Some of you may recall that the original Paranormal Activity (2007) left me somewhat underwhelmed. Still, I can’t help but admire how the bigwigs at Paramount have turned Oren Peli’s little indie project into a multimillion-dollar franchise. By the end of the year, the darn thing will have spawned four hit sequels, all starring white suburbanites, and, more interestingly, two ethnically diverse spinoffs set in crowded urban areas. That’s a lot of releases for a series that keeps rehashing the exact same plot and gimmick.
The first spinoff, confusingly titled Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010), was produced in Japan yet retained all of the usual tropes, shedding doubt as to whether the Latino-centric Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones could break the mould. To his credit, writer-director Christopher B. Landon gives it the old college try, bringing in offbeat new elements like time travel and South American mysticism. These make for a mixed bag, but, for a while, I genuinely thought the film might bypass at least one of the five major clichés associated with the found footage genre. Let’s go over them again.
One: the story always centers on schlubs who, when confronted with the supernatural, bicker incessantly instead of running away. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones largely gets away with it by using Jesse’s (Andrew Jacobs) gradual possession as its focal point. When he starts acting like a doodoo-head, we root for his friends to snap him back to his senses rather than reproach them for putting up with his abuse. It helps that Landon takes the time to build an endearing bromance between our doomed protagonist and his neighbour Hector (Jorge Diaz).
Two: our heroes can’t so much as discuss the weather without grabbing their camcorder. Previous chapters in the Paranormal Activity saga have toyed with notions of morbid fascination and general dickishness to excuse this unlikely behaviour. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones adopts a more organic approach, providing a context in which we’d expect the characters to record their every mundane conversation, if only to immortalise the practical jokes they keep pulling on each other. In fact, my favourite scenes involve Jesse and Hector coming up with their own series of Jackass stunts, earning our sympathy through their recklessness, not in spite of it.
Three: the protagonists show more concern for their video diary than their loved ones’ well-being. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones mitigates this issue by toning down the initial threat so that we understand how a couple of particularly careless teenagers might find it amusing rather than terrifying. Unfortunately, the effect on the audience turns out more or less the same. While I commend Landon for showing us something different from the usual bed sheet moving on its own, years of comics collecting have made it impossible for me to find the sudden acquisition of telekinetic powers all that scary. I did like the Ouija Bop It though.
Four: everyone who gets a hold of the camera suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Indeed, the characters in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones could learn a thing or two from the average thirteen-year-old vlogger. Hector, in particular, seems incapable of turning his head without following suit with his camcorder, leading to an absurd sequence in which he keeps shifting back and forth between the person to whom he’s talking and the event he was asked to record. Still, it’s the first time I manage to get through three quarters of a Paranormal Activity flick without having to take vertigo breaks and stare at my own feet.
Five: the movie always ends with our literal point-of-view character getting slaughtered. Whether Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones abides to this rule is the stuff of spoilers, of course, but I should point out that every cliché Landon had so far sidestepped comes back with a vengeance in the final act: Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh), the sisterly third wheel, suddenly turns into a blithering whiner; gangbangers let Hector document their involvement in a premeditated mass murder attempt; the boy keeps recording even as he and his friends fight for their lives (with machine guns); and the whole fifteen-minute sequence left me desperate for a brown paper bag.
As with the original Paranormal Activity, I suspect the conclusion was retooled owing to studio pressure. How else would you explain the drastic shift in tone, depressing drop in I.Q., and gratuitous references to every previous entry in the franchise save for Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night? The cameos by series-mainstay Katie (Katie Featherston), Ali Rey (Molly Ephraim) from Paranormal Activity 2: San Diego Night (2010), and the coven house from Paranormal Activity 3: Eighties Nostalgia Night (2011) add nothing to the proceedings. Worse, they hijack the payoff and prevent Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones from working as a complete film. We’d come so close too…