Spooktober 2014: Paranormal Activity 4 + The Marked Ones

It’s time for two more Paranormal Activity reviews!

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It’s time to continue the story of the first movie, which was clearly not written with the intention of sequels in mind! How to pull this off? Blatantly contradict previously established story details and render the previous movies pointless, of course!

So at the end of the second movie Katie, while possessed by the demon, murdered her sister and brother in law and stole baby Hunter as payment for…. whatever it is the family got at some vague point in the past. Paranormal Activity 4 picks the story up several years later, following a teenage girl named Alex and her boyfriend who constantly films everything for some reason. While awkwardly attempting to bone each other they discover that the new neighbour kid Robbie is acting weird and unsettling and his Mom never seems to leave the house. Needless to say “Robbie” is actually Hunter and his absent Mom is Katie. After Katie is supposedly hospitalized for an extended period he comes to stay with Alex’s family, which is when shit starts going Full Omen.

A combination of people filming things all the time for no reason and Alex leaving her laptop webcam running all night for no reason (and her boyfriend creepily recording her sleeping) ensures that we get to see Robbie’s increasingly strange and unsettling behaviour. It’s supposed to be scary but it isn’t really. And I guess Alex’s parents are fighting, or whatever. It’s a good thing the Xbox Kinect is here to make everything better!

Yeah so this is where the wheels kind of fall off the whole franchise. The only thing even approaching scary is the steady stream of cheap jump scares and the characters are bland beyond belief. The story once more has to twist itself into a pretzel to find some way to continue on from the previous movies: it turns out that through a series of extremely over-complicated events Hunter/Robbie isn’t actually the kid the demon is after: Alex’s young brother is!

The premise of each of the three previous movies has been the characters futilely attempting to stop the demon from achieving its goals; the problem is that it inevitably always does, which means that to extend the story the demon’s goals have to keep shifting further and further. It wants Katie! No it wanted Kristi first and now it wants Hunter! But actually no now it wants this other kid! With each new movie the demon is rendered more and more impotent, as we’ve seen the kind of havoc it’s capable of and sitting through the long build-up of subtle trolling just feels like a waste of time. Paranormal Activity 4 attempts to side-step this by putting the demon itself on the backburner for much of its run-time and focusing on Robbie being creepy, but he’s just not an effective enough horror “villain”.

And yes, the Kinect features prominently in this movie, getting at least as much focus as Alex’s parents. At one point the demon is implied to be playing a game using it; this not only nullifies the scariness of the demon in this movie, it nullifies the scariness of all other demons in all other movies as well as the very concept of demons and demonic possession.

Paranormal Activity 4 is a completely worthless movie. Do not watch it.

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Rather than continue the epic Paranormal Activity saga Paramount decided to do a spin-off not directly focusing on the demon from the first movie, and instead fleshing out various side-plots and concepts that were only hinted at in the previous movies such as witchcraft and Mexican stereotypes.

Our brave Paranormal Activist(?) this time around is Jesse, recent highschool graduate and HD video enthusiast. After messing around with a camera at his graduation party he impulsively decides to get one for himself, acquiring a free GoPro in the process.

Random fucking around with his buddy eventually turns into an investigation/pranking campaign against “Crazy Anna”, an old woman rumored to be a witch (spoiler alert: she is). Shortly after swearing unspecified revenge on the pair she ends up murdered by one of their classmates who had previously been acting strange; the boys’ amateur sleuthing turns spooky when they break into Anna’s apartment and decide to enact a ritual from one of her creepy journals. Initially this seems to turn out well, as Jesse finds himself attached to some kind of spirit that protects him from harm and gives him superhuman powers of strength and agility; anyone familiar with the franchise will recognize these abilities as the same ones displayed by the demon’s possession victims, and needless to say things quickly take a darker turn.

So right off the bat this movie changes up the formula quite a bit, mostly by virtue of having a plot more complex than “a demon trolls some people, everyone dies”. While making for a more compelling narrative this also leads to a lot of blatant plot holes, such as character insisting the police will never believe them even though they have several GB worth of obviously paranormal bullshit on camera, including the whereabouts of a known murderer (also rearing its head is the ever-pertinent “why are you still filming this” question). The departure from formula does however allows the movie to be more creative with the scares while returning to the grittier, more low budget feel of the first movie, which makes me kind of wish the series had just turned into an anthology of loosely connected stand alone horror films instead of trying for a continuous story. The movie thankfully goes back to a more of a subtle feel this time, with a lot of long shots of dark rooms and ominous thudding sounds (the summoning ritual and its immediate aftermath is particularly effective in this regard).

Also returning from the first movie: annoying protagonists, as Jesse and his pals quickly become insufferable. At the same time their immaturity does make their bone-headed actions more plausible- it is clearly not a good idea to get involved with Ana’s death for all sorts of reasons (the killer’s older brother is part of a notorious gang, for one) but I can totally imagine myself doing something that stupid at their age.

The setting this time around moves from ultra-white suburbia to characters of Latin American descent, a subject the franchise did not handle well in the second movie. I’m not at all qualified to say whether it indulges in any stereotyping apart from the witchcraft-and-exorcisms thing (we get yet another example of the spiritually attuned Hispanic woman), although a quick scan of American reviews would seem to imply that it totally does.

Overall I’m not going to say that The Marked Ones is a glorious return to form, but it’s probably the best in the franchise after the first movie (not a high bar, I know) and it’s the only one of the sequels that left me feeling unsettled afterward. It’s not exactly essential viewing (not that any of the movies are) but if you loved the first one to bits it would probably be worth checking out if not for the apparent racism.

Thus ends our spooktobular trip through the Paranormal Activity franchise! Don’t worry though, a new movie is due out next year, to be titled Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. I think we can all agree that it will be the best movie ever made based on that subtitle.

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