Remember the original run of Star Trek films? The ones that hit between 1979 and 1991? If you don’t, there was a popular axiom at the time that dictated that every other entry would be good. With Trek, fans reasoned that the even-numbered entries wound up being the best. Now another Paramount franchise is beginning to develop a similar pattern, except this time it’s the odd-numbered installments that seem to knock it out of the park.
In a remarkable return to form for the series, Christopher Landon’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is heads and tails better than 2012’s Paranormal Activity 4 and 2010’s Paranormal Activity 2 (right now it’s neck and neck with PA3 for me). It also expands the universe of these films in a way that gives the upcoming sixth film a shot at breaking the “every other movie” pattern. An entertaining and successful crowd pleaser in almost every way, The Marked Ones also happens to be the “biggest” entry to date by far. Also, while it may feel like a spin-off, the film is very much in canon. When all is said and done for the series and the Blu-ray boxed set comes out, I wouldn’t be surprised if they shifted the numbers to make this the official 5th entry.
One of the things that really works about The Marked Ones is that the film realizes what PA4 seemingly forgot. Found footage doesn’t have to be boring. It’s such an established shooting style/conceit at this point that the audience accepts that a character is filming without needing to be constantly reminded of it. There are a few moments early on that address the presence of the camera but, for the most part, the film allows itself to unfold as organically as any other cinematic experience.
It also doesn’t hurt that the characters really pop here. Andrew Jacobs’ Jesse is a sympathetic and engaging lead surrounded by a supporting cast of empathetic characters led by his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz). PA4’s Alex seemingly had no other life outside of filming things, asking people to film things and being unknowingly filmed while doing boring things. Everyone around her seemed to wander around doing pretty much nothing. Here, you get a rich sense of family from Jesse’s home life. This is a good kid surrounded by good people (including a hilarious grandmother) who have actual shit going on in their lives and you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Except it does.
While The Marked Ones may not have that lingering spookiness that will have you leaving your lights on when you get home from the theater (a la PA1 and PA3), it does have an unmitigated sense of fun that no other entry in the franchise can match. At times it even feels a bit like Chronicle in that regard, but that doesn’t mean they left out the scares. Even if you don’t take the fear home with you, the movie knows how to work an audience. I was startled several times alongside the crowd I saw it with (and not from empty jump-scares, but from legitimately interesting stuff).
It’s also worth noting that there’s an element of sexuality to the film that has been absent in prior entries. While every PA film to date has been rated “R”, they’ve felt fairly “PG” to me. This is the first one that really earns it. In turn, embracing the more adult aspects if its characters allows the film to up the ante when it comes to the actual horror side of things. It’s like Landon realized the ceiling for what he could do was actually a lot higher than in something like PA4 (which felt arbitrarily subdued). And where PA4 ended with a whimper, this one actually builds to a worthwhile (and legitimately fun) conclusion.
Fun, scary and remarkably cinematic within the found footage conceit, The Marked Ones might be the first Paranormal Activity movie that feels like an event film while you’re watching it. Not only does it make up for the abject disappointment of PA4, it manages to tie into the mythology of the series in a way that will invigorate anyone who has ever been a fan.