Killtoberfest 4 – #23: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

In All, Movies by Kyu

“Dude, I swear to God, I think I just sharted.”

The Urban Dictionary defines the word “sharted” as “a small, unintended defecation that occurs when one relaxes the anal sphincter to fart (blend of “shit” and “fart”).” This is a disgusting but excellent metaphor for Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a presumably unintended piece of shit that occurred when Paramount Pictures, producers Jason Blum and Oren Peli, and writer/director Christopher B. Landon decided to fart out another Paranormal Activity movie. To explain why this entry is uniquely terrible, I’ve concocted a list of alternatives the series could have gone with instead. Without further ado, here’s…

15 Paranormal Activity Movies That Would Have Been Better: A List Made In Desperation (Dear God I Am So Bored) (with titles by Atomika)

  • 1: Paranormal Activity: The Arms in the Dark – An apartment complex is haunted, as seen through security footage

Going back to our discussion of the difference between film series strategies of refinement and refraction, it’s always been my prescription that PA follow its roots closely. Each sequel should work to achieve the same basic effect that’s so powerfully captured in the first two films of the series, changing the scope of the effect rather than trying for something new. The producers of this series obviously disagree with me, and nowhere is that clearer than with The Marked Ones, the fifth entry, which differs drastically from the rest of them. It has an all-Latino main cast, which is great for progressiveness even if it is the result of a bunch of white people targeting a market and not, say, the result of handing off the series to an up-and-coming Latino director. Even more drastic, the movie is the only one in the series that does not focus on a single family; rather, it follows a group of friends who live in the same neighborhood and hang out at the same apartment complex, where one of the witches from the series’ coven happens to live. Most disconcerting of all, The Marked Ones totally abandons Paranormal Activity‘s single unique stylistic element, the day/night structure where the night scenes consist of stationary camera set-ups with nobody filming. Instead, this film is just another handheld found footage movie, and as somebody who’s seen more than my fair share of those, I can tell you this one is pretty goddamn awful. It suffers tremendously from very obvious genre pitfalls, from characters who shake the camera too much (one sequence, where best friend and sharter Hector (Jorge Diaz) keeps panning excitedly back and forth between a television and protagonist Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) is almost unwatchable), to scenes where there’s no reason for the characters to keep filming but they do. Beyond that, the plot is so random and structureless that with no expectations, it’s impossible to be scared. That’s the problem with leaving behind what made Paranormal Activity work in the first place.

What would I have followed up Paranormal Activity 2 with? (Hell, even slotting it in for number five would have been fine–it’s never too late to turn the ship around.) My go-to concept is, in fact, slightly similar to The Marked Ones. But instead of using one of Southern California’s squat, low-property-value apartment buildings, I would have set my sequel in a tall, state of the art complex, ala Highrise or Cronenberg’s Shivers. Why? Because this allows you to expand the scope of the series’ key strength by using not one, not five or six, but dozens of security cameras throughout the complex to tell your story. Imagine many different families, all experiencing some kind of supernatural events, with the cinematic freedom to jump between them to find the scariest moments. Tackling the series’ unacknowledged issues with voyeurism and allowing the protagonists (the security guards watching the footage) to take a more active role in the story, this film would be like Paranormal Activity crossed with Rear Window–a great recipe for suspense and horror.

  • 2: Paranormal Activity: Kentucky Red-Eye – A trailer home is haunted, as seen through a single, stationary camera

One of this series’ most important themes is class, and one of the reasons The Marked Ones is interesting (not good, but interesting) is because it focuses on people living in much poorer economic conditions than the four earlier films. Those all took place in sizable houses, in California no less, where property is horrendously expensive. Even the original Paranormal Activity takes place in a decently-sized place bought by Micah, a day trader supporting his girlfriend’s education. The family in PA2 has a pool (which the demon fucks with by… taking the automatic cleaner out at night. How evil) and a housekeeper, and even though the guy in PA3 is a wedding videographer he can still afford to own a very nice home. The idea of middle and upper-middle class people discovering that their most valuable property has turned on them is either scary or exciting, depending on whether or not you’re in that class or wish you were, and it has at least some connection to the plot, as PA2 established that Kristi and Katie’s grandmother made a deal with the Devil in part for financial reward. So there’s this notion throughout the series that the wealth of the middle and upper-middle class is illegitimate and that that’s coming back to bite them on the ass.

