Though certainly not the first of their kind, there are two movies that personify the term ‘found footage’; The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. While 1999’s Blair Witch pioneered the sub-genre, it was 2009’s Paranormal Activity that reinvented it, a totally unknown filmmaker named Oren Peli brilliantly using the found footage concept to tap into a fear we all can relate to; the fear of what the hell is going on in our house, when the lights are all off and we’re sound asleep.
Yes, I indeed did use the word ‘brilliantly’ to describe Paranormal Activity, and that’d be because I’m one of those horror fans who loves this polarizing little franchise that could. In fact, going to see the first film in 2009 is one of my fondest movie theater memories of all time. So packed was my local theater, due to the buzz the film was generating, that security guards were tasked with ushering us inside, and there was a palpable feeling that we were all about to experience an event, rather than just another movie.
Once the 437 trailers ended and the film began, it didn’t take long before you could cut the terror in that theater with a knife, and I got such a kick out of the screams and audible holdings of breath that my fellow moviegoers couldn’t help but let out. It truly was an experience, and I knew as I was sitting in that theater that the next great horror franchise was being born right in front of my very eyes.
Just as I highly enjoyed Paranormal Activity, so too have I enjoyed all of the Hollywood sequels, which were released annually from 2009 through 2012. While Paranormal Activity 2 was a nice expansion on the events of the first film, it’s the third installment in the franchise that is my favorite of the bunch, an 80s-set prequel that hit all the right buttons. As for Paranormal Activity 4, it’s my least favorite in the series, and I can admit it was a serious downgrade for the franchise, despite the fact that I still enjoyed it. Whereas the previous installments brought new ideas to the table and infused new information into the mythology, 2012’s sequel did little to progress the overall story of the series, and that’s the major downfall of the film.
After going without a new Paranormal Activity sequel last year, the series returns at the start of 2014 with The Marked Ones, a movie that’s been billed more as a spin-off than a true sequel. Centering not on characters connected to Katie and Kristi but rather on a brand new character named Jesse, The Marked Ones takes place in the present day, with young Jesse finding himself ‘marked,’ and possessed by the same demon that’s been scaring the daylights out of us since 2009.
The concept behind the film is that Latin American fans have been the biggest supporters of the franchise, and so it was decided to cater a spin-off directly to them, with an ‘official’ fifth installment planned for release later this year. So is the Marked Ones truly a Paranormal Activity sequel, or more of a stand-alone found footage movie, with the Paranormal Activity title slapped onto it? Well, it’s kinda both, actually.
In my opinion, there are three things that make a Paranormal Activity movie a Paranormal Activity movie, and that make the Paranormal Activity movies stand out amongst all the found footage copycats that have come in their wake; likeable characters, creativity with the camera and an ever evolving and expanding storyline. The Marked Ones earns a big ole check inside one of these boxes, and smaller checks in the others. Allow me to explain.
One of the strengths of this franchise has always been the characters, and how entertaining they are to watch, even before anything goes down. The Marked Ones is no different, with best friends Jesse and Hector making the early moments of the film an oftentimes laugh out loud joy to watch. Hector in particular brings a serious level of humor to the film, the kind of guy who can’t seem to say a single word without making you laugh. In fact, I so enjoyed just watching him be goofy that I’d have to say he’s right up there with Paranormal Activity 3‘s Dennis, on my list of favorite characters from the entire franchise. Both Hector and Jesse are instantly likeable, and props must go out to Jorge Diaz and Andrew Jacobs for their terrific performances and believable chemistry.
As far as creativity with the camera goes, The Marked Ones fails to continue that trend. Whereas Paranormal Activity 3 brought the ‘fan-cam’ to the table, and the fourth installment had fun with the X-Box Kinect, this one is for the most part your typical found footage film, with a shaky handheld camera replacing the static cameras typically seen in the franchise – in other words, we don’t get to watch anyone while they sleep. One particularly creepy scene does have some fun with the small size of the GoPro camera used by Jesse and Hector, allowing us to see something we wouldn’t normally be able to see in a found footage movie, but aside from that nothing new is brought to the table in terms of the camerawork. Can’t help but wish they had been more creative with it, especially considering the film reaches a point where it’s hard to believe one of the characters would still be filming what’s going on – and that certain other characters would allow him to.
The Marked Ones is at its most interesting, for serious fans of the franchise, when references are made to the previous films, and enough of them are indeed made that it’s hard to call the film a ‘spin-off,’ as opposed to a sequel. While writer/director Christopher Landon could’ve easily gotten away with not tying this story into the others, he instead managed to tell a stand-alone tale while at the same time adding some pieces to the overall puzzle, which I really appreciated and was happy to see. The main thing I was worried about in regards to this film was that it just plain wouldn’t be interesting if it was completely unrelated to all the activity before it, and there’s definitely enough there to make the true fans happy.
At the same time though, I wouldn’t exactly say that the mythology of the series is expanded upon, as we’re mostly talking about winks and nods that don’t quite provide us with any information that we didn’t already know going in. A character from one of the previous films pops up for a brief scene, and the finale in particular pays tribute to an iconic moment from the past. Sure, it’s kinda sorta just thrown in there to make us fans smile, and make us feel like we’ve just watched a movie that very much belongs within the franchise, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. And again, considering this was conceived and marketed as its own movie, it’s an added bonus that any ties were made at all to the films that came before it.
All in all, The Marked Ones is an entertaining – if not a tad bit generic – found footage movie, and a solid start to the 2014 horror movie season. After the dull and lackluster Paranormal Activity 4, I’m thinking that this fresh departure was precisely what the doctor ordered. It’s a nice blend of being its own thing and sharing the DNA of the other films in the series, and I personally left the theater with my interest in the franchise renewed.
One major idea that’s presented in this one makes me think that Paranormal Activity 5 is going to head in some pretty wild directions, and I for one can’t wait to see what they do with it. Perhaps this old dog has still got some bite left in her, after all!