learns very little from the fourth film; like that one, it's a fine collection of scares and eventually ties in with the others, but it’s a side story at heart that simply offers a glimpse into other victims of the coven, here dubbed “The Midwives,” so I guess we can’t say the film adds nothing to the series. Once again, I’m being a tad facetious; see, the film spends about 80 minutes spinning its wheels in this regard, with the climax literally retreading the same ground as the previous film (but with shotgun blasts because this is the loud, action-packed Paranormal Activity you’ve been waiting for ever since you had to watch people sleep in their beds). When those wheels finally screech free, the film careens down a path that introduces a crazy wrinkle that insures the franchise’s continuation, albeit at the detriment of this particular entry, which leaves you with mud spattered on your face and more questions than answers as the story lurches on with an intrigue that’s admittedly tough to resist. You know, sort of like the Saw sequels. As The Marked Ones eventually reveals, history does repeat itself after all. Rent it!
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