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Entries in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones [2013] (1)

Saturday
Jan042014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2013)

Mildly Spicy Boo-rrito

The multiplex is one of a handful of places where it's acceptable to replace "Happy" with "Crappy" when describing the New Year. And so it is that we rip the plastic off another calendar to find a slate of post-awards-season-pageantry/pre-summer-spectacle garbage waiting for us.

Yay.

And what better series to kick things off than Paranormal Activity? With the excruciating fourth installment, The Little Franchise That Could finally petered out, creatively and financially.* But writer-turned-director Christopher Landon and uber-producers Oren Peli and Jason Blum seem to have taken a note from the newly Disney-fied Star Wars universe, opting to churn out spin-offs in addition to the regular, numbered sequels.

First off the assembly line is Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a picture so bursting at the seams with Latin-American stereotypes that I can't be sure if the filmmakers are catering to a particular audience or ridiculing them (case in point: one of the main characters wears a couple of amusing T-shirts at the beginning of the film--one reads, "I only look illegal"; the other, "Powered by Frijoles"). From the ultra-religious, Spanish-speaking grandma doing shots of tequila, to the put-upon sidekick who can't bring girls back to his apartment because "there's, like, fifty people living there, homes", no chimichanga is left un-fried.

Which is fine, I guess. But it made me wonder if Landon brought any first-hand cultural experience to his screenplay, or if he simply cribbed everything but the ghost portions from old Carlos Mencia sketches. Lest you think I'm horribly racist or something, I'd be just as confused to see a Paranormal Activity film set in the Irish slums, cast exclusively with clover-picking midget gingers. That may be a specific portrait in some circles, but to me it would feel a tad broad.

Anyway, The Marked Ones sets itself apart by not really being a Paranormal Activity movie at all. Sure, we have spooky kids galore, more puzzling first-person footage than you can furiously shake a camera at, and the return of that used-to-be-scary-kinda witch coven, but for the most part, this movie is like a remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and the sequel to the superb found-footage superhero movie, Chronicle. Hear me out.

A teenager named Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) discovers a sinister force in the apartment downstairs, which wants to take possession of his body. Despite the efforts of his idiot best friend, Hector (Jorge Diaz) and sorta girlfriend, Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh), nothing can stop the evil from seducing and then consuming the boy. Jesse's ubiquitous home-video camera, of course, captures the weird transformation process, which includes his gaining the power to levitate and throw objects (and people) through the air with super-human force. In one scene, he even learns how to fly (albeit unconventionally).

The movie is one hundred percent entertaining, eighty percent of the time. The friendship is nicely drawn, particularly in the moments when the thing inside Jesse plays mind games with the earnest loser, Hector. I didn't buy the love story with Marisol as much--mostly because I didn't piece together that she wasn't his sister until just before the climax (Landon threw me a monkey wrench, I guess, by having the guys pick up some strange at a back yard party). There's a tremendous sense of dark discovery throughout that rang true for these characters; unlike the last chapter, which featured idiotic middle-teens, The Marked Ones centers on people just entering adulthood--meaning there's at least a one-in-three chance they won't make bone-headed decisions.

But the good times can't last forever. Eventually, Landon heeds the Paramount mandate that his Paranormal Activity movie actually include material from the previous entries. If you've kept a checklist these last few years, you'll recognize all the story beats and the order in which they play out. Landon changes things up just enough to keep matters interesting: swapping out an old Simon game for a Ouija board, and actually filling in some of the gaps in the series' mythology--rather than simply piling on more clues we won't care about after the eighty-minute carnival ride is over. There's also a fair amount of boobs and blood this time out--a first for the series, and possibly the result of a focus group survey ("How likely would you be to look up from your smart phone if gratuitous nudity and violence was introduced into the next Paranormal Activity movie: 1. Not Likely at All 2. Less Likely 3. Likely...").

You may have heard about The Marked Ones' "shocking" ending. It's a nice nod to where the story might be headed, sure. But thanks to five minutes of clumsy direction and pacing--sadly, in the sequence where being on point in both areas is the most crucial--I'd hardly call it a surprise (Hint: you won't have to wait until Paranormal Activity 5 to see series regulars Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat).

"But wait, Ian, I thought this was Paranormal Activity 5?!"

Nope. Remember, we're dealing with a spin-off here. The official fifth movie hits later this year. And if that means we're looking at a return to form, you're probably better off ending your run of the series with The Marked Ones. Like the Star Trek movies, only every other Paranormal Activity outing is worthwhile (except with this series, the odd ones are the winners), and I can only imagine the repetitive shit-storm that awaits us this fall--which, for the purposes of this illustration, I'm considering the sixth chapter.

Yes, believe it or not, I recommend this movie. Unless you've already checked out everything on my "Best of 2013" list and are in serious need of a brain colonic, there's no need to rush out and see it, though. If a horror movie can't be scary, the least it can be is entertaining--and you can safely mark this one down in the latter column.

*True, a global take of nearly $143 million is nothing to scoff at, especially since the picture had a budget of $5 million. But it was the least profitable chapter and the most widely panned.