by Philip Price
While the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has yet to reach the point where it is something more scoffed at than taken with anticipation it somehow doesn't feel like that point is too far away. This October will mark five years since the first time we met Katie and Micah and all the strange, demonic events that started happening to them and while each subsequent film that has pushed the limitations of people filming every important piece of their lives to the brink of implausibility, there is something to be said for the scope of what has developed here with having such humble beginnings. While the fifth film in the series was meant to be released this past fall it was instead pushed back to 2014 and so now, as these films bookend the year for us we are sure to feel both caught up and virtually still in the cold as to what is actually going on with this coven of witches that Katie and her sister Kristi became entangled in at a very young age (as the third film tells us). While each film has given us another piece to the bigger picture what comes to be more obvious with this off-shoot of the series is that they need to begin giving the audience more otherwise people are going to stop putting in their time and money to see these micro-budgeted movies that are dispersed consistently, but feature very little progression in narrative development. What makes ‘The Marked Ones’ a worthwhile trip to the movies is that it delivers both more scares and more actual background information than any of the previous installments. The new characters introduced here serve as more of an explanation as to "how" everything that has been hinted at in the main canon films has developed as opposed to "why" this all seemingly began with Katie and Kristi and why it has all spiraled out of control since then. I generally like the ‘Paranormal’ franchise despite the fact I'm never excited to actually sit down and watch one, but once I do I'm usually sucked into the intriguing if not normal people subject to the scares and moreover how this piece will fit into the overarching story that is being told. It would seem obvious from the marketing that ‘The Marked Ones’ is not essential viewing, but if you're a fan of the series it at least opens many more doors to be explored and is worth catching if you intend on seeing numero cinco this Halloween.
We first meet Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) at his high school graduation. His family is proud and his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) is happy to be filming the occasion and taking part in the festivities at the family apartment complex later that evening. We are, as is routine now, introduced to these teenagers and their surrounding family and spend a considerable amount of time with them, getting to know them and slowly being dropped clues as to the weird stuff going on around them until it builds to an unavoidable climax where we get a few minutes of pure craziness that will ultimately result in the person holding the camera being killed and falling over where the final shot lays there giving us little to go on before one final scare comes creeping into the frame. It is safe to say ‘The Marked Ones’ operates within these boundaries, but this time around we aren't in the suburban confines of a nicely decorated model home, but in the much more authentic surroundings of Oxnard, Calif. where Jesse lives with his grandmother and does nothing out of the ordinary the summer after his graduation but hang out with Hector and their friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) who each find it entertaining to mess around with the camera Jesse received as a graduation present and an old game of Simon. Bored as they are they begin to investigate the weird actions of Anna (Gloria Sandoval), the woman that lives below them. Things naturally build both with Anna and one of Jesse's classmates, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), that set up some of the more genuine scares the series has seen since that strong third installment. What is impressive is that this could have basically come off as a subplot in the “Paranormal Activity” pantheon stretched to feature length, but the characters are so likable and their natural performances so engaging that we come to care for these people as more than punching bags for invisible demons. This, on top of the fact we get a better idea of where all of those followers that crowded the house at the end of the third film (and this one) are coming from and that it also allows the audience to dig a little deeper into what has been going on with characters from past films (Molly Ephraim of ‘Paranormal 2’ shows up for a short, but informative scene) make it an endeavor well worth the time it takes to get to the scares.
Christopher Landon, who has written each of the ‘Paranormal’ films since Oren Peli's original continues his scripting duties here, but has also taken over as director and it is clear he is excited to be doing so. What is both a distinctive feature of this supporting player of a film is both its highlight and its downfall. I enjoyed and was appreciative that Landon and his team were more generous with the scares this time as they weren't all confined to the last twenty minutes or so, but the problem I did have is that they are beginning to get away from what made the ‘Paranormal’ films so engaging in the first place. The scares were effective because of their practicality and there simplicity, but in one moment here all of that is undone and it goes from being subversively creepy to something more silly. That isn't to say it isn't surprising or even logical within the chain of events that occur here, but the way in which it is captured matched with the performance of Jacobs in the moment didn't so much scare or put me into shock as it did cause me to snicker. The scares here are all downplayed with the score set-up to re-enforce the moment and the building tension. It reaches a kind of crescendo in this moment though and while we are never able to go back and find the quiet kills of earlier moments Landon doesn't seem all that interested in doing so anyway. We barrel towards the ending complete with shotguns blowing witches away ("Let's kill these bitches! I mean, witches...") and chases through a darkened house with doors leading to unholy places that bring about small revelation and more questions to be answered in the next few installments. I doubt that we will ever get a complete picture of this Toby guys plan to build an army of demons with the help of this witch coven that have apparently been putting spells on pregnant women all over the world for years, but at least this latest installment doesn't find the series running in place and offers just as many insights as it does new questions. These are not films to really be regarded as serious cinema, but they are fun enough for the purpose they serve and on the first weekend of January you can't ask for much more than that. Here's to October and hoping that the new writers and directors of “Paranormal Activity 5” give us something as substantial as this franchise has the ability to offer.