Review: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
Ever since the box-office domination of The Avengers, every studio seems intent on emulating Marvel’s approach to franchise storytelling. Fox is bringing together multiple iterations of X-Men in the upcoming Days of Future Past. Warner Bros. is hoping Man of Steel will be a launchpad for multiple DC franchises. Disney is developing Star Wars spin-offs to complements its new sequel trilogy. It’s hard to find a major studio that isn’t trying to find a way to develop a cinematic universe capable of sustaining multiple blockbuster film series.
The closest cousin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe might not be another expensive tentpole franchise, however, but the relatively low-budget Paranormal Activity series, which is quietly experimenting with how to tell a long-form story through episodic installments. Just as the Marvel strategy involved following multiple individual superheroes and gradually intersecting their storylines, Paramount has taken a standard haunted house tale and built a larger mythology around it. In many ways, the series feels like a slowly-produced television procedural, with hauntings-of-the-year instead of cases-of-the-week. Each film in the series follows another family through a series of supernatural occurrences, gradually revealing that they may be loosely connected and part of a much larger plot involving witches, curses and, perhaps, a coming apocalypse.
The endgame is still unknown, which may leave some impatient viewers feeling dissatisfied, but by revealing the details of its mythology so slowly, Paramount isn’t just continuing to profit from a surprise hit, it’s retaining the creative freedom—again, like television—to switch things up as necessary, and not remain bound to any particular set of rules. The franchise isn’t about going bigger as much as refining and re-framing what has come before; if something doesn’t work, it can probably be fixed the next time around.
The latest installment, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, is being marketed as a spin-off from the primary series—the “official” Paranormal Activity 5 will be released closer to Halloween—but it feels just as important to the overarching mythology as any of the other sequels. What it lacks in aesthetic innovation it makes up for with sheer story, and the result is a film that stands on its own while also effectively pushing the series in a new direction.
Director Christopher Landon has written every Paranormal Activity film since the second one, and while elements of The Marked Ones will feel very familiar to fans of the series, he also makes a few major changes. For starters, this is the first film in the franchise that isn’t about a nuclear family with children. The plot follows Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), a Mexican-American teenager who just graduated from high school. He uses his dad’s camera to film Jackass-style stunts with his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), but the shenanigans end when one of their classmates murders his downstairs neighbor, a middle-aged woman rumored to be a witch. After exploring her deserted apartment, Jesse finds strange bite marks on his arm, and it soon becomes apparent that he’s being haunted by a demon very similar to those from previous films.
Cynical viewers might paint The Marked Ones as a calculated attempt by a studio to capitalize on a growing Hispanic demographic, and while that was probably a factor, the film never feels like it’s pandering to a specific group of people. Sure, characters occasionally speak in Spanish and there are references to Latin American gangs and mysticism, but these elements never feel forced or unnecessarily caricatured. This is first and foremost a movie about a group of friends dealing with demonic powers, and their ethnicity only serves to hint at a larger mythology that extends beyond white suburban housewives and their children.
Horror fans looking for some decent scares might be disappointed, as most of the main suspense sequences rely on very traditional thrills. Demons speak through a game, but this time it’s a Simon instead of a Ouija board. Characters always find a reason to hang out in dark rooms. Possessed people act creepy. There are frequent jump-scares. Formal surprises like the fan-cam from Paranormal Activity 3 or the Kinect scenes in Paranormal Activity 4 are nowhere to be found.
What makes The Marked Ones such an effective entry in the franchise, however, is its sense of playfulness. Landon recognizes that the initial conceits of the series are now redundant, and just because something worked before doesn’t mean it will work forever. The surveillance-style gimmick of the previous films is ditched here in favor of more conventional found-footage techniques—there are no cameras left on overnight, no recording equipment attached to household objects. Only one sequence pays homage to the static frame-navigating aesthetic of the series’ roots. The rest is all handheld.
And why shouldn’t it be? We’ve seen this all before. Suspense is no longer derived from whether something spooky will happen (we know it will eventually), but in what form, and how the characters will react. It feels as though Landon is trying to acknowledge the tropes of found-footage movies while forcing the narrative into new territory. The Marked Ones doesn’t just call back to previous Paranormal Activity films, it feels like a journey through the evolution of the subgenre as a whole, referencing everything from The Blair Witch Project to Quarantine and Chronicle. By the time the final ridiculous twist happens, we’ve traversed the tropes of an entire mode of filmmaking and are sent hurtling towards something new and exciting.
The possibilities seem endless. The Paranormal Activity series has gradually become the multiplex equivalent of the first few seasons of “Lost,” answering questions only to raise more, re-contextualizing past continuity, and daring viewers to keep returning to find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. We’ve come a long way from Micah and Katie experiencing a few bumps in the night. In many ways, The Marked Ones marks the transition of the series from a horror franchise into a supernatural mystery with elements of fantasy and science fiction, and that’s a very good thing. These movies might not be breaking new ground on a character or thematic level, but they’re challenging modern expectations about how genre film franchises approach long-form storytelling, and in that respect The Marked Ones is the most narratively innovative entry yet.