Shortly after Jesse and Hector graduate high school, the teens witness fellow classmate Oscar racing from the apartment of Anna, a neighbor who is rumored to be a bruja. When the suspected witch is later discovered dead, Jesse and Hector, along with Marisol, investigate the woman’s apartment only to discover pictures of Jesse lying in a ritualistic black magic alter. Soon after, Jesse wakes with a bite mark on his arm followed by a series of frightening changes in his life – he has become a marked one.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is the latest in the popular Paranormal Activity found footage franchise shifting its locale to Oxnard, California. The film is billed as a Latino cousin to the main storyline with a predominate Spanish speaking cast. This shift (away from its usual upper class white cast) does wonders for the franchise. It provides a fresh, entertaining and often humorous slant to the witch-demon-ghost story that is wearing thin to even its most adamant supporters. The leads, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz), are a welcomed change of pace providing a charismatic and engaging pair of friends suddenly surrounded by the supernatural. Director Christopher Landon manages to keep the found footage style but leaves the stationary cameras behind for the more typical hand held camera devices; for the most part, this works in the film’s favor, but lacks the signature style of the Paranormal Activity franchise and the much anticipated time stamp at the bottom of the screen telegraphing its scares. However, the chosen style fits the teen characters and easily adapts to how they would capture such events as they would unfold – at least, in the first two acts of the film. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones works on many levels with or without the Paranormal Activity core, even if it is buried deep within the franchise’s mythology. The film is a return to the best elements of the series nearing the tense scares and pacing found in Paranormal Activity 3.
The script for Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones succeeds as it moves out of the Katie and Kristi families examining the series’ mythos peering in from the outside. Connected by the presence of a bruja living below him in his apartment complex in Oxnard, California, Jesse becomes entangled in the supernatural web of the mysterious coven chasing after the first born. Jesse, along with his friends Hector and Marisol, creep into the dead witch’s empty home after she is murdered to discover pictures of Jesse and his deceased mother among the alters scattered throughout – and below – the apartment. Jesse later wakes from a nightmare with a bite mark on his arm. Soon after he begins to experience strange, unexplainable changes that both excite and frighten him and his friends. Things turn terrifying when Jesse begins to lose control and starts to hurt those around him. Things get even worse for Jesse after a failed exorcism attempting to rid him of the spirit that has possessed him. When the coven kidnap the teen, his friends race to the rescue.
The best thing about Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is the casting of Andrew Jacobs as Jesse and Jorge Diaz as his goofy best friend Hector. Where the previous films sometimes lack interest in the first and second acts, this one is thoroughly engaging with its charming and funny leads. They feel like real friends, like real people, normal people, people the audience likely know in their lives regardless of their Latino backgrounds. Jesse and Hector are instantly likable, as likable as Sam and Neal from Freaks and Geeks or Troy and Abed from Community. This makes for a far better experience and a much better film than 2012’s Paranormal Activity 4.
The film effectively establishes their friendship as authentic and genuine.and Jacobs and Diaz are fantastic in the roles. It also helps that they are surrounded by a better than expected (for the franchise) supporting cast, highlighted by Gabrielle Walsh as the duo’s caring high school friend and, especially, the uncredited (at least on IMDB) woman portraying Jesse’s grandma (UPDATED: the actress is Renee Victor – Doc) who has a number of great scenes including sharing shots of tequila with the boys and, later, forging ahead with an attempted exorcism. Even the small roles of Oscar, a school mate sharing Jesse’s predicament and Oscar’s brother, Arturo, are great additions to the story. There is a fantastic scene where Arturo and his buddy, Cholo, step up to give Hector and Marisol much needed assistance in recovering Jesse from dire straights that gets an enormous rise out of the audience. Bravo.
Writer and Director Christopher Landon deserves a lot of credit for spinning a fresh perspective into the series for which he has served as writer for the past three entries, making up for the underwhelming Paranormal Activity 4. In Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, he quickly establishes the locales, the friendships and the connections to the main story without missing a beat. He starts off with Jesse’s family filming his graduation and then handing the teen, and his friends, the camera for the rest of the film. Unlike the others in the franchise, the film no longer relies on stationary cameras to film the events of the story and depends solely on Jesse and Hector filming with the hand-held camera. It’s a believable conceit that the teens would film much of their lives, at least up to a point.
As the event become more and more intense, it is more likely the camera would easily be tossed aside, much like Hector’s bike when the pair are confronted by a couple a thugs. However, the film establishes the friends delight in filming everything they do early on which carries through the film even when things get insane. Landon uses the new locales and superstitions to his benefit bringing in strange and creepy imagery, ramping up the ritualistic symbols and alters mostly hinted at in the previous films. Landon successfully turns Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones into one of the better films of the franchise.
Even though Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is being marketed as a spin off to the series, it is firmly nested into the franchise and the core story. It serves to color and shape the background to great effect and ties into the existing chapters with surprising, familiar and frightening results. It turns out the film is as much a part of the storyline as any of the others with indirect ties to previous characters, history and, more importantly, locations. The films has some terrific surprises in its final act that are worth avoiding spoilers for, including looking at the cast list on IMDB and other film sites. The inclusion of these elements is smart and fascinating, providing great “ah ha” moments and gasps upon their recognition. These elements are so successfully weaved into Jesse’s story that his participation in the Paranormal Activity franchise is far more involving and natural than Alex and Wyatt’s involvement was in Paranormal Activity 4.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones admirably adds new flavor to the wobbling Paranormal Activity franchise giving the series a fighting chance to survive, to continue on after the dismal failure of Paranormal Activity 4. In fact, this film is the movie the fourth entry should have been. With an appealing pair of friends in the lead, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones provides the audience with a cast that they can root for, care for and fear for which serves the story and the series well. Through their eyes, the familiar events and found footage style are revived and given a fresh spin. The script allows the director, Christopher Landon, to take a look at the mythos and the events of the previous films with a new perspective. Above all the characters, the story and the thrills are fun, exciting, scary and entertaining. The film is a blast, a welcomed return to form the series desperately needed and a solid start to 2014.
3.5 out of 5