One of the more interesting things that The Marked Ones does is play off this notion by featuring lower-class people. Jesse’s family is so poor that he lives in the same room as his father, with only a curtain separating their spaces, and the movie has an early scene where Jesse bargains for a $200 camcorder at a pawn shop–a far cry from previous protagonists, who either paid for multiple or expensive cameras or, in PA3, actually had access to advanced professional equipment. Technologically speaking, Jesse is an outsider; in this sense, as well as in PA4‘s use of laptops and Youtube, Paranormal Activity is finally acknowledging the cultural and technological shift towards amateur videography. But the film could certainly have gone farther. In this proposed sequel, I suggest leaving both houses and apartments behind for the cramped environs of a trailer home–a space small enough that a single camera could capture the entire thing. Not only would this make for a tense, claustrophobic experience, but the extreme limitations would drive home what it really means to be so poor that you can’t escape your environment, haunted or otherwise.

  • 3: Paranormal Activity: A House Divided – A new President moves into the White House, but soon discovers that the stories of its haunting were true

A frustrating aspect of the whole PA series to date has been its relationship with the occult. The films are always insistent on making the distinction between a ghost (a spirit of the dead) and a demon (a spirit that was never alive), which is sort of clever but also leaves it with very little ability to interact with existing occult structures. The first film featured a hilariously useless ghost expert, the second decided the Hispanic housekeeper could sense evil spirits, and several of the movies have limited communication with the demonic entity to use of Ouija boards. And most of the practical information the characters get is found on the internet. The Marked Ones doubles down on this in fairly stupid fashion by having its protagonists find some of their neighbor’s witchly stash of spellbooks, which they decide to read and use. Also, it replaces the traditional Ouija board with a fucking haunted electronic Simon Says game and my brain won’t allow me to finish a sentence so profoundly stupid hang on. hang on. Okay. To be clear they receive yes or no messages through this:

And even that is poorly handled, because they often fail to ask yes or no questions. Besides, a Simon Says has four colors! Why not designate blue or yellow to something? Why does the demon even want to haunt a Simon Says? What is happening here?! WHAT IS

Sorry, I broke again. The point is, besides the novelty factor, the White House has some interesting occult history you could explore in a movie. Moving on now.

  • 4: Paranormal Activity: Thirteen Ghosts – A family inherits a mansion, but it turns out to be filled with captured ghosts

Okay I realize that movie already exists. But we can all agree that re-releasing it under the Paranormal Activity name would have been a better result, right?

  • 5: Paranormal Activity: 20-to-Death – A homeless couple squats in an abandoned prison whose security cameras are still working, also the twist is it’s haunted

One of the few scenes that actually does work in The Marked Ones takes place in an empty church. There are a few reasons for this, but the most important one is that it takes the series outside of the home and into a new space–one that is legitimately eerie when empty. Many public places are like that; we’re so used to them being filled with life and energy that its absence leaves a kind of phantom sensation, the equivalent of the audio hum we hear in perfect quiet. The Paranormal Activity series might have done well to follow in this scene’s footsteps by finding other kinds of spaces to haunt. An abandoned prison is always a classic location for a spooky good time.

  • 6: Paranormal Activity: The Greeters – A Wal-Mart-style megastore is haunted, but nobody believes the night crew

The Marked Ones is bad as a Paranormal Activity movie, bad as a generic found footage movie, bad as a weird drama about how young Latino men become violent and angry when they turn 18, but it’s also bad as a comedy. Virtually all of the PA movies have bad jokes in them, but as indicated by my quote at the top of the article, The Marked Ones is particularly low brow and awful. (Possibly the worst bit of “comedy” in the whole movie is the scene where Jesse convinces Hector to ride down their apartment complex’s stairs in a laundry basket to test out Jesse’s new GoPro. Hector gets banged up, of course, while Jesse laughs and the audience assumes this is meant to establish the GoPro so that the movie can do something cool with it later… which it never does.)

But there’s another type of comedy that does lend itself well to this sort of movie, and that’s the ironic comedy of the powerless. Jesse and his friends don’t even try to go to the police, even after filming several major crimes with their camera, and I’m going to be charitable and say it’s because they feel like they won’t be believed (and not because the movie just assumes Latinos don’t talk to cops). The series has played with this idea before, particularly when it comes to teenagers not being believed by their parents (in PA2 and PA4). So if you’re going to branch out into new spaces, and you’re going to focus on young people feeling powerless, the idea of night clerks at a corporate big box store left alone all night to watch invisible entities rearrange the produce section sounds like it’d be right on target–and wryly funny, to boot. (So, like The Innkeepers, only found footage and scarier.)

