JANUARY 2, 2014
When Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was announced, it was as a "Latino-centric spinoff" of the series, hence the lack of a number in its title (an actual Paranormal Activity 5 will hit this October after taking a year off). Now, maybe Paramount has a different idea of what "spinoff" means, but in my house, that means it's something that doesn't require a full working knowledge of the flagship series - it takes place in its universe but otherwise tells its own contained stories. Think Prometheus; quality of the film aside, you can't say that any part of it REQUIRES you to have seen Alien or its sequels - it just adds to (or subtracts from, depending on your POV) the experience. That is not the case here; if anything it's more connected than the last "true" sequel (it at least explains more about what's going on) and a good chunk of it won't make a lick of sense to anyone who hasn't seen (and retained a solid memory of) the 2nd and 3rd films.
But getting into more about that would be spoiler territory; nearly all direct references to the previous films are confined to the 3rd act, so I can't talk about them without ruining some of its surprises. However, I will say that some of it seems shoehorned in - an appearance from a returning character (not Katie) is so brief, and the dialogue so exposition-heavy, I couldn't help but wonder if it was added late in the game, as if they got cold feet about making a film that was entirely free of the increasingly convoluted mythology the series has (sort of) established. I mean, the person literally shows up and explains a few things, without a single "Oh, since that happened to me I've been doing this and that", or even seeming like they are traumatized from their experience (though the trailer has footage from this scene that didn't make the final, so perhaps a longer cut will change that). It's odd, to say the least, and the appearance of another series regular isn't very organic, either - and it adds even MORE nonsense to this concept to boot.
So let's just focus on the first hour or so, where we meet our new heroes Jesse and Hector, best friends who have video cameras so they can film themselves doing dumb shit like riding a laundry basket down a flight of stairs. For the most part it's thankfully a single camera affair this time around, most of it is shot through Jesse's standard video camera, and they have a GoPro that they use sparingly (though there's an unexplained third one during a would-be sex scene), and while that means more handheld stuff that might make you nauseous, it gives the film an energy that the others lack - at no point are we treated to a title card saying "Night #1" or whatever and then forced to watch 30-60 seconds of a bunch of different views of the house showing nothing happening. Of course, the flipside is that there's little to no reason for them to be filming as the plot thickens (unlike the others where they could just cut to the always running security cameras), but at least the faster pace and heightened sense of simple MOVEMENT keeps you from questioning it while the movie's still playing.
It's also got a different plot and more characters - the main location is an apartment complex where roughly half of the residents are involved with the story at one point or another (plus Jesse's friends who seemingly never leave). And instead of someone noticing traditional haunted house bullshit, it kicks off with our heroes hearing noises and investigating by lowering their GoPro camera through a heating vent so they can see inside the apartment below. What they discover is a strange blood ritual of some sort, and it's not long afterward that the woman in the apartment is killed by an acquaintance of theirs. Shortly thereafter, Jesse starts noticing "changes" (and what appears to be a bite mark on his arm), at which point the movie turns into Chronicle for a bit, with Hector filming his friend as he demonstrates his newfound ability to lean back at 60 degree angles without falling over, or toss a would-be mugger 30 feet with little more than a shove.
In other words, it spends a lot of time distancing itself from the mythos AND style of the flagship series, making it all the more puzzling when the 3rd act becomes, basically, Paranormal Activity 5. It had been such a relief to see a central location that wasn't a gorgeous SoCal home, and to be free of the increasingly gibberish storyline, so it's kind of a drag when it climaxes (twice!) in familiar spots, with "old friends" making appearances (and even a copy of one of the original's best scares). There are a lot of exteriors this time around, which is another change of pace (the film's two best jolts are outside, in fact), so when it turns into another "guy walking around a house using night vision" finale, I couldn't help but feel let down. If anything it would have made more sense (and been more satisfying) to start it off like a typical PA and then go off into new territory, not unlike Rec 3.
And I was also sad that they didn't use the GoPro more often. Part 2 introduced the multiple cameras (Micah only had one or two), Part 3 gave us the awesome oscillating fan-cam, and 4 had all the Skype stuff. The portability of the GoPro could have been used for some unique scares and scenarios, and if it was mounted on a helmet or something the movie wouldn't even have to explain why someone was still filming - it'd be hands free and probably forgotten about! But the device makes an exit fairly quickly, with nothing to take its place (thankfully, no one uses their phone this time). As for the new tradition of using toys in odd ways (Teddy Ruxpin in 3, a Kinect in 4), we have a couple of goofy/fun sequences where an old Simon game is controlled by the spirit, using the green and red buttons to answer "yes" and "no", much to the superstitious grandmother's dismay (they should have made this character the maid from PA2!). It's not the most terrifying thing in the world, but it sure beats another Ouija scene, and real toys that we know/love always help ground these things into a form of reality we can recognize - nothing takes me out of a movie quicker than some fake video game (usually using the SOUND from Donkey Kong or something to make it seem even more phony) or generic toy.
So overall, it's a decent enough entry in the series (my rank would be 1, 3, 2, 4 - this would be around 2, can't decide if I like it more or less though), but by stripping it of its trademarks, it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from the 11,000 found footage movies currently playing on Netflix or VOD, unless you count the Latino focus and less isolated setting. And when it DOES make efforts to fit into its franchise, it does so at the expense of including newcomers, which I thought was part of the point. Plus, it adds even MORE questions in that area, so whether you're a die hard fan or a complete newcomer, the film is likely to frustrate you for one reason or another, so your ability to be scared and get sucked into a "try to help our possessed loved on before it's too late" scenario will determine how much you can still enjoy it.
What say you?