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'Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones' is a marked improvement for the franchise

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The Paranormal Activity films are the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster ride, each one is almost exactly the same, but the twists and turns change with each new installment. The success of the franchise and whether or not it clicks with you is really dependent on how willing you are to accept these films for what they are, which is basically scare machines, and whether or not a few new twists is enough to keep you interested year to year. Most fans don’t go out to the theater each year to see the next film to learn new aspects of the surprisingly elaborate story that seamlessly spans five films now, they go to get scared and they have been mostly successful at doing just that.

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But, if you want to get more out of them than just peeing your pants and looking over your shoulder for the next few nights as you sleep with your light on, they do offer more depth than your average horror franchises even attempt. Somehow, each new film finds a new and interesting way to put a twist on a story that began with the simple tale of a couple being haunted and has now expanded to include a number of families with all their individual stories intertwining in some very creative ways. If you were to map each film out and connect the dots between them, there would likely be lines zigzagging all over the place due to how even by the fifth installment, the writers find new ways to tie it all back to that first film.

Up until Paranormal Activity 4 came out, the franchise felt almost critic proof, meaning that no matter what critics had to say about it, people would flock to them in droves (much like the dreaded Twilight phenomenon). Then the fourth film was released and quickly became the very epitome of everything fans feared those other sequels before it would become, lifeless and lacking in any sort of creativity. The gags were tired, the new family was borderline asinine and the plot holes that had up until that point been few and far between, were mounting quicker than anyone could count.

Now, with more than a year past and its usual Halloween release date missed, we have the latest entry into the franchise with The Marked Ones. This new film not only marks the first sequel that isn’t numbered, but it is also the first film in the series to change locales as well. The first four films all took place in the relative safety of San Diego’s suburbia, but now the filmmakers have decided to place this spin-off of sorts right in the concrete jungle of Ventura County in the city of Oxnard, where there are more than ghosts and demons to be scared of.

The new family we are introduced to this time around is of Latino descent, as is the majority of the community, and with that simple change in ethnicity for our main characters comes a number of welcomed and unexpected added benefits that really helps make the franchise feel fresh and new again. When we first meet our new family, whom seemingly have no affiliation with the events of the four previous films, it is 2012 and Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) has just graduated from High School. As he celebrates his new found liberation with his close friends Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) over the next few days, an incident resulting in the death of a mysterious neighbor triggers some strange events that all seem to be centered around Jesse who just so happens to be experiencing a number of dramatic physical and mental changes.

Right from the outset you can tell that the many mistakes made with the last film have all been rectified, starting with the most important aspect, the characters. No longer incompetent or making the worst decisions imaginable (well, sometimes they still do), they avoid many of the pitfalls of horror films in general by actually being likeable. This goes a long way in creating that bond needed between the viewer and the characters so that when the s**t does eventually hit the fan (and it does so more with this film than any of the previous ones), you aren’t condemning each of their split second decisions, but instead fearful of what may, or will, happen to them as a result of those decisions. This may very well be the most likeable cast of characters the series has given us yet.

This connection is made easily by this being, without a shadow of a doubt, the funniest entry into the series yet. That may not sound like a recipe for a good scary movie, but adding just enough humor in all the right places goes a long way into allowing us to see Jesse and his friends as real people and in turn, heighten the scares when they do happen. For the first time in the series, the actors all feel like real people and that sense of reality cannot be dismissed as it helps build that ever growing tension as things quickly escalate from Jesse having these strange and miraculous things happening around him (and to him), such as being able to hold a conversation with an old Simon Says game that doesn’t offer the answers Jesse wants to hear, to life and death situations.

However, that humor does come with a price as this could very well be the least scary addition to the Paranormal Activity family. If that sounds like a turn off, don’t worry too much as the film still has plenty of scares involving dark basements, abandoned houses and the series staple, the static camera shot where we wait in anticipation of having something either jump out of nowhere at us or suddenly appear in the frame. That particular parlor trick, which was used heavily throughout all the other films, actually only appears for a single solitary sequence here and is unfortunately not used nearly as well as it was in the series high point, Paranormal Activity 3.

As mentioned though, the film gets a lot of mileage out of bringing in the Latino heritage with a huge emphasis put upon religion and family. While there are plenty of traditional examples used all throughout the film, such as Jesse’s grandmother whose strong religious ties eventually come to the forefront, the one thing that will have most audiences simultaneously laughing and cheering at is the inclusion of Los Angeles’ gang life into the equation. It would be criminal to ruin the surprise for you, but suffice it to say that if you ever wanted to know what would happen if one of the families that was being haunted was packing some heat, you won’t be disappointed.

Usually the recommendation for a new Paranormal Activity film would be to see the other films before it, which at a total of five now is becoming a bit daunting of a task. But surprisingly, with this film being more of a side story, this is a good point to jump in and see what all the fuss is about if you have either been staying away because it felt like you missed the boat or have just been too afraid.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

It’s combination of comedy and horror is almost a perfect mixture as a series high point, but there is no denying that despite this film’s many achievements, it just isn’t as scary as some of the previous films. But don’t let that detract you from seeing what all the activity is about for yourself. Thanks to a much needed change in venue, an extremely likeable cast of characters and some legitimately funny moments mixed with some great scares, you really can’t go wrong with this one if are in the market for a good scary time at the movies.

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