I’m a huge fan of the first three “Paranormal Activity” films – even Number 3, which was a prequel, and I usually dislike those. It’s impressive how these movies avoided the usual curse of horror film series: the loss of mystery. A big part of what makes a movie scary and intriguing is the sense of discovery, as we learn what’s really going on, piecing together the puzzle behind disturbing and deadly events. Once the pieces are in place and the true nature of the horror is fully revealed for the climax of Movie Number One, that sense of discovery is very difficult to regain. Even if a new set of characters blunders into the monster’s clutches without knowing its secrets, we know. Long-running horror film series become spectator sports. The audience is practically holding up placards to score the kills like judges at an Olympic event.
But “Paranormal Activity” kept its mystery alive by slowly expanding on the grim tale that unfolded in the first movie. Granted, the third-act escalation of menace that Number One so beautifully pulled off is impossible to repeat – you wish that was a mere ghost haunting your house, Katie and Micah! But the size and scope of the mysterious coven that has been brewing this horror for decades has grown with each new installment. It’s a sweeping horror epic whose true scale only becomes apparent in the latest installment, denied a numeric rating in the series but subtitled “The Marked Ones.”
I was disappointed by “Paranormal Activity 4” because I thought the concept was losing steam. A few new tricks were mixed into the formula that worked so well for three films, particularly the Xbox Kinnect and its galaxy of infrared dots, but they didn’t really pay off. The kids who starred in Part 4 were the most likable, sympathetic protagonists the series had offered to date, raising the stakes for an audience that didn’t want to see bad things happen to them, but it made their tale more tragic than scary. It looked as if three films of suburban families using video equipment to chronicle the escalating series of unnatural occurrences in their homes was enough.
But Part 4 ended with a little glimpse of a Santeria-style occult shop, teasing exactly the change of venue and tone this series needed. The action in “The Marked Ones” moves to a run-down apartment complex and a group of Latino kids who investigate a murder in the unit downstairs, and come to regret their curiosity. They’re different from any PA victims to come before, and most of the tricks used earlier in the series are absent. It feels new and different. It’s even got a sense of humor – the hijinks of the videocam-happy protagonists in the early scenes are hilarious. And their response to the first round of occult happens feels… right somehow. I can see kids like this cackling with glee and uploading their poltergeist videos to YouTube. It’s understandable why they’re not quick to involve the authorities when things go bad. Their loyalty to each other is touching, and since we in the audience have some idea of what they’re messing with – as the invisible presence says during a clever take on the classic Ouija board sequence, it most certainly is not a “guardian angel” – we feel the growing sense of doom closing around them like a shadowy fist.
“The Marked Ones” doesn’t deliver quite as many great slow-burn jump scares as prior installments in the series, which keeps it a notch below the first three movies, but it’s far better than Part 4, and a worthy installment in an epic tale set to continue (conclude?) in “Paranormal Activity 5.” And to think this all started with a young couple setting up a video camera because they heard something go bump in the night!
A word of warning: despite the “side story” concept implied by denying this film the “Part 5” title, it is not at all a stand-alone film. It’s very deeply tied into the plot of the existing films, in some genuinely surprising ways. Anyone who has not seen at least Parts 1 and 4 will be very confused by the last 15 minutes of “The Marked Ones.”