Another year, another entry in the prolific Paranormal Activity series. After skipping last October, 2014 is getting two of these movies, and that will be either good or bad news depending on your feelings about this franchise. For better or worse, with Paranormal Activity, what you expect is exactly what you get, with very little deviation in plot or formula. For the most part, The Marked Ones -- marketed as a spinoff, but which could easily have been a numbered sequel -- remains unchanged from its predecessors, but with enough small changes to make it fun and enjoyable for fans of the series.
The story (or "story", depending on how cranky you are about these kinds of films) takes place in the early summer of 2012, with Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) celebrating his high school graduation. In these early moments of establishing his family and friends and life in their apartment complex, The Marked Ones actually manages to surpass the first four films in giving us some people to like, particularly Jesse's grandmother. Everyone is still annoying and terrible the way they are in almost any horror film, but it is refreshing to spend some time with non-white, non-suburban people for the first time. Watching the family drink and dance and have a good time together makes it easier to become invested in their inevitable demise than it was while watching a bunch of white women whine about being tired while their maids and nannies took care of the more minor details of their lives for them. Jesse is never as effectively scary as Katie (the underrated Katie Featherston) is in earlier films -- in fact, I spent much of the movie creepily wanting to pinch his cheeks, but maybe that's my own issue -- but best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) does a commendable job of reacting to him and being frightened, despite having to deliver some of the film's most cringe-worthy lines. The apartment complex was well designed, and I also liked seeing the botánica -- even this Italian knows you don't mess around with old women and Jesus candles. Again, all of these things were welcome changes over the tired suburban Whitey situations of the earlier films, and led to the first death in the series that actually managed to upset me.
Other than the characters, the other main departure here is the use of the ever divisive found footage technique, which replaces the steady cam/surveillance style shots of the previous films. Although it does change things up enough so that the film has a slightly different feel than the last four (which even fans of this series would be hard pressed to deny were pretty much exactly the same movie) it's a technique that is almost always annoying. Shakiness and nausea-inducing jerkiness aside, my main issue is that other than the fact that this is an entry in the Paranormal Activity series and thus has certain expectations, I don't think there was any reason for this to be done found-footage style.
One of the most annoying things about the other films is that all this stuff is being taped and no one ever seems to go back and watch any of it. The teenagers in this film are slightly smarter and do go through some of it, but I don't think this (now gimmicky and over-used) technique adds anything to the film and actually detracts from it in several places. Ignoring the complaint that is true of ALL movies of this kind that it seems very unlikely that people would be constantly taping and focusing on the things that are scaring the shit out of them and trying to kill them even as they run away, I feel like the movie could have been done just as well without it, and they could have done some Maniac-style POV shots for the scenes that required it.
Regardless, we don't go to see these films to be wowed by technique and cinematography. We pay (a lot) to go sit in a dark room and have fun, and thus it somewhat succeeds at what it sets out to do. This series has had a strange quality trajectory where it seems like the odd-numbered releases are better than the others -- with the third entry being the best, and the second and fourth being the worst. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is not a great horror film by even the most generous estimates, but there are elements to it that were surprisingly charming and endearing. Fans of the series will enjoy it for its slight twists to the formula and some clever and satisfying tie-ins to earlier films (particularly at the end). Those that have yet to be won over will probably not change their minds, but I'm sure they -- like me -- will have a bunch of enthusiastic friends that are excited about seeing it and will want to drag them along, and there are definitely worse ways to spend an hour and a half. It explains a little bit of the convoluted mythology that these last four films have been infuriatingly slow to reveal, although still does not really further the story in any meaningful way (I suspect that this is because fans of the series have spent more time thinking about what it all means than the filmmakers themselves have done). With less annoying characters, some new twists to the formulaic checklist, a few good jump scares, and a strong finish, this film improves upon its direct predecessor and I can give it a lukewarm recommendation for anyone craving a horror movie. Rating: C+