Friday, January 3, 2014

Paranormal Selfie: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES


I like the Paranormal Activity franchise’s crafty mix of repetition and experimentation in their found-footage haunted house stories that are all connected in one way or another. That audiences have so far rewarded the creative team with highly profitable box office grosses have allowed the filmmakers to have a little qualitative resurgence with every other sequel. Paranormal Activity 2 was a prematurely tired retread of the first film, but with a bigger cast and more camera angles. Then 3 came along with the best scares the series has yet seen, including a fantastic use of a video camera fastened to the top of a rotating fan. These movies are never better than when teasing scares by teaching an audience how to watch them, scrutinizing still or locked patterns of shots for the slightest tremble of variation. That the fourth film was a dull repetition of earlier scares without the satisfying crescendo while bobbling its few new ideas was a disappointment. But, hey, they’re trying.

Now here’s Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which takes a step sideways from the events we’ve been moving backwards and forwards through in the previous four films, circling the original haunting of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). This time we’ve moved away from suburbia and into a poor, predominantly Latino neighborhood. The setting is drawn in a way that’s full of convincing, mildly stereotypical, local color with plenty of Catholic symbols, gangbangers, and untranslated Spanish. It’s a nice break from what we’ve seen so far from the series. Instead of worried suburbanites wondering about things that go bump in the night, we’ve got an 18-year-old kid (Andrew Jacobs) and his friends (Jorge Diaz and Gabrielle Walsh) messing around with a video camera, having fun, partying, playing games and goofing around. Then a secretive woman in their thin-walled apartment complex gets murdered and, poking around the crime scene, they discover her connection to, what else, Paranormal Activities.

Soon one of the kids starts finding strange events everywhere he goes and decides to capture them with his camera. He has a mysterious bite on his arm. The dog runs from him. He can do the Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal” lean like a pro. He pulls a loose eyelash at the corner of his eye and a long, thin trail of wiry slime comes sliding out. A Simon electronic memory game seems to be trying to communicate with them. The symptoms ride a fine line between funny and creepy, but all point to all the obvious signs of having suddenly become a character in a horror movie. Thankfully, he keeps the camera pointed at his plight. Unlike the four previous hauntings, this Paranormal Activity is a straight-up possession movie, with an underlying need to solve the mystery and exorcise the evil spirits. At one point the teenage girl from the family in Paranormal Activity 2 (Molly Ephraim, nowadays pretty funny on ABC’s Last Man Standing) shows up to explain the grave stakes and make cross-sequel franchise connections, moving the overarching mystery forward ever so slightly.

The Marked Ones wouldn’t work as a stand-alone horror film, but as an entry in a franchise it’s a nice attempt to branch out. Writer-director Christopher Landon has had a hand in the screenplays for all of the sequels and here on his own finds some minor fun in the makeshift mythos. The camera work – shaky and mobile all the way through – tugs at the why-are-they-still-filming-this? question more forcefully, robbing the film of the locked-down creeping dread through total stillness that’s always been my favorite aspect of these films. It doesn’t follow the pattern of escalating thumps, choosing instead to inject creepiness more overtly, like in a dark hidden basement draped in layers of plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling, a couple visually bendy effects, and in quick pans that find mildly creepy surprises. It’s lively enough and the kids at the center have likable joking chemistry that slowly curdles into fright. In the conclusion, the film turns a tight bit of narrative surprise mixed with closure that the series perhaps didn’t need, but feels right. In finding new types of characters and new locales to spin these stories with, it proves there are still some signs of life in this franchise yet.

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