  • 7: Paranormal Activity: Seven-Helleven – There’s a creepy, old house built on an Indian burial ground which was the site of a series of horrible murders and the convenience store next door is haunted

Joking aside, the idea of “next door” has seeped into the series as of PA4, which featured a possessed Katie and her creepy adopted son across the street from the protagonists’ normal, happy home. The Marked Ones continues this by giving us a story about the witch next door. There’s a crucial (and unintentionally disturbing) scene where Hector and Jesse use a shared ventilation system to spy on the witch, accidentally catching her in the middle of a nude ritual. Later one of their friends who went all demon-powerful (long, stupid story) emerges from a trap door in the witch’s house, interrupting a potential sexual encounter for Jesse. There’s this notion that you don’t get to choose the people you live next to, and that contact with them isn’t nearly as safe as you might think. Highlighting that by placing a classic (but safe) haunted house next to a presumably safe (but haunted) convenience store seems like an interesting premise.

Then, too, my concept parodies the consistent method by which all Paranormal Activity movies attempt to tie into the overarching plot–the idea that a secret, shared history of occult contact continually influences and dooms the present. This is perhaps taken to the height of absurdity and tenuousness in The Marked Ones, where it turns out the witch next door was friends with Katie and Kristi’s grandmother, and that she had in her closet the missing VHS tapes which comprised Paranormal Activity 3 (and were stolen from the house in PA2 during the “burglary” for no apparent reason). (And in the next movie, those tapes are retconned to be still in the PA3 house, so this makes even less sense. – Ed) There’s some potency, even in America, to the idea that you’re screwed because of something your family did years ago, but the poor saps in The Marked Ones are being punished for something their neighbor’s friend did. That’s just ridiculous.

  • 8: Paranormal Activity: Final Exam – A group of film students put cameras in their dorm rooms to catch a haunting on tape

After PA4‘s focus on a teenage daughter and her best friend, The Marked Ones completes the series’ turn away from family towards friendship, even if it has nothing more compelling to say about friendship than the scene where Hector draws a penis on Jesse’s face while he’s asleep. But there could easily be a stronger and more profound movie made in the series on this subject. As long as the series intends to give us more developed characters with whom to empathize (rather than observe, as in PA1 and 2), it might as well do it right. My proposed sequel would not only be another new and interesting location but would showcase some of the qualities that close friendship brings to a supernatural story–particularly how good it feels when characters who believe each other about the plot are able to cooperate on solving their problem. Jesse’s friends Hector and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) aren’t able to help Jesse when he starts turning into an aggressive, black-eyed demon, partly because their friendship just isn’t very strong. In fact, there’s a scene right out of Chronicle where Jesse first starts to get his demonic powers, super strength and the ability to fall safely from any height; but when Jesse starts using those powers to beat people up, Hector just goes along for the ride without any real concern for his friend. Likewise, Marisol encourages the guys to try out one of the spells in the witch’s books. Just as their actions seem largely dictated by the needs of the plot, so too is their connection. Since none of them are real enough as characters, their friendship feels false, too, and that leaves us with nobody worth fearing for.

  • 9: Paranormal Activity: Safe Harbor – A family wins a luxury cruise, decides to make a home video, turns out the ship is haunted

This is not to say that The Marked Ones doesn’t involve family–but it’s a family who is deeply disconnected. Whether intentionally or not, the film suggests a generational gap in immigrant families between first, second, and third generations. First is Jesse’s grandmother, Irma (Renee Victor), who doesn’t seem to speak English and babbles on about evil spirits in a manner fairly unhelpful to Jesse and his friends. (She’s the one who finally takes away the damn Simon Says game, and God bless her for it.) Second generation is Jesse’s father, Cesar (David Saucedo), a no-nonsense guy who works hard and doesn’t seem to understand his son. Then there’s Jesse, who graduates high school at the beginning of the movie but seems to have no plans for his future, not even a job. These people come in and out of the movie almost at random, and don’t seem to be a part of Jesse’s story in any significant fashion, even though he should definitely tell them when his body starts transforming and he begins pulling weird black gunky strings out of his eyes. His father knocks on the door and Jesse says “Nothing!” like he’s embarrassed rather than horrified. Does he think this is normal or something? This is all bad screenwriting, but it’s also part of a concept that just doesn’t fit with Paranormal Activity. My cruise ship hits on more of the series’ high points–family togetherness, punctured class security–and would make for a more compelling found footage movie to boot, because family home videos beat “guys filming each other doing stupid shit” by a country mile.

  • 10: Paranormal Activity: Bill Maher’s Ghost – So a ghost floats into a church, a mosque and a synagogue and says, “I think you’ve got this all backwards”

Okay, so I’m getting bored.

