Posts Tagged ‘paranormal activity’

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It occurs to me that I’ve been slacking, friends — but fear not, I have an excuse. I’ve reviewed all four previous installments in the Paranormal Activity series, perhaps Hollywood’s most unexpected “franchise” property, previously on this site more or less immediately upon their release,  but never did get around to the latest, 2014’s Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones,  when it was out in theaters back in January.

Now for the excuse part : I didn’t see it. More specifically, I didn’t see it until last night, when the DVD showed up in the mail from Netflix (and before you ask, it was one of those “for rental only” discs with no extras to speak of, so I can’t fairly comment on any of that). As to why I didn’t see it — truth be told, it came and went before I had the chance. It’s not that The Marked Ones was a “flop,” per se, but it did have the lowest opening-weekend gross of any of the five PA flicks (which was still more than enough to put it at the top of the box office that weekend),  and while it still made a healthy profit upon its theatrical run ($32 million on a $5 million investment? I’ll take that every time — and so will Paramount), it didn’t generate nearly the “buzz” its four predecessors did.

There are a couple of “reasons” that have commonly been bandied about for that, one of which has some merit, the other of which is complete hogwash, so let’s examine each quickly before getting into the nitty-gritty of the film itself, shall we?

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The first thing offered up by armchair box office observers in regards to The Marked Ones‘ purported “failure” is the fact that it was, in fact, a spin-off, rather than a direct sequel. This makes a certain amount of sense to me, given that it features entirely new characters and the main thrust of the plot only tangentially intersects with the rest of the PA ongoing storyline. In a nifty trick on writer/director Christopher Landon’s part, this film and the “main” story do, in fact, come crashing together most unexpectedly at the end, but to say more would be giving away too much. Suffice to say, even if this is more a side-step than a direct continuation, they could have titled it Paranormal Activity 5, had they chosen to, and it probably would have raked in another $20-30 million. I bet they’re kicking themselves over that.

The second rationalization given for this film’s more modest take at the gate is a real kicker, though : folks have opined that The Marked Ones was marketed “only” to Hispanic audiences, and that they didn’t support the flick in big numbers. Sorry, but I recall seeing ads for this one on any number of non-Spanish-language TV channels upon its release, and while it certainly was heavily advertised to Latino/Latina movie-goers, the fact remains that it was hyped on all the usual horror-centric websites, etc., as well.

As to the idea that Hispanic film-goers didn’t “turn out” in big numbers for it, how does anybody know that? Were they asking people who purchased tickets to fill out demographic surveys? Was the film only shown in predominantly-Spanish-speaking neighborhoods (“no” would be the quick answer to that, since I noticed it playing at a multiplex in lily-white Edina, Minnesota when I was there seeing something else)? Sorry, but this is a cheap — and frankly offensive — attempt by retrograde elements of society  to “blame” the movie’s “failure” on Hispanics because they blame them for — well, every other goddamn thing in the world that they’re not actually responsible for, like crime, taking “our” jobs, driving down wages, “mooching” welfare benefits, etc.  The simple fact is that there are a lot of reactionary assholes out there who don’t like the fact that this film was marketed to Hispanic audiences at all  (even though it makes perfect sense to do so given that the characters are all Latino/Latina) and furthermore just plain don’t like Hispanic people in general. So allow me to give a huge, collective middle finger from any and all horror fans with a brain to anyone and everyone trying to advance that racist line of “thought.”

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Ohhhhh-kay, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, how about was the movie? To make a long story short, Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones was, in this wannabe-critic’s view, a very pleasant surprise indeed and quite possibly the best flick — original, sequel, prequel (which is what the first two supposed “sequels” actually were) or spin-off — to go out under the PA  banner. The Joost/Shulman team had worn out its welcome pretty thoroughly after that lackluster fourth installment, and by taking the core concept of “hand-held horror” into the inner city and adding a dash of Santeria-influenced spice, Landon (who served in a producer’s capacity on parts 3 and 4) has managed here to breathe some new life into a franchise that was sorely in need of it.

