Saturday, December 14, 2013

'Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones' (2014) directed by Christopher Landon

Everybody knows that it's the fifth film in a horror franchise that really brings the critical acclaim.  It's a bit disappointing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones seems a little bashful about its fivequel status, covering its shame with a subtitle instead of flying its five flag proudly.  When the original Paranormal Activity was released way back in 2007, the found footage genre still had a tingle of novelty to it - audiences who'd forgotten The Blair Witch Project and were discovering with surprise that cinema was still able to scare the pants off them.

Four sequels and six years later the found footage genre is on shakier ground.  Major studios have gone big budget with the excellent Cloverfield, and smaller studios all around the world have realised that idiot kids fiddling around with a digital camera in their houses is a really cheap way to make film.  So we've become inured to heavy breathing and shakycam, bored by tendrils of horror creeping into the mundane and felt a tinge of the passe as we try and pretend this is 'actually' found footage.

This leaves The Marked Ones in an uncomfortable spot.  This franchise is very slowly bleeding out, each film making less money than the last, audience fatigue firmly setting in. How do you reverse this trend?  Well, the tactic here appears to be to throw the kitchen sink at the film and go balls out nutty - taking a series primarily known for minimalistic subtle chills and deciding that the way to go is occult maximalism, embracing horror film as theme park ride.

This entry takes takes place in Los Angeles and focuses on two 18 year friends: Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz).  They've just graduated college and are in a celebratory mood, killing time by messing around with Jackass style stunts in their neighbourhood.  But in the flat downstairs from theirs dark doings are transpiring.  Demonic screams and weird rituals appear to be taking place, all centred around a mean old lady everyone considers a bruja.  With a scream, a clatter and flash of blue police lights she winds up dead, and so our two intrepid boneheads decide to poke around inside the murder scene.

They pretty much walk into a horror movie set, as if the fruit cellar from Evil Dead 2 had crashed into John Doe's apartment from Seven.  The place couldn't look more impossibly creepy; all growing filth, bloodstains, weird magical artefacts and so on.  After getting a fright the two flee, only for Jesse to wake up from a weird dream with a strange mark that almost looks like a bite on his arm.  Soon things start getting weird for Jesse - board games start talking to him, he seems to be under impossible mystical protection, weird strings come out of his eyes and his dogs whimpers in fear whenever he comes near.

Eventually he sort of develops superpowers, but after the initial rush of excitement that he can beat up people real good and do neat skateboard tricks things start get a bit demonic and the fun ends.  By this point the film becomes a weird cocktail of bits of The Exorcist and Spider-Man.  The Marked Ones settles into this gear for the majority of its svelte 84 minute run-time and, admittedly, this material works.

These performances aren't going to set the world on fire, but they're still above average. Andrew Jacobs as the possessed Jesse believably makes the transition from  horny dork to superhuman devilman, surprisingly us when someone so goofy begins torturing dogs and falling into uncontrollable violent rages.  Jorge Diaz as his best friend is generally behind the camera, though he manages to quite touchingly portray the sadness of someone whose best friend becomes unrecognisable.   With these ingredients in place The Marked Ones seems to have all it needs to trundle its way to a spooksome ending and be an above-average horror film, more than doing justice to the Paranormal Activity reputation.  Unfortunately the film begins to spin out of control as it approaches the climax, deciding to eschew spookiness and make the bizarre decision to go full on action/comedy.

At least, I figure it was comedy they were going for - there certainly was enough laughter among the audience I watched it with. Increasingly it feels like you're walking through a funfair haunted house: random monsters popping out of nowhere without explanation purely to give a thrill of fear.  To give one example - at one point two spooky young girls straight out of The Shining pop from behind a curtain and go "BOO!".  They're never mentioned again,  even within the creaky plot they don't make a lick of sense.  By the final sequences it's as if we've walked onto Paranormal Activity: The Ride.

This increasingly dislocated randomness reaches perplexing heights in the last sequences of the film.  I'm a known sucker for unexpected twists but The Marked Ones twists so far it snaps in two, the final moments of the film leaving the audience utterly bewildered as the credits roll.  Perhaps it would make a bit more sense if I'd paid close attention to the films that came before it, but as someone who's just watched the original Paranormal Activity on its initial release and nothing in the series since, it didn't make a lick of sense.  That a film is a purely thematic sequel for 95% of the runtime and then suddenly in the last few minutes relies on you having seen all the previous films to make sense of it is an unforgivably dumb misjudgment.

It's a shame The Marked Ones derails so badly as there's the seed of something good here. Most of the film is competent and confident, and if it had stuck with this tone it could well have been a nice shot in the arm for the franchise.  As it stands you'll walk out of the cinema with a bad taste in your mouth, the colossally misjudged ending retroactively poisoning the rest of the film.


Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is on general release from 1 January 2014

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