If 2012's Paranormal Activity 4 will be remembered for anything, which it shouldn't, it's for nearly killing the PA found-footage brand. Directed by the original Catfish filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the juggernaut, low-budget horror franchise's fourth entry signaled that the brand had run out of ideas. Even worse, PA4 mimicked many of the best things about the excellent Paranormal Activity 3, also co-directed by Joost and Schulman.
It doesn't take long for writer-director Christopher B. Landon to wipe the stink of PA4 off the minds of audiences in the series' latest entry, the kind of spinoff, but totally still canon, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (in theaters nationwide tonight at 10 p.m.). One sequence, though, displays just how much Landon—who's also written every PA film except for writer-director Oren Peli's 2009 original—and his creative impulses have been rejuvenated. It's the beginning of the film's breakneck third act, and one of the main characters is going full-blown demonic possession. His loved ones are trying to cleanse his soul when the "marked one" attacks, turning the apartment's lights out, causing his friend, who is recording everything on his trusty camcorder, to use the machine's night-vision scope. Nervously searching around the room, he notices something strange happening in the corner by the television. It's his possessed buddy, somehow getting sucked into the wall and then violently spit back out towards the camera. No, it doesn't look as goofy as that sounds.
Nor is Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones as superfluous as those commercials might make it seem. The franchise's strongest installment, Landon's spinoff/whatever-the-hell is its own reckless animal within the PA fold. There's a constant energy to the film that none of its predecessors have. The Paranormal Activity formula has been consistent: Spend over an hour with a semi- to uninteresting family, watch them freak out over doors rattling or household appliances suddenly becoming animate, and then enjoy about 10-20 minutes worth of supernatural mayhem before the camera-within-the-movie turns off right when the good stuff is about to go down. At their best, the films have mined steady suspense from that conceit; at their worst, as in the case of Paranormal Activity 4, they've been perfunctory slogs.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones defies all of that, most importantly through its characters. Instead of the traditional family unit, Landon turns his attention to a small group of teenage friends living in Oxnard, California. Best pals Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) have just graduated from high school. They're a blast to be around, too, equally charming and funny, kicking back tequila shots with Jesse's grandmother, and passing time doing their own Jackass-like stunts. After some family parties and celebrations, they notice that Jesse's reclusive, unpleasant, and elderly neighbor, Anna, is acting stranger than ever. Then, she gets murdered by one of their classmates, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), their senior class valedictorian. With Jesse's camera, a graduation present, in hand, Jesse, Hector, and their friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) snoop around her empty apartment, wherein they uncover a variety of occultist paraphernalia. Before long, Jesse starts going through physical and emotional changes.
Unlike the previous Paranormal Activity films, you won't feel indifferent once bad things start happening to The Marked Ones' main characters. It's as if Landon saved his best character development and overall writing for his own directorial assignment. Before the demons come out to play, actors Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz's playful chemistry warrants its own movie, a Superbad by way of Johnny Knoxville romp. To Landon's credit, he doesn't blow any of that good will when the horror does kick in, which doesn't take long. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones has more effectively unnerving set-pieces in its first 30 minutes than its forebearers, save for Paranormal Activity 3, have in their entire running times. Landon seems to have studied the spook-house cinema of James Wan, he of Insidious/The Conjuring/Insidious Chapter II directing fame.
Granted, Landon was surely working on The Marked Ones before either The Conjuring or Insidious Chapter II opened last summer, but their sensibilities are in line here. Like Wan, Landon makes good use of framing, keeping the camera widely panned enough to catch little movements and apparitions in its corners. There's a shot of a distorted reflection in a dirtied-up mirror that brings to mind the blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of the demon standing by the baby's bed in the first Insidious; and The Marked Ones' ending, which is best experienced cold, is as boldly and batshit-ly ambitious as one of those three Wan pictures.
That conclusion, meanwhile, will most likely be the cause of much criticism towards The Marked Ones, and, if that is the case, it will be more so derived from the Paranormal Activity's altogether muddled mythology than anything Landon executes here. From which comes this film's one major flaw: It asks more questions than it answers in regards to what in Toby's name is going on in the PA movies. Landon, the franchise's primary storyteller, is, thankfully, more forthcoming with clues and reveals in The Marked Ones, directly connecting the film to past sequels. There's an extra creepy sequence set in Anna's basement that brings pint-sized Katie and Kristi from PA3 back, and, later on, Hector and Marisol consult the expertise of a slightly grown-up Ali, the daughter, and lone survivor, of Paranormal Activity 2.
Other information about the all-encompassing PA mythology are given, supporting the core idea of a centuries-old coven of witches targeting unborn babies for eventual world domination, but there's a certain transparency to the mythos. Oren Peli's O.G. film hinted at demonic history in Katie's family, but nothing more—made on the ultra-cheap, the first Paranormal Activity was made to be its own self-contained entity, and its narrative feels nicely compact.
Tasked with building a larger world for the 2010 sequel, Landon, along with co-writers Michael R. Perry and Tom Pabst scattered visual cues about witchcraft that were expanded upon exponentially in Paranormal Activity 3, pointedly its superbly rattling finale. Come Paranormal Activity 4, though, the mythology hits a standstill, exhibiting a lack of direction from Landon and the PA team. Rather than give answers, they ran in place. And with that, it began to feel like Landon didn't have an end-game or even a clearly mapped-out backstory in mind. Landon has a strong, unsettling imagination—he's just not surgical at relaying it into screenplays or onto audiences.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, unfortunately, doesn't buck that trend, though it also doesn't suffer from it nearly as much as Paranormal Activity 4. When the film's bonkers ending sends you out of the theater reeling, you'll no doubt have several questions. You'll want to rush home, visit Netflix, and re-watch all four earlier films (but, trust, you can still just skip the basically useless fourth one). In doing so, you'll probably call bullshit on some of The Marked Ones' far-reaching concepts. But, chances are, you'll still want to check back in with Jesse and Hector again. You'll want to see that room-spits-someone-out sequence. Because, for the first time in Paranormal Activity franchise history, the filmmaker in question cracked an ever-elusive code for found-footage horror directors: When shit happens for more than just 10 minutes, audiences will return.
Why else do you think I've already purchased my ticket to see The Marked Ones again at midnight tonight?
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)