The main thrust of the plot concerns the exploits of three recent high school graduates and lifelong friends, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). When Jesse gets a snazzy new HD camcorder from his dad as a commencement gift, the trio do what all kids these days apparently do — record every fucking they do in the hopes that they might accidentally film something funny, stupid, interesting, or weird enough to slap up on YouTube.

Things take a turn for the frightening, though, when there’s a murder downstairs in Jesse’s apartment building, they go in to do some amateur (and, it has to be said, illegal) sleuthing, and the mysterious forces at work in the run-down ground floor unit decide to “mark” our would-be Spielberg as a suitable “host” vessel for their malignant presence. At first Jesse just thinks he’s landed some pretty cool super hero-style powers out of the blue, but he soon learns, to his regret, that all power comes with a price, and that in this case it’s a very heavy one indeed as all those who have been similarly “marked” (oh, and am I the only one who thinks the filmmakers here ripped off the main circle-within-a-triangle symbol emblazoned all over the place in this flick — including the poster pictured at the top of this very review — from the Canadian Antichrist-themed movie Abolition?) have met with untimely — and spectacularly violent — ends.

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There’s plenty of the usual teen summer hijinks on display here — boozing, pot smoking, fumbling attempts to get laid, etc. — but the genuinely terrific performances from the entire cast (particularly Jacobs, who does a really nice job driving home the horror of what his character is experiencing) make even that trite, overdone material bearable, and Landon gives you a trio of young people you actually — believe it or not — are willing to give a shit about, before doing what all good directors do and putting ’em though a meat grinder.

As for fans of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (is there such a thing as a fan of Micah Sloat? I suppose there must be, but I’m sure glad I don’t know of any personally), rest easy — they’re here. But they certainly don’t pop up either when you would expect it, or in the way you would expect it. Kudos to all involved for the manner in which they pulled this off.

Throw in some other genuine surprises, a generous helping of fun n’ cheap scares, hand-held video camera footage that actually doesn’t get annoying, and the coolest use of the old “Simon” electronic game I’ve ever seen, and Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones is a winner. There’s probably not much chance of us ever seeing these characters again in future installments, but the time we do get to spend with them here is a heck of a lot of fun.

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

Ah, the silent tyranny of expectations. Yesterday, you host did a bit of theater-hopping at the Block E megaplex and took in both of this weekend’s big new horror releases,  the studio-engineered “viral” marketing sensation “Paranormal Activity,” and the largely-dreaded remake of “The Stepfather.” I found myself enjoying both and finding them more-than-worthy additions to our little monthlong Halloween countdown here, but didn’t rank them in the order that I expected, so let’s get started with “Paranormal Activity” and take a look at the “Blair Witch of the 21st century” before moving on to a flick that virtually everyone assumed would suck but doesn’t.

Let’s be honest here — at this point, “Paranormal Activity” — that is, the film itself — is essentially inseparable from its rather ingenious marketing campaign. Paramount has spent a whole lot of money making this look like a word-of-mouth, “because you demanded it”-type thing. In reality, while it looks like a whole new type of “internet phenomenon,” what we’ve got here is essentially a high-tech updating of Mishkin-esque 42nd street ad campaigns. It’s carnival-barking with the audience enlisted as the barkers, and you know, while seeing it for the sham it is, my hat’s still off to the folks behind it, because it follows in the grand exploitation tradition even if most people can’t see it, which is probably the best part of the trick. 1,000 demands will get this into your city? You could get 1,000 demands for just about anything these days, and the theaters were already booked in advance, with full knowledge that this “grassroots campaign” would work.

Which is not to say that first-time filmmaker Oren Peli’s little (at one point) indie horror hasn’t had a circuitous path to wide release. Completed around two years ago, it languished around a bit on the small festival circuit for quite awhile until Steven Spielberg (audible groan) started singing its praises and brought it to the attention of Hollywood execs, who threw a little bit of cash at Peli (not much, it must be said, and the total budget for the film is around $13,000) to reshoot some of the ending and got to work on coming up with a unique way of marketing the film, namely having us do a lot of their work for them. From the horror convention circuit to limited-release midnight shows to its incrementally- timed rollout expansion, this has all been planned.  But I digress.

