The Paranormal Activity franchise has been on the decline for years, reaching an all-time low with Paranormal Activity 4 in 2012. And now 2014’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones arrives not in the trademark Halloween month, but in the dumping ground month of January, which is a red flag in itself. It’s worth noting that The Marked Ones is technically not Paranormal Activity 5, as we’ll apparently get that further down the line – this is instead a spin-off which aspires to launch its own separate series, because money. The director here is Christopher Landon, who has written every instalment since PA 2, hence he delivers the bare minimum of what’s required for a PA film; a handful of jump scares, a malevolent atmosphere, a few unexplainable supernatural occurrences, and even the obligatory Katie Featherston cameo. But there’s no sense of innovation here, only fatigue – The Marked Ones is painfully by-the-numbers, perfunctorily observing people who willingly put themselves in danger while refusing to put the fucking camera down. It’s admittedly creepy from time to time which may be sufficient for some, but horror fans deserve a lot better.
In 2012, Latino teenager Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) is graduating high school, and decides to borrow a high definition video camcorder from one of his relatives. With friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), Jesse uses the camera to document pranks and funny business, but their curiosity is piqued following the death of a strange old women living in a nearby apartment. Taking it upon themselves to look into it, the pair uncover evidence of witchcraft, while Jesse suffers a mysterious bite mark on his arm. Before long, Jesse’s health begins to deteriorate, prompting them to look into the history of a local witch coven to find out what’s actually going on.
The biggest hurdle facing any found footage production is that it needs to be believable. Due to the inherent limitations of the subgenre, the task for a filmmaking team is to thread together a coherent story using puzzle pieces which have a solid motivation to exist. Unfortunately, The Marked Ones miserably fails in this respect; most of the footage has no reason behind it, and there’s literally no core motivation for this demonic misadventure to be on-screen apart from the fact that it’s a Paranormal Activity movie. Characters record conversations due to the need for exposition, while at other times the protagonists continue to film during intense situations simply because the script demands it. One assumes that, at least some of the time, the camera is used for the sake of its torch, but surely actual torches exist somewhere? The producers clearly aren’t even trying anymore, content to deliver a bare minimum of plot without even attempting to explain themselves, hoping that a few lazy jump scares will keep the box office dollars rolling in.
For the majority of its runtime, The Marked Ones pussyfoots around in pure tedium, observing the monkey business as Jesse and Hector clown around and consistently make poor investigative decisions. There is potential in the idea of an old electronic game being used as a communication device with the demon, but it’s wasted on a few flat, predictable scenes. Furthermore, the stupidity is off the charts here. Beyond the fact that it’s impossible to accept the found footage conceit at this point in the series since it’s too much of a coincidence, the characters perpetrate extraordinary acts of idiocy time after time. Characters are as stupid as regular horror movie victims, doing contrived things and getting their comeuppance as a result, and to them I say good riddance. Hell, at one stage Jesse captures a few moments on-camera of what’s indisputably a possessed killer in a cursed apartment, but no-one thinks to contact the police, or the Ghostbusters, or anybody who could help in this situation. Instead, they continue to march ahead into obvious danger. The manipulation is overpowering here, with Landon not properly earning scares or scenes of terror.
It almost goes without saying that the actors are stiff and unconvincing. None of the male leads are worth giving a damn about, and barely any of the supporting cast make a lasting impact. With that said, though, The Marked Ones does score unintentional laughs as the climax approaches, with a pair of dudes grabbing guns and blasting away witches. But then, like all found footage movies, it just suddenly ends on a really open-ended note, provoking frustration more than terror. As a director, Landon is simply not in tune with what makes a genuinely impressive piece of multiplex horror. It hurts to watch this malarkey in the wake of Insidious and The Conjuring.
Perhaps the biggest sin of The Marked Ones is just how little it contributes to the franchise. It may be a spin-off, sure, but it exists in the same universe as the other pictures, and yet feels the need to reiterate the stuff we’ve already learned regarding witches and covens. Although the twist ending is interesting, the 80 minutes of build-up preceding it are all for nought in the grand scheme of things. The Marked Ones again feels like the series is treading water, continuing to tease rather than explain, with the producers fishing to see how much longer they can milk this fucking thing. Paranormal Activity did not need to be a full-blown franchise – it should have stopped a long time ago.