Paranormal Activity, Or Actividad Paranormal?

01/03/2014 11:39 AM |

This past Halloween was the first in five years to come and go without a Paranormal Activity movie. The first film, which sat on a shelf for ages while its studio decided how or if to release it, was a micro-budget haunted-house picture, using mocked-up home movies and surveillance footage to observe creepy goings-on in a suburban home. It arrived just as the Saw franchise, caretaker of the Halloween release date since 2004, was losing its gore-heavy appeal: Saw VI, the sequel that went up against the first Paranormal film, hit a series low; the final Saw film, in 3D, did slightly better—but was soundly outgrossed by the quickly assembled Paranormal Activity 2.

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The found-footage rush that Paranormal Activity kicked off probably seemed, to some horror fans, like a delayed reaction: the first film made bank over a decade after The Blair Witch Project used the documentary conceit to great acclaim followed by huge business followed by much complaining over its shaky camerawork and relative naturalism. Now almost 15 years later, Blair Witch feels more like a horror classic than Paranormal Activity, even though the feelings of dread that both summon are cut from similar cloth. It’s possible that Blair Witch‘s cautionary-tale fate as a franchise—it was followed quickly, clumsily, and perversely by a non-found-footage sequel that was nonetheless directed by Joe Berlinger, an actual documentarian—has preserved its reputation in a way that Paranormal‘s success as a series could not. I faithfully attended Paranormal Activity 2 and Paranormal Activity 3, and they work just fine in the moment: a lot of hoary genre tropes do look scarier in “realistic” grainy video, and the films are so simple that minor innovations, like the oscillating camera the Catfish guys added to the third movie, appear, for 70 or 80 minutes in the sealed confines of a Paranormal Activity movie, nearly revolutionary. The camera goes back and forth, and you know eventually it’s going to come back and capture something scary!

The tricks can be cheap, especially when they repeat and tweak routines from the first film. But those cheap tricks also makeParanormal movies are a lot classier than the slasher movies they’ve supplanted; they contain almost no gore and rely much more on suspense even when dealing with jump scares. In the context of bowdlerized Screen Gems horror and bowdlerizing Saw movies, the stripped-down found-footage framework is almost classical. But the series does share something with Jigsaw and his protégés, perhaps now unavoidable in a successful horror series: a mythology expanded, near endlessly, from a movie that was almost certainly not designed with more movies in mind. Paranormal Activity sequels have turned the creepy, identifiable story of Katie and Micah into a full-blown saga which, in true saga fashion, unfolds without necessarily revealing anything of much interest. Paranormal 2 told a story parallel to the first film, while Paranormal 3 served as a prequel, constructing a makeshift history of haunted families with a modicum of cleverness (but then, the way the Saw movies swell at their timeline’s midsection to accommodate more sequels is kind of clever, too, if also horribly convoluted). I didn’t catch Paranormal Activity 4, but apparently it takes place after the events of the first three.

We’ll have to wait until October to find out what the deal is for Paranormal Activity 5; it’s entirely possible the filmmakers themselves aren’t yet sure. Because of their still-tiny budgets, Paranormal Activity movies don’t take much time to complete, and can be (as was apparently the case with at least one of the sequels) entirely reshot for roughly the cost of a Super Bowl ad buy. Trailers don’t blanket theaters with a year’s lead time; Paranormal Activity 5 was bounced from its October 2013 release date a mere three months ahead of time, and the trailer for the just-opened January spinoff The Marked Ones debuted about 10 weeks ago.

So yes, this brings us to Paranormal Activity: Stopgap Solution, or Actividad Paranormal, in honor of its all-Latino cast, which is in honor of Latinos spending a shitload of money on Paranormal Activity movies. The idea seems to be that Hispanic Catholics are particularly into the demonic possession/exorcism type horror movies, and movie studios are, I guess, catching on to the existence of demographics beyond “white guys under 30″ and the occasional “children and their parents of indeterminate age, race, and gender.” This means the first wide-release movie of 2014 has a nearly 100 percent Latino cast, which would be more impressive if the first wide-release movie of 2014 didn’t come out on the first weekend of January, but still!

The Marked Ones takes the series out of the suburbs, into an urban apartment complex where Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) horse around with Jesse’s high school graduation gift: a digital video camera, perfect for jump-cutting between exposition and strange noises from the apartment downstairs. Those cuts have always been an advantage in found-footage horror movies, truncating scenes in a way I can imagine Elmore Leonard appreciating, though they make somewhat less sense in camcorder-based found-footage movies. (Are Jesse and Hector randomly shutting off the camera constantly, or are they half-assedly editing their footage as they go?)

Writer-director Christopher Landon (jumping in to direct after toiling on the sequel scripts) toys with the Paranormal formula. Jacobs and Diaz have a looser, more playful chemistry than the family members of the earlier movies and inject some energy into their set-up scenes. Even after Jesse visits the apartment recently vacated by an elderly neighbor and gets “marked,” he starts to exhibit strange abilities, which are good for some half-creepy laughs.

In general, this take on the franchise is funnier—not at the expense of scares, exactly, but it’s an undeniably less tense installment than usual. That the unexpected game-based conduit to the beyond is an old Simon light-up game from the 80s, rather than the traditional Ouija board, may be clever, or approaching self-parody, or both. Same goes for the brief stretch where Jesse and Hector, meeting a pair of babes at a party and deciding to bring them by the abandoned apartment for some privacy, start to resemble traditional dead-teenager-movie protagonists. Sex and death aren’t quite so intertwined here, but demonic rituals do have cockblocking side effects.

All these departures for the Paranormal Activity series still represent a trip past familiar signposts from other horror and/or found-footage movies. Jesse’s condition (and the movie’s demo targeting) means possession effects get more direct play, and the story relies more on characters toting cameras into situations where they would be more likely hanging tight to a baseball bat, or a cell phone, or each other, or pretty much anything but a video camera. (Can’t they just shoot it all on their cell phone and Vine it? On second thought, maybe don’t make that the plot of Paranormal 5.) So: The Marked Ones is less derivative of its predecessor, but more derivative of Blair Witch, Chronicle, and that trailer for the Michael Bay-produced found-footage time-travel movie that hasn’t come out yet.

In the end, The Marked Ones contributes some more mythology to the series, and doesn’t fulfill its early promise to stand alone as a solid horror movie with very few well-appointed white people in it. Style-wise, found footage movies tend to hit a wall more often than they see Chronicle-level breakthroughs. But The Marked Ones works well enough, especially as an excuse to decrease dependence on mopey CW cast-offs for charisma. If this is a boilerplate January horror movie, the Paranormal Activity guys may have raised the horror bar, whether they intended to or not.