Revisiting the Collective: ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ Review: A Change of Location Can Be Scary

(CS: It is scary movie season, so it seemed appropriate to repost a review from a horror movie that came out during my Collective Publishing days. Also, I have spent many years spreading my disdain for the majority of found-footage movies, so I wanted to reveal a time that I championed a movie from the subgenre and went against the consensus and my lovely The Movie Breakdown co-host, Scott.)

Four Star Rating: ***  
Starring: Andrew Jacobs, Carlos Pratts, Gabrielle Walsh 
Director: Christopher B. Landon 
Screenplay: Christopher B. Landon 
Based On: Paranormal Activity (2009) directed by Oren Pell
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Pell
Cinematography: Gonzalo Amal
Editor: Gregory Plotkin
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions, Haunted Movies
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Genre: Horror/Found Footage/Thriller
Rating: 14A (Ontario)/R (USA) - Frightening Scenes, Course Language 
Release Date: Jan. 3, 2014 
Runtime: 84 min. 

I claim to be a fan of horror pictures, but you’d be forgiven for believing otherwise based off the venom I’ve tossed towards films coming out of that genre for the past decade. (CS: 2014 turned out to be the start of the horror genre showcasing some great movies like It Follows and The Babadook, which is a trend that has made the genre exciting again ever since.)  My dislike for the current state of supposed scary movies can be traced to my feelings of loathing towards “found footage” pictures, which is a sub-genre that peaked with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. The Paranormal Activity franchise deserves a haunted mansion full of blame for studios constantly churning out these types of uncreative and lazy films. 

The series that launched the second generation of “found footage” may have started with a few small interesting technical innovations based off the budget, but has never produced a complete film that deserves anything near praise or acclaim (something I confess many critics disagree with me on, when considering the original). On top of all that, when the trailer for this picture came out, it struck the wrong kind of fear in me, which had to do with what appeared to be a reinforcement of nasty stereotypes. The easy money should have been betting that I would pan this picture straight to hell along with the demons inhabiting them.

It may be an example of lowered expectations after years of disappointment and being battered down by the incomprehensible mush passed off as modern horror, but gamblers wagering on film critics would had lost out this time. (CS: While mainstream betting on film criticism hasn't taken off, but it is kind of crazy how popular and accepted sports betting has become since I wrote this piece. Every other ad during a sport telecast has something to do with gambling now.)

The main thing that I feared would border on offensive, a Hispanic family living in a poor and dangerous neighbourhood, ended up being what infused a sense of freshness into a rather unoriginal horror possession plot. The shift from the rich white yuppie suburbs to the harsh inner city streets may appear only cosmetic, but it allowed for a new twist on the story. The characters had new concerns and the daily fears of gangs meant they weren’t easily scared. It also left every scene with a lingering haunting atmosphere that was both environment and the supernatural. 

The major difference this time around was creating characters the audience can have a connection with. The tiny apartment is crammed with multiple generations and despite their economic status, they are constantly celebrating and embracing life. The major thing that caused me to be disconnected from the original Paranormal Activity was the giant dick posing as a husband, Micah, who made me wonder why the lead would marry the perpetual man-child incapable of real human empathy. The first several scenes of this picture display a warm and tight-knit family that feels authentic. (CS: Warm and loving families that bond together started becoming a greater focus in the coming years and one of the reasons the horror genre crafted some of the best movies of the past decade.)  

As the film progresses you see a neighbourhood populated with characters that share a bond with each other and despite differences, unite to look after each other. Characters that have emotions and personality are a rarity in recent horror films, and this may be the reason I was shocked to discover I actually cared about the ones in this picture. (CS: Character focus is a major reason recent horror movies have become so critically acclaimed. I need to note it is one of the traits of the best horror movies from past decades too. So, this is not a new phenomenon, but just an issue with most horror movies around the later 2000s.) 

Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz deserve the majority of the credit for what works, as they create a close bond and chemistry with each other where you believe their respective characters Jesse and Hector are best friends. They do the predictably stupid teenage antics of riding carts down steep stairways and drawing penises on the sleeping friend’s cheek, and it is all absurd and infantile, but it also feels like real guys having fun with each other. Major kudos are earned by director and writer Christopher B. Landon for having these establishing scenes so we can invest in this relationship and hope they survive the inevitable terror. The actors feel like real recent high school graduates with little direction and aspiration, which helps us understand why they wouldn’t worry about the mysterious sudden appearance of a bite mark or why they are more concerned getting a good glimpse of a hot woman’s breasts rather than the satanic symbol being painted on her. 

Taking the time to develop leads is just one of the examples of a patience that has largely been absent in recent years. The Marked Ones still is guilty of the tiresome “jump scare”, but this time around waits just long enough to get your guard down to make it unexpected again. The scares don’t just rely on spooky black eyed young girls and witches jumping around the corner, but also incorporates a mythology that is slowly allowed to unravel over the course of the film that is intriguing but also unsettling.  

It is also nice to realize there is actually an outdoors in the Paranormal Activity universe, and the characters do leave their homes. Jesse, Hector, and their friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) don’t spend all their time fretting and bumping in a gigantic house, but instead try to find the truth by exploring their surroundings. There are even some action sequences, including especially fun one involving a shotgun and knife wielding witches. It is the first time it feels like people in this franchise have lives and they aren’t forced into some cosmic house arrest. The cast is also much larger and filled with colourful characters like the crazy neighbour Anna (Gloria Sandoval), the feisty shot-swilling grandma (Renee Victor), and the street tough with a heart, Arturo (Richard Cabral). 

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones will also be a treat for the hardcore fans as it not only adds to the mythology of the series but explains some past events in the previous movies. It is all done by feeling like a genuinely different movie and worthy of the label of spin-off, as it incorporates thriller and crime-solving elements lacking from the predecessors. 

Unfortunately, it commits many of the unforgivable sins of past horror films too, especially in the “found footage” category. Just like the countless mindless teens in far too many slasher pictures, the characters here think it makes sense to make love in the creepy places where rituals and a murder took place. For some reason, characters feel compelled to carry a camera with them while committing crimes, which you’d think would be rather incriminating. There are several scenes that seem to exist only because the filmmakers wanted to either gross out or shock the audience and are never bothered to be tied into the film. If horror pictures cause you to roll your eyes and you think it is unbelievable someone would run up stairs rather than out the door, then this film won’t redeem any of that. It demands you to suspend far too much disbelief sometimes, and they really need to learn to leave the camera at home. 

I still think “found footage” films are ridiculous and this film failed to convince me otherwise. This picture was the perfect chance for the franchise to scrap that gimmick and present a completely different film. If you can accept this happens to be a world where fathers pour their heart out in front of the camera and one records rather than protects a friend then you’ll be in store for a delightfully disturbing treat. Horror fans will get a mainstream picture that has main characters you want to root for in an environment that is legitimately dark and unsettling. You’ll just wish Jesse got a new pair of shoes rather than a video camera as a gift. (CS: Okay, maybe 'champion' was a bit generous, but I recommended it, though likely more a case of lowered expectations and finding a few things to really embrace. I like to see this movie as a turning point for the genre at a mainstream level.)