Since Paranormal Activity surprised with its success and started its sequence of sequels, Christopher Landon has played a part, the scribe and producer assisting with not only sustaining a franchise that had proven its box office worth, but building substantial mythology amidst the spooks and scares. His efforts – showcased in his screenplay work on Paranormal Activity 2 and Paranormal Activity 4, as well as his writing credit on Paranormal Activity 3 – have had varied results to date, with recreating the original and repeating its many tricks seemingly the primary, and mostly poorly-achieved, focus. That spin-off Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, billed as a Latin American-oriented cousin to the main films, arrives with significant suspicion was far from surprising; that Landon, this time taking on directing as well as scripting duties, has added an immersive and effective entry to the series, earns the opposite reaction.
Unofficially referenced as Paranormal Activity 4.5, The Marked Ones eschews the palatial homes of its predecessors for a rundown apartment complex in Oxnard, California, swapping its populace simultaneously. Jesse (Andrew Jacobs, TV’s Major Crimes) and his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz, Sin Vergüenza) have just graduated from high school, now filling their days with stunts and stupidity around the neighbourhood, and recording the results for fun and posterity. Their camera also captures the increasing creepiness that permeates the building, following the mysterious death of Jesse’s neighbour, Anna (Gloria Sandoval, The Heartbreak Kid).
Curiousity inspires the duo’s journey through the offbeat and occult in the aftermath of Anna’s passing, neither able to resist searching her home. An uncertain feeling, sparked by rifling through her belongings, soon expands into uneasiness, heightened when Jesse takes a strange turn. With signs of witchcraft evident almost from the outset, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is less concerned with conjuring unexpected bumps and jumps, and more focused on the aftermath of messing with things best left alone, even if the turn of events is pre-determined. The first half revels in the set-up, the second shows the consequences. As Hector captures everything with the always-present camera, the pair unexpectedly step into the centre of the Paranormal universe.
There is an inescapable slightness of story in the latest addition to the fold, but also an apparent perceptiveness; keeping the details simple and scaling back the gimmickry of earlier efforts allows the feature to enjoy its excursion into both new and familiar territory. The constant filming is contextualised not through surveillance, but in honesty and reality: Jesse and Hector have a new toy, first used for family occasions, then for recording pranks and stunts, then just because the protagonists can. Landon’s tale avoids the usual atmosphere of constant caution over strange incursions, instead piecing together a fresh narrative direction and its interweaving of callbacks and overlapping content. Each aspect stands on its own merits, the found footage confines enlivened rather than merely employed, Jesse’s haunted-house altercations with the otherworldly afforded interest in their difference, and the strengthening of series backstory casting what has come before in a new light.
Of course, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones retains the standard aesthetic sense of its entire ilk, the shaky and the hand-held, the panning and the whipping around all part of the presentation, albeit with the actual attempted frights barely raising goosebumps at this stage in the franchise. The film also continues to manipulate rather than explore its characters, as well as the audience’s relationship with them, everyone just pawns in the filmmaker and franchise’s game. And yet, it elicits more investment and intrigue than many of its forebears, the extra dimension to the tale – both within this instalment and the bigger picture – packaged with an affability and amusement as atypical of the series as its welcome expansion into a different socio-economic environment. Change, it seems, is a good thing when it comes to the Paranormal; a new spin on an old staple may just see viewers impressed despite their initial assessments, and more eagerly awaiting the forthcoming official fifth film this coming October.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was released in Australia on January 23rd.
Director: Christopher Landon.
Starring: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh.