While creator Oren Peli remains the name most readily associated with the Paranormal Activity series, it’s actually Christopher Landon who’s been more actively involved with guiding the franchise. Having written every installment since Paranormal Activity 2, he’s now handed the directorial reins for this supposed spin-off which, in actual fact, is not so much tied to the other films as leashed with a choke chain.
Unsurprisingly, Landon’s work behind the camera suggests that he’s watched a lot of found-footage flicks, allowing him to effectively ape what’s come before without ever threatening to break the mold. Apparently, emulation is the aim here rather than innovation. Perhaps no other horror brand has adopted such a shamelessly McDonald’s-like approach to its notion of a “franchise.” What The Marked Ones delivers is ostensibly comfort chills and familiar shocks to unadventurous consumers who want to know precisely what type of terror they’ll be subjected to.
Rather hypocritically, Landon opens his film with a high school commencement speech extolling the virtues of change. Subsequently adjourning to their two-story apartment block in the Latino neighborhood of Oxnard, Calif., for the summer, fresh-faced graduates Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) tellingly fall back into old habits. Whether engaging in Jackass-ery, getting high or cajoling Jesse’s grandmother (Renée Victor) into downing tequila shots, they film everything with a handheld video camera. While these scenes may lack for major incidents, they do succeed in making these friends unexpectedly endearing fodder.
Residing below the boys is a living, breathing urban legend named Anna (Gloria Sandoval) who’s been labelled a “bruja” (witch) by the neighborhood kids. When the recluse is brutally murdered, Jesse and Hector break into her squalid apartment and indulge in some sub-Scooby Doo detective work. What seems a bad idea proves just that when they discover an archive of VHS tapes labeled with extremely familiar names and a nursery stocked with decidedly unsterile surgical tools.
A large part of the appeal and effectiveness of Peli’s original film was watching the uncanny happenings unfold in the unassuming confines of a suburban home. Alas, seeing creepy stuff go down in a house of horrors proves considerably less unsettling. Likewise, there’s nothing particularly jarring about employing the same scare tactics ad nauseam. In short order, it becomes readily apparent that any time the boys’ inquisitive camera pans right to find nothing, it’ll drift back to the left to discover some supernatural nastiness lying in wait.
After waking with an odd bite mark on his arm, Jesse starts manifesting superhuman abilities that briefly see the film trespassing into Chronicle-indebted territory. That said, The Marked Ones is considerably stronger when lifting from proven commodities than it is when trafficking in its own half-baked ideas. Nothing screams “the cupboard is bare” in terms of inspiration more desperately than hearing the supposedly creepy electronic beeps of a possessed Milton Bradley electronic Simon game that’s laughably become a makeshift Ouija board.
The efforts of Hector and Jesse’s sister, Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh), to banish the demonic presence that’s tormenting and transforming their loved one ultimately entangles them in the poorly spun yarn that constitutes Paranormal Activity’s sorry excuse for a mythology. As The Marked Ones lurches into its final stages, locations and characters from the preceding chapters make appearances, allowing viewers who’ve slogged through every installment to take immense satisfaction in exclaiming, “Oh my god! That’s that house from the other one of these things!”
As the climax plays out in said house from the other one of these things, it becomes apparent that the film’s most terrifying moment actually occurred some time earlier when it was suggested that Jesse’s ordeal was also being endured by countless other teenaged boys. Initially seeming like a throwaway line of dialogue, the statement increasingly comes to feel like the announcement of a franchisor’s global expansion strategy. At this stage, nothing on screen can equal the dread that arises at the very thought of Euro Paranormal Activity.
Director: Christopher Landon
Writer: Christopher Landon
Starring: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Renée Victor, Gloria Sandoval, Richard Cabral, Carlos Pratts, Eddie J. Fernandez, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Release Date: Jan. 3, 2014