“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” touted as a spinoff from the other four “Paranormal Activity” films, is said to be the first entry that successfully reinvigorates the franchise. Having now seen it, I say that it’s impossible to reinvigorate something that has long since died. It’s a little like attempting to defibrillate a fossilized dinosaur skeleton. With the exception of the 2009 original, which remains one of the most frightening movies I’ve ever seen, every chapter in this series has been the cinematic equivalent of beating a dead horse, relying on the exact same scare tactics and utilizing the same threadbare plot and character clichés. The only original element in this new movie is a vague reference to time travel, a ludicrous conceit that is nevertheless necessary in order for the ending to make sense.
All of the sequels have been either partially or entirely written by Christopher Landon. With “The Marked Ones,” he does double duty as the writer and director. It wouldn’t be much of a compliment to say that it’s an improvement over his directorial debut, the abysmal anthology thriller “Burning Palms,” for it’s obvious that his goal is to perpetuate the very story devices that have been bringing down the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. His greatest offense, and this is something I’ve observed several times before, is trying to explain what led up to the events of the first film. The more explaining these movies do, the less mysterious they become, and mystery played a large part in making the first film so unnerving. It doesn’t help that witchcraft and demons factor into the explanations, both of which have by now become passé in horror movies.
Taking place in the summer of 2012, the setting has been shifted to Oxnard, California, and the characters are now predominantly Latino. This means that Landon will have some of them engage in several stereotypical behaviors, like throwing loud fiestas in the center court of an apartment complex, wearing T-shirts sporting slogans that straddle the line between satirical and offensive, and using swears at least twice in every sentence. One character, the protagonist’s grandmother (Renee Victor), who doesn’t speak a word of English, is coerced into downing shot after shot of tequila in one scene, and it isn’t long before she begins singing. Oh, and she’s also the obligatory person of faith, which means that she will perform a religious ritual intended to cleanse her grandson of the evil possessing him. With eggs, no less.
The grandson is Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), an eighteen-year-old who has just graduated from high school. He and his best friend, Hector (Jorge Diaz), have for years heard rumors about the witch living one floor below them. It wasn’t uncommon to hear strange noises coming from her apartment unit. When the boys attach a camcorder to a tether and lower it through an air vent, they can see into her apartment, and they catch her performing ... a ritual that explains the film’s subtitle. Not long after she dies under mysterious circumstances, the boys sneak into her apartment and have a look around. The next morning, Jesse awakens with a bite mark on his arm, and in the following days, he will exhibit strange behaviors, including superhuman strength, the ability to fall backwards yet be caught in midair by some unseen force, and growing irritability. He also begins communicating with an invisible entity via his electronic Simon game, the green and red buttons providing simple yes and no answers.
The fact that the film is a found-footage mockumentary is in and of itself not worth mentioning, not at this point. It is, however, worth mentioning that the film seriously compromises the validity of the genre, for we’re shown so few believable scenarios under which characters would constantly be holding a camera. Would you be filming your friend getting mugged while simultaneously screaming at the thugs to leave your friend alone? How about after your friend has been possessed by a demon? Do you honestly expect me to believe you’d bring your camera with you to a convenience store and watch him lose his temper with both a customer and the manager? Or continue filming as you make a mad dash away from him in your car? Or as you run through a darkened home, screaming for help while women in black robes chase you?
This franchise has been running on fumes ever since the second installment was released in 2010. The tank is now officially empty. Why is this so clear to me but not to the people involved creatively? Probably because I’m not the one benefiting from it financially. What bothers me the most about “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is that, like the slasher sequels of the 1980s and ‘90s, it represents a rather cynical belief in quantity over quality. The first movie was an unprecedented success, so automatically, a second movie had to be made. And because the second movie also fared well, there had to be a third movie, then a fourth, then a spinoff. And so it continues; “Paranormal Activity 5” is slated for release this fall. You’ll forgive me for not having the highest expectations for it.