Remember when Paranormal Activity seemed like something new and fresh? Seems a really long time ago doesn’t it? The first film was a slick, lean, keep-it-simple-stupid piece of work, getting great mileage from focusing on a pair of well-written characters and excellent use of camerawork for a ‘found-footage’ film. However, the numerous sequels since then have had only intermittent success in trying to recapture the first instalment’s lightning in a bottle.
Part of the problem is that they didn’t follow that first film’s strengths; they didn’t develop characters nearly as well, the cinematography didn’t feel as well planned out and the lore/backstory just got more and more complicated. That’s not to say they were utterly without merit, with Paranormal Activity 3 actually being a lot of fun, but by PA4 the series was definitely feeling more than a bit past its prime.
Now we have Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a spin-off rather than full sequel (not the first time we’ve seen that as there was a Japan-only follow-up called Paranormal Activity: Tokyo Night released in 2010). Does this bring new blood to the franchise? No. In fact this may be one of the death nails of the whole thing.
In Oxnard, California, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) lives in an apartment block right above a strange old shut-in. Unusual things are often seen and heard around that apartment, culminating with a friend of Jesse’s, Oscar (Carlos Pratts), seemingly having murdered the recluse out of the blue. Jesse and Hector (Jorge Diaz) investigate, trying to make sense of both the crime and the sudden strange series of changes Jesse’s been experiencing.
One of the supposed goals of this entry is to reach a Hispanic audience, this may backfire somewhat as it could be one of the most clichéd, stereotypical Spanish neighbourhoods ever put on film. Notoriously controversial video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas even managed to show a more nuanced and less borderline racist take on Spanish-American people (though both treat female characters with about the same respect). This failing is compounded by the fact that the characters here are some of the most idiotic horror protagonists in years, at one point, completely without irony, even taking their dates to the site of a horrific cult murder to make out. (Even the camp counsellors from Friday the 13th were smarter than that).
Part of this idiocy is that the whole found-footage angle is even more redundant here than ever. There’s a common issue with these sort of films: having to find good answers to questions like, ‘why are they still filming this? Why don’t they just drop the camera and run away?’ In this film, there is honestly not a single reason for the characters to be filming everything, bar a potential case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This was true of some of the other films, but it’s especially the case here. The camerawork doesn’t even add that much to the style or scares; director Christopher Landon doesn’t so much direct most of the scenes as just make sure the camera is pointing in roughly the right direction when it happens. For a series that has pulled off some pretty clever dread-filled scares with this format, like many of the bedroom shots in the first and the rotating-fan-cam in the third, that’s a real disappointment.
On top of everything else this film is, for the most part, just plain boring. The mystery is poor, just a garbled mess of random cult images that just makes the mythology of the series even more confusing, and has many a ‘Oh C’MON!!!’ moment. There is almost absolutely nothing scary here (bar one actually fairly shocking scene that then blows it by going on for too long), with only a few pretty sub-par attempts at make-you-jump scares with no real payoff. When it’s not busy regurgitating stuff the series has done before (like trying to play part 3’s make-a-toy-from-the-80s-scary card again with no success), it’s ripping off other found-footage fare, like one sequence that borrows pretty heavily from Chronicle. All this reaches an apotheosis in the ending. Not only does it re-hash the ending of one of the previous instalments, albeit made far more silly looking, it then has a scene that ranks as one of the most ludicrous retcons in a horror franchise ever. Your jaw will drop as you go ‘no, they’re not going to… they can’t be that stup…oh my God, they are!’
The only scary thing about all this is that Paramount are seriously planning on going ahead with Paranormal Activity 5 after this. Well it will have its work cut out to be any worse than this witless, scare-less, mindless warp of nonsense. Even if you’re a huge fan of this story, most of this film’s tie-ins to the main series’ storyline will just make you far more confused and annoyed at parts. This is a nadir for both what started as quite a promising little franchise and for the whole found-footage horror concept as a whole. Let’s all just hope that this is as bad as 2014 gets.