It’s hard to believe we’re now five movies into a franchise based on a locked off camera, a bedroom, and things that go bump in the night. When Oren Peli’s shot-in-my-bedroom indie got a major release from Paramount, it was a big ol’ shock. Here was a return not just to no-budget indie horror from a major studio, but also a film that pulled the genre from the torture porn era into the found footage era. Bringing in almost $200 million worldwide on a $15 thousand dollar budget, the movie was a big fat success story and thus began the inevitable Hollywood practice of repeating the trick to death. Sure, the Paranormal Activity 3 proved to be an enjoyable mix of 80s kitsch and high-fi/low-fi scares, but by part four the format had grown so nauseatingly sale that the profits dropped by half. However, money was still being made and so Paranormal Activity 5 was going to happen no matter what. Thankfully, the folks behind the series decided it was time to change things up and actually delivered a movie quite different from what came before. By borrowing (aka stealing) from a variety of different found footage horror franchises (mostly Chronicle), the Paranormal Activity franchise has somehow reinvented itself. Whether or not this new direction will lead to more sequels worth seeing remains to be seen, but the good news is that against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is one of the best entries in the series to date.
The first change is geographical, with this PA romp shifting locals to sunny Me-he-co (Mexico). The first 20 minutes or so settle into the standard found footage routine of watching a group of teens play pranks and connect over a camera. You sit around waiting for them to notice a ghost in their apartment or set up a little hidden camera night recording, but it never happens. Instead, two buddies, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) start investigating a murder that occurred in their apartment block. The victim is a mildly creepy old lady, and the major suspect is weirdly the squeaky clean valedictorian from their school. Then as the digging continues, things keep getting weirder. They find all sorts of strange cultish, coven-ish artifacts hidden in the apartment and then one morning Jesse wakes up with mysterious marks on his arm. Shortly after that, he starts to develop floating and super-strength powers a la Chronicle. Then a memory game he owns starts acting like an Ouija board, he pulls gross hair like strands from his eyeballs, and other creepy stuff is afoot. Essentially the film turns into a possession/coven horror yarn, which eventually (and rather cleverly) folds back into the ever-expanding Paranormal Activity universe.
If you want to be cynical about it, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones reinvents the franchise by mixing in other popular found footage horror tropes of recent years and shifting the focus from middle class WASPS to a working class Latino market that the Paramount marketing department determined was a strong fanbase for the series. That’s all undeniably true and yet regardless of the reasons for changes in the series, those changes still work surprisingly well. Writer/director Christopher Landon (who has been scripting the series since the first sequel before earning the directorial promotion) clearly knows the franchise well enough to understand what to change and what to keep the same. There’s some shotgun action this time, the camera is constantly mobile rather than locked off, and there are even a couple gross out gags amidst the jump scares. Yet despite all that and the heaping doses of Latino stereotypes (Tequila? Check. Fireworks? Check. Gangbangers? Check. It’s all an ill-placed sombrero away from being offensive), the film still feels like a successful entry in the most tasteful horror franchise in decades. Sure, the found footage horror clichés pile up fast and furiously, but Landon has at least wallowed in that world long enough to know how to pull them off effectively and delivers a film with a few decent jolts and without the tiresome repetition that dogged Paranormal 2 and 4.
Perhaps the Paranormal Activity series is settling into a pattern similar to the Star Trek movies except here all of the odd numbered entries in the franchise are decent and the even numbered entries are disposable. PA5 is as probably about as good as PA1 or PA3, which is to say that it’s a perfectly acceptable jump scare timewaster with more good will than innovation. The performances are fine, the effects are decent, the scares work (even if about 70% were given away in the trailer… sigh, when will marketing departments learn?), and it all wraps up quickly before boredom can set in. The movie is hardly a classic, but not even the original Paranormal Activity deserves that status. It’s just an acceptable genre romp and one that suggests that a little franchise reinvention might go a long way to keep these sequels coming. After Paranormal Activity 4, I felt like the series was already dead and should be shot in the head. After The Marked Ones, I’d actually be willing to give part six a chance. That’s really all the five-quel could have hoped to accomplish, so it has to be deemed a minor success at the very least. And let’s not forget the success of this franchise has allowed the production company Blumhouse to produce some actually decent original horror movies like Sinister and Lords Of Salem. So as long as these sequels are decent enough to keep bringing in cash, the folks collecting the money will funnel it back into more interesting genre films. In other words, against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones actually deserves to exist and be a hit. Now there’s a box quote for ya.