  • 11: Paranormal Activity: Scooby-Doo Meets Anthony Bourdain – Four teens and their dog travel the country investigating hauntings and making found footage movies and also sandwiches

Really bored. Um, The Marked Ones has a severe lack of sandwiches in it. There is a pointless scene where Jesse dances with his dog, though. Is that supposed to make me care when he turns into a j.d. (juvenile demon)? Maybe if the dog talked and bargained for snacks, is what I’m saying.

  • 12: Paranormal Activity: A Time to Reap – There’s a farm and it’s haunted

I’m not gonna pretend this is creative, or that I haven’t run out of ideas. But hey, so did the producers of these movies, and twice as fast as I did. I’m going to use this space to talk about how The Marked Ones has fucking time travel in it. Uh, spoilers.

So the spell that Jesse and his friends try out is one that’s supposed to turn a black door into a time portal that can take you forward and backward in time–but only to “evil places,” which makes it a seriously useless device for them. At the end of the movie, Hector discovers a working doorway that takes him back to the house from the first movie, in 2006. This is ridiculous for, uh, a few reasons, but even in terms of series internal consistency, one of the few throughlines of the film is that demons haunt people, not places. In other words, neither Katie and Micah’s house nor any other place should be called evil. They’re just places. At any rate, Hector has come at the worst possible time, having escaped the witches chasing him only to fall into the clutches of a murderously possessed Katie. There are no indications as to whether or not this alters the past, where Hector’s body was not part of Katie’s crime spree, or not, because this entire development is a pointless attempt at somehow tying this movie into the franchise. Even The Marked Ones‘ basic premise, about marked teens developing into demon possessed warriors for the witches, has no relation to anything the series has done yet (all the other films focus on one demonic entity going after young children in one family). This time travel bullshit doesn’t distract me from that. Another, far better movie could have made some interesting hay out of the concept of an unrelated group of innocents trapped in the larger machine of a story they never understand, but that movie is not The Marked Ones. To be fair, it’s probably not A Time to Reap, either, so let’s move on.

  • 13: Paranormal Activity: Carousel of Terror – An airport is haunted, but only when a particular passenger comes through and the TSA has to figure it out

Now here’s a way to do a tangential connection and play with outsiders encountering the ongoing Katie story. Airports naturally have a wider narrative scope than a private house, and if for some reason the witches and demon-possessed people stopped using teleportation and time travel to move about the country, I could see an interesting film being made about those points over time when they find themselves flying the friendly skies. Plus, it could fill in some gaps in the overarching plot, which remains confusing and slapdash. Like, why haven’t they ever found Katie? How did she manage to adopt a child while wanted for murder? Why does these witches’ grand plan take decades to come to fruition? Is it because air travel is expensive and difficult to use when your evil powers are inimical to X-ray machines and other technology? Or is it simply because the bored agents of the TSA have nothing better to do than track down you and your demon-worshipping covenmates? If what the PA producers really want to do is delve into their complicated backstory from an outsider’s perspective while making cheesy topical references, they’d do well to produce Carousel of Terror.

  • 14: Paranormal Activity: BOGO to Hell – A mall is haunted… by SAVINGS

Look, I’m not saying it’s classy. But if you’re so hard up for money (in a series whose profitability hovers around 900%) that you need to start targeting underserved, niche audiences, you might as well go all the way to targeted advertising. Think of how many stores would line up to pay you to have it be their products that mysterious fall over! It’s a gold mine. Think about it, Paramount. You have my email.

  • 15: Paranormal Activity: Fancy Ketchup – A fast food restaurant is haunted but nobody cares because the fries are fucking delicious

Hey, I’d watch it.

Okay, so it’s a stupid idea for a movie. But so is The Marked Ones. Honestly, I’ve never seen a franchise slide so rapidly from excellent to execrable. This movie might be better than Hellraiser: Revelations, but that was the ninth movie, it was direct to video, and that was also a series whose fourth, seventh, and eighth entries were all pretty fun. Paranormal Activity has one bad-but-effective entry and one really good movie, and ever since PA2 the franchise has been a trainwreck barrelling off a cliff. I have one more of these to watch, and although I know the series’ custodians probably didn’t use their sixth and final entry to date filming one of my 15 excellent pitches, I can only hope that with The Marked Ones the train has finally hit the ground. Hopefully whatever they went with, they didn’t try some kind of silly Ghost Dimension idea. Now that would just be stupid.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because you know you want to see the one about Lincoln’s ghost. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.