by Kathie Smith
Formula, when applied to creative endeavors, often refers unfavorably to the conventions of mass marketing. You needn’t look any further than your multiplex on any given week to know that the movie industry loves formulas. If something original works in film form (and by “works,” I mean makes money,) you can bet on that horse being beaten long after its dead. The found footage horror wave, which arguably started with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, is something of a studio executive wet dream: costs in the tens of thousands, profits in the hundreds of millions. But even beyond moneymaking possibilities, the best of these adrenaline-pumping franchises—good thrills, no frills—provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the genre and, surprisingly, often yielded a compelling ride well into their formulaic sequels. Case in point: the compulsively entertaining Paranormal Activity cycle. The most recent installment, however, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones—considered an offshoot, so denied a numerical linage—goes a little rogue, breaking from the mold but also departing from an effectiveness that the four before it had carved into a well-worn groove.
Director: Christopher Landon
Producers: Samson Mucke, Oren Peli, Gregory Plotkin
Writer: Christopher Landon
Cinematographer: Gonzalo Amat
Editor: Gregory Plotkin
Cast: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Renee Victor, Noemi Gonzalez, David Saucedo, Gloria Sandoval, Richard Cabral
US Release Date: January 3, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Christopher Landon, who wrote the scripts for Paranormal Activity 2, 3, and 4, takes the helm by first building a rapport with his characters—three teenagers, Hector (Jorge Diaz), Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh)—who recently graduated from high school. Set in a low rent apartment building in Oxnard, California, where Jesse lives, the movie gives us open access to Hector and Jesse’s shenanigans by way of their new video camera. Jesse persuades Hector to ride down a flight of stairs in a laundry basket with the GoPro attachment, and Hector reciprocates later by drawing a penis on Jesse’s face while he’s sleeping and then recording him, oblivious to the, cartoon phallus pointing towards his mouth—both moments of genuine humor befitting two 18 year-old boys. Some might say The Marked Ones gets distracted by these dramatis personae—an unnecessary development to the nuts and bolts of the promised rushes and chills. But by the time Jesse receives the tell-tale bite on his arm, he has a cache of our sympathy that never existed for sisters Katie and Kristi, who made up the bulk of the first iterations.
Jesse marvels at how, all of the sudden post-bite, he can suspend himself mid-fall or blow up an air mattress with one breath—stock footage for them to put on YouTube. The more sinister aspects of Jesse’s transformation slowly manifest in disturbing nonsensical ways, mostly centering on the fate of a downstairs neighbor, nicknamed “bruja” or witch, involved in some pagan whatnot and then mysteriously murdered. The story’s focus on a Mexican American community could easily be taken as an unapologetic grab for the Latino audience, but, as far as an underserved community in mainstream movies, Landon and crew handle these ordinary characters and setting with a sensitive touch, even if it is, for the most part, horror film schlock. Jesse’s grandmother casually uses Spanish, no doubt how many multi-lingual families do, and the movie maintains some respect for the veracity of the moment by not subtitling the informal chitchat. The final showdown, however, comes off as more of a Latin Kings caricature, with a couple well-armed gang-bangers lending a hand to a horde of Wiccans responsible for Jesse’s demise.
The Marked Ones doubles back on the first installment of Paranormal Activity, forcing us to needlessly search our memories or perhaps compelling us to watch the entire franchise again. But reigniting the fire for Paranormal Activity and its entire offspring will require more spark than The Marked Ones provides. It completely ditches the spot-on scripting and the potential for your empathy, and turns stereotypically clichéd, even beyond the auspices of the former installments. The scares are rote exercises of a naïve camera—shadowy figures, dark eyed children, and corporeal squirm-inducing anomalies (the best of which are spoiled in the trailer.) By forging a different path, The Marked Ones loses some of the clever efficiency of the originals, which interestingly placed the audience in omniscient surveillance mode. What we have in The Marked Ones are conventional first-person POV shots that function better for getting to know Hector and Jesse than for delivering satisfying demonic suspense. For those longing for the more formulaic approach, you won’t have too long to wait: Paranormal Activity 5 opens in October with many soon to follow.