"You guys ever feel like someone is watching you?"
When Paranormal Activity became a word of mouth phenomenon in 2009, horror fans everywhere rejoiced that the torture porn craze which swept the nation for the latter half of the decade had finally seen its reign as the go-to horror sub genre came to an end. Unfortunately, the increasingly dumb sequels and litany of found footage horror films that followed in its wake made this new phenomenon seem as tired as the old one, and the filmmakers' fundamental misunderstanding of what made the atmospheric horror films of old such a success in the first place. They began to replace suspense with nonsensical jump scares designed to startle audiences rather than scare them.
The only potential upside to these films was the extremely low risk factor for making them. Studios could give a filmmaker four or five million dollars and turn a substantial profit, so it paved the way for filmmakers to try new and innovative things with the genre. While some have been successful (see Josh Trank's Chronicle for a perfect example of this), most have continued to play it safe even with the lowered risk involved. With only one feature film to his credit, director Christopher Landis seemed like a prime candidate to do something original within such confines.
So, could his new film Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones be the film that breaks the mold, or would it end up just another failure on a road littered with them? Read on to find out...
Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) has just graduated from high school, and has gathered with several friends, including his sister Evette (Noemi Gonzalez), his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), and the class valedictorian Oscar (Carlos Pratts) to celebrate. During this party, it is established that Anna (Gloria Sandoval), the woman who lives below Jesse, is into some weird stuff, and the partygoers can hear moaning and other strange noises coming from her apartment. Hector and Jesse get into all manners of shenanigans with Hector's video camera, videotaping all of their exploits for no apparent reason. One evening, they are stunned to discover police taking away the murdered body of Anna, and are further shocked to learn that their friend and classmate Oscar is the one responsible for her murder.
Not long after this, Jesse wakes up to discover a strange bite mark on his arm, which somehow gives him superhuman strength. I think so anyway, I'm not really sure. The film's mythology is so convoluted, I'm not sure if there's a correlation between the bite mark and his feats of strength which follow, but the basic premise is that Jesse is now marked, and they come to find out that Oscar was marked as well, and they must unravel the mystery of what it means to be marked before it's too late.
I must confess some ignorance up front in regard to this series. I have only seen the first Paranormal Activity film, and thinking that this was a standalone effort, I didn't feel the need to watch the other films before seeing this one. That was a mistake, as the mythology of this film is tied to the earlier films, and was clearly not devised until after the success of the first film. The same demon that possessed Katie in the first film is the same demon that possesses the characters in this film, I believe, but since that whole backstory wasn't fleshed out until the second (or third or fourth) film, I was a bit lost during all of this. It's not required that you see the other films to understand this one, but there are clearly bits of information that were doled out elsewhere that would have come in handy.
Overall, the film is pretty lame. It makes the mistake of thinking that a sudden jolt after several seconds of silence is scary, when it's actually just a cheap and stupid scare tactic used as a poor substitute for building actual suspense. I fully cop to jumping several times during the film, but there was nothing memorable about the scares. One was a firecracker going off after you thought it was extinguished, one was an arm coming up out of a trap door after several seconds of a girl staring into it; in other words, cheap scares masquerading as horror. There was also a half-hearted attempt to be clever by using an old Simon electronic game in a nod to the original film's Ouija board scene, but even that came off as imitation more than homage.
The performances are fine in the film, particularly considering these are mostly inexperienced young adults with little to no acting experience. Nothing earth-shattering, but they all play their parts well, which isn't surprising considering they were more or less raised on these films and know exactly what's expected of them. Considering that Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat from the first film have still not broken out (five of Featherston's eleven credits are Paranormal Activity films) this is also likely the last we'll see of any of them anyway. Not to be too mean, but films like this are hardly a launching pad to a long career, just ask Heather Donahue.
And speaking of The Blair Witch Project, what made that film effective, and what other filmmakers have failed to capitalize on in its wake, is that it scared the audience by never showing them anything. The mind can drum up horrors that have no budgetary constraints, and for all the missteps Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have had since that film, they at least knew that fundamental truth, making their film ten times scarier as a result. Creepy girls with solid black contact lenses and naked old ladies just aren't scary, sorry Christopher Landis. Give me a bandana full of teeth or possibly entrails (or who knows what exactly, since we never got a clear shot of them in Blair Witch), or a guy standing silently in a corner with his back to us, because those were scary moments that were set up early in the film and paid off at the end. This is just slapdash nonsense that attempts to be clever by carrying over convoluted backstory from the other Paranormal Activity films.
Fans of the series will likely enjoy this film, as they'll probably appreciate it on a deeper level than someone who is ignorant to this series' charms, a category which I can comfortably place myself in. If you're really hard up for horror, this is pretty much your only option at the moment, but considering the myriad phenomenal films that came out at the end of the year, many of which have yet to open in wide release, I can't in good conscience recommend this film. It does what it sets out to do, but when you've set the bar so low, that's not exactly challenging. Perhaps the studios will one day realize the truly low risk there is in throwing a talented filmmaker five million bucks to make something new and original, but even then, they'll package it and build a mythology around it and fence everyone in, dooming themselves to constantly repeat the past as they will clearly never learn from it.