I’m not a fan of the Paranormal Activity series of movies, in which overprotective husbands place constantly recording cameras in every corner of their houses (is this something that anyone does?) for no other apparent reason than one day an audience might want to peep in. Inevitably, their wife or daughter is revealed to be possessed and horror hijinks ensue.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones takes the cameras out of the home and puts them in the hands of a pair of high school graduates. There’s a sense of place and character its forebears lacked. Even when the horror starts, best friends Jesse and Hector are more interested in drinking and hooking up with women than in figuring out any mystery. So what if being possessed gives me demon strength and a strange force stops me from being able to hurt myself? Let’s go show it off! The sense of skewed priorities does a lot to shape the characters.
As happens in these films, the handsome one gets possessed, the funny best friend stays by his side to make the audience smile, and the beautiful girl whose job it is to wring her hands and look worried does exactly this. There are a few blurts of plot, but they’re quickly abandoned. The film assumes you’ve seen a demonic possession movie before, so you know the beats of the plot.
The Marked Ones is point-of-view (POV), filmed through Jesse’s camera. This means we have to see enough of everything that we can tell what’s going on, but that the actors have to act more “real” and less dramatically. This demands a couple of concessions. When Jesse is mugged, for instance, Hector tries to help while still holding the camera squarely on his best friend getting beaten. When I’m being attacked, my first instinct is to defend myself with the biggest, hardest thing I can find – which, in this case, would be the camera. A blur of sidewalk and a burst of motion sickness don’t make for a good shot, however. In moments like these – desperately trying to pull a plank off a window with only one hand because your life isn’t as important as making sure the camera’s capturing it – the film’s reality breaks. Other POV films are smart enough to direct around these situations.
POV films also have trouble with climaxes. In action and horror movies, we expect larger-than-life endings – bigger explosions and jumpier scares. When you take things that extra mile in a POV film, however, bigger and jumpier often translates to inauthentic. There’s a higher suspension of disbelief to overcome because we’re asked to adopt the story’s visual perspective as our own. It’s a fine line to walk, and The Marked Ones has some very cheesy action.
That’s what’s wrong. What’s right is that director Christopher Landon uses his nonexistent budget to his advantage. The scariest sequences are those in which we see nothing, waiting to discover what’s around the next corner, past that sheet of plastic or on the other side of a dark room. It gives our imaginations time to dream up horrors far more shocking than what’s eventually delivered. Little things, like effectively spare art direction and clever sound design that plays with white noise, do a lot to make the quieter moments the scariest. The ending is bravely abrupt and a smart piece of fan service to those who’ve seen the rest of the franchise, though it may leave some wanting more of a conclusion.
I also applaud The Marked Ones for featuring an almost all-Latino cast. I particularly enjoyed the feisty grandmother who, once she discovers her grandson is possessed, decides this thing’s getting exorcised pronto. I have a feisty abuelita who lives in San Antonio, and I pity any demon that thinks it can go toe-to-toe with her.
Is The Marked Ones good? Not really. It doesn’t come close to the best of the POV horror genre: [Rec], Cloverfield, and the underrated The Last Exorcism. Is it scary and fun? Sure. It’s fast food horror – it hits the spot and satisfies a certain craving. It’s no turkey dinner, though. There are some effective scares and interesting enough characters, which will all be forgotten a half-hour after you walk out of the theater. The Marked Ones is rated R for language, violence, nudity, and drug use. This is no family film.