On the second item, there are few things easier (it seems) than making an audience jump. Jump-scares tend to irritate the more hardcore horror film fan because it is often the mark of a severely lacking film in other areas. Lousy actors? Zing them with a jumpy-outty thing. Flat plot? Do that ‘door-closing-then-person-behind-it’ maneuver and you’re good. If it is a found footage film? The treasure-trove of camera swings and jittery movements are ripe for the flash-reveal of some bad thing and, viola! Audience spring out of their seats.
I bring this up because each of the previous PA films have suffered from an over reliance on jump-scares at times, huge huge gaps in logic at other times and a general lack of tension building or relatability at all (see PA4). There are only so many times you can be led down the path of increasingly erratic camera-work leading up to the freaky-flash-reveal before it becomes old-hat and utterly boring and you’re trained to look for it. How compelling can the fate of a two-dimensional family or couple or whomever be if all the atmosphere is built on the framework of scaring giggling 15 year olds repeatedly? If you’re not invested and the scares all feel the same, how engaged can you really be?
Thankfully, The Marked Ones does make a point of bringing character and empathy on the part of the audience into the experience of the film in the form of three high school age kids. The main protagonist Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), his buddy Hector (Jorge Diaz) and sister Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) are affable and enjoyable to watch in the introductory part of the film. Instead of a blink-and-you-miss-it setup of the main characters, the film takes time to show them in their normal lives, Jesse graduating from high school, at a neighborhood party and so on in such a way that is endearing. They come across as normal, likeable and real. This is never more evident than in scenes with them joking with each other or with other family and friends; a tequila drinking scene with Jesse’s grandmother is a particular highlight. Moreover, the decision to move the story to a much rougher Oxnard, California neighborhood but still maintain the value of these characters was a great touch. They aren’t clichés and they aren’t Mexican stereotypes: they are central characters that actually matter. I don’t want to belabor the point, but, having three wholly decent Hispanic teens as the central characters and not as background filler or cannon fodder was a solid, smart and sincere decision.
The introduction of the camera during this stage of the film is fine – not over thought and not over explained. Hector serves this function well as the surprise cameraman having some fun and it comes through in some very funny bits that seem reflexive of his goofy-guy personality. None of the humor feels forced at all and instead is charming and disarming in a way that I didn’t think possible in a Paranormal Activity film. Things go downhill in a hurry though when our trio stumbles into what seems like it might be some dark goings on in the neighbor’s apartment below theirs. Once the ‘crazy witch neighbor’ in question turns up dead and their school valedictorian Oscar nearly runs them over fleeing the scene, things take a turn. Jesse wakes the next day to find what looks to be a bite mark on his arm and things slowly but surely get more complicated and weird.
This transition from fleeting clues and strange happenings to outright darkness and fear is handled quite well but also gives way to the film’s greatest and most frustrating weakness. Had the film been constructed from 3rd person with the handy cam footage mixed in in some way or other, it would have been stronger, creepier and more upsetting. But as it stands, you are left with a near constant reminder that there is next to no reasonable explanation why you are seeing the footage you are seeing. The levels of darkness and hopelessness the film gets down into would’ve been ten times more effective if that question didn’t linger. But instead, time and time again, you cannot add up a logic in your mind that equals why the camera continues to roll. To be fair, there is not that big, dumb scene where the characters agree it should all be documented should anything happen to them. So points for that but there still lingers the issue of the camera being there at all once it goes south.
This robs the last third of the film of what I would imagine would be a harsher, meaner impact when it is all said and done. What could have been a very meta reveal at the end mainly gets bogged down in cheap swinging camera scares for no reason which distracts from what really should be the focus. Others may be able to overlook this and enjoy the experience for what it is but I for one was left frustrated at the grim and sad way in which it all could’ve been executed without the found footage albatross hanging around its neck.
There are also a few decidedly goofy cheats that happen because of the handy cam that totally took me out of the tension that had been building up. But again, if it is one of those faults you give the film a gimme on, then it might not bother you too much. I just could not resign myself to the leap that it takes to buy that the camera would still be used once all parties involved are in mortal danger. Take the camera out of the hands of the subjects and you have a really compelling third act. Keep the camera in their hands and you have a muddled, uneven final push that could have been so much better given the director’s touch shown in the first part of the film.
So is Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones better than the fourth installment? Absolutely. Is it the best in the series? No. It is worth your time? That all comes down to what you’re willing to ignore and what you’re willing to not try to think about too much.