Sunday, January 12, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

For the longest time, it seemed like The Blair Witch Project was the standard bearer for the "found footage" style of filmmaking. Even when the style really took off a few years ago in the wake of movies like Cloverfield, it was that cheap little indie flick that a lot of people thought of whenever the topic of found footage movies came up.

That is until 2009, when Paramount Pictures picked up and released Paranormal Activity to theaters nationwide after a successful run touring the film festival circuit. The movie was a huge hit, spawned sequel after sequel in rapid succession, and arguably helped to kill the Saw franchise. But after four consecutive Halloween weekends saw a release of a new entry in the franchise in some form or fashion, the year 2013 passed without one. However, now that 2014 has arrived, a new Paranormal Activity movie has arrived with it in the form of what's being called a spinoff to the franchise. After the disappointment that was the fourth movie, I went into Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones expecting the worst but hoping for the best. And while it was far from the best chapter in the series, it still had its moments.

The movie quickly introduces us to Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), a recent high school graduate with his whole life ahead of him. But with no real immediate direction to travel in, he's content to spend all day goofing off with his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), pulling pranks on one another and capturing it and their day-to-day lives with Hector's ever-present camcorder. But things go from fun to frightening when their camera accidentally captures an old lady in a neighboring apartment in the midst of a ritual conjuring some serious black magic.

When word comes a few days later that the old lady has been murdered, a curious Jesse and Hector sneak into her apartment and find evidence that lends credence to their belief that their recently deceased neighbor was a witch. Jesse awakens the next morning with a bloody bite mark on his forearm, but the horror is tempered when he discovers that he's developed what appear to be superpowers. He tosses bullies across a parking lot with his bare hands, throws himself backwards to find himself levitating just above the ground, and defies gravity by jumping a skateboard over a standing Hector's head.

This comes with a price, however. Jesse quickly becomes distant and quick to anger, refusing to speak to Hector and attacking another boy for simply having a polite conversation with his friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). A deeper investigation soon makes it apparent that Jesse has been cursed, and that he'll get far worse before he gets better.

I had been led to believe that this would be the movie that would redefine and reshape the Paranormal Activity franchise. The handful of reviews I'd read implied that The Marked Ones would blow the socks off the fans who'd stood by the series. But it turns out I'd basically read a whole bunch of overblown hyperbole. I won't say the movie is actively bad, but it's just kinda there. It has its ups and downs like most movies, yet it doesn't really do much to make itself better than any of the other Paranormal Activity movies. Outside of a handful of references to the earlier movies and the crazy ending, it honestly could have been just another random mediocre found footage movie that would have otherwise flown under the radar.

The movie was written and directed by Christopher Landon, who is no stranger to the franchise, having written each of the prior sequels. I think the first one is the only one he didn't have any involvement with. But for someone so heavily involved with the evolution of the world of Paranormal ActivityThe Marked Ones comes across like he was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick, as if he was unsure of what he wanted to do with the movie. I understand that Landon might want to shake things up after the disappointment that was the fourth movie, but he takes it in a really weird direction. Landon moves away from the "haunted house" vibe of the first four movies and instead gives us what would happen if you combined Chronicle with demonic possession. The whole "being cursed gives Jesse superpowers" thing is interesting, I'll give it that, but Landon handles it awkwardly. It feels clunky and forced, and doesn't add a whole lot to the movie other than to imply that something weird is happening to Jesse. And honestly, that's something that could have been done so much better.

And in moving away from the "haunted house" format, Landon also moves away from the franchise's typical formula by eschewing slow-burning scares for cheap jump after cheap jump. There's not really any suspense, no feeling of dread brought on by a lurking, invisible menace. It's just stuff leaping into frame and yelling "boo!" over and over and over until it becomes monotonous. These moments have their place in horror movies and I'm not opposed to them, but if that's all there is, they lose their punch after a while. Some of the scares in The Marked Ones are good, I'll give Landon that, but the spooky feeling from the other movies is barely here at all.

And while I'll applaud Landon's efforts to deepen the franchise's mythology, it's really just a mess. This is the first entry in the franchise in which Katie or her nephew Hunter aren't the focus of the movie in some form or fashion, which paves the way for Landon to investigate the whole evil cult thing that's been building from the other sequels. At least, that's what you'd think. Even when they have characters come in solely to dump a whole bunch of exposition on us, we never really feel like much is learned. For every question from the earlier movies that it might answer, it just raises twenty more. It's like Landon wanted to straighten some things out while still leaving the movie's mythology confusing enough that it would draw people into the next Paranormal Activity sequel to see if that one would make any sense.

At least the movie's cast is relatively strong. While much of the supporting cast isn't all that really memorable, they all play their parts as well as they can. The movie belongs to Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz, though. Diaz is funny in his role as the protagonist's sidekick and comic relief, while Jacobs is likable, charismatic, and sympathetic all at once. Despite how crazy and borderline silly the movie gets at times, Jacobs remains relatively consistent. He's good enough that you can't help but worry for Jesse and his friends during all the awful stuff that plagues them. He also proves to be pretty scary too, his increasingly cold demeanor becoming more and more off-putting as the movie goes on. It's a good performance that really makes the movie a little bit better.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole is still kinda mediocre. There are some parts of the movie that are genuinely fun and some really good scares to be found. It's a definite step up from the fourth movie, at the very least. But The Marked Ones is still honestly one of the weaker entries in the Paranormal Activity saga. The elements that work in the movie's favor are bogged down by the amount of stuff that just plain doesn't work. It's a movie that could have turned the whole franchise on its ear, but ultimately stumbled over its own feet. The next Paranormal Activity movie is apparently still in the works and looks to be released at the end of October. Assuming that holds true, we've got a ten-month wait to see just where the story will go from here. I'm actually genuinely curious to see it, just to see if any lessons have been learned from two "meh" sequels in a row. But then we'll see this Halloween, won't we?

Final Rating: **½

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