What’s driving this studio-engineered “demand” is the promise of one of the scariest damn movies you’ll ever see. Why, everyone says so. It’s “Blair Witch” all over again — a tight little suspense shocker that’s so cheaply-made it could pass for a documentary. Some people can’t take it and have to leave the theater, it’s just too intense (so we’re told). Some people actually think it’s real (so we’re told). And it’s really harrowing stuff (so we’re told).

In truth, though, what we’ve got here is really just the latest in the DIY/YouTube-style horror genre that really got going with “Cloverfield” and continued with “REC.” and it’s later English-language reworking “Quarantine” and  then with George Romero’s criminally-underrated “Diary of the Dead,” the only qualitative difference being that this flick’s budget really is damn close to actual DIY levels.

So yes, it does feel authentic. And claustrophobic. And like it could really happen. And it is, in fact, pretty good. But about halfway through this little story of a young couple being haunted by an indefinable presence, I realized I had to divorce myself from the high expectations I had for it if I had any hope of enjoying it. Because it’s not, as the bloody-disgusting.com review quoted on the poster claims, one of the scariest movies ever made. It’s plenty scary, sure, but it’s not, as the kids would say, all that.

The setup is pleasingly simple — a young couple, Micah (played by Micah Sloat) and Katie (played by Katie Featherston) move into a new rental townhouse-type thing in San Diego. She’s an English major (who still says “unexplainable?” Please.), he’s a day trader. Her house burned down when she was a young child and she’s been followed by some type of malicious presence ever since. When things start going bump in the might in their new place, they decide to set up cameras all over the place, most prominently in their bedroom, and watch the footage the next day to say what happens while they’re asleep.

And that’s it. We never leave the confines of their house apart from a brief sene out at their swimming pool. The only other notable character included into the mix is a “ghost hunter”-type of guy who pays them a couple of visits. It’s really just the two of them, their place, and their uninvited guest. This minimalistic setup really works, and the conceit of having the actors play characters with their own names adds a further frisson of “everyday horror” to the proceedings. In fact, “everyday horror” is the entire modus operandi here. The fact that this film feels authentic is its greatest strength, and, in fact, it’s only real one.

It’s essentially a one-trick pony. But it’s a good enough trick to keep you glued to your seat for 90 minutes. Each successive scene ratchets up the fear factor a notch at a time. It builds to a shockingly satisfying climax that really explains nothing but feels “just right” nonetheless. But I have to admit that I’ve seen better ultra-low-budget, minimally-scripted films (a couple of which have been reviewed on this very blog — “Last House on Dead End Street” and “Combat Shock”).

All of which is not to knock what Peli has achieved here. It’s certainly remarkable enough in its own right. He and his collaborators can hold their heads high. “Paranormal Activity” is a well-crafted, minimalist flick that wrings as much fright as it can from its contents.

But its rather unique add campaign — remember, inseparable from the film itself — is also its undoing. It’s doing its job of getting what would otherwise be an otherwise unnoticed piece of backyard filmmaking (well, okay, indoor backyard filmmaking) plenty of attention “buzz” — but it’s also setting people up for a bit of disappointment by promising one of the scariest movies ever, and “Paranormal Activity” just plain isn’t. In true exploitation style, the promise is better than the payoff.

Time will tell how this flick is eventually judged, of course. “Blair Witch” started as a huge sensation, endured something of a backlash in ensuing years, and has recently been re-evaluated as a seminal horror movie after all, which it really is, warts and all. I don’t think “Paranormal Activity” will prove to be quite as groundbreaking — or even as groundbreaking as it seems right now. But in Peli’s defense, he didn’t set out to make some trailblazing cinematic phenomenon, he set out to make the best scare film he could with limited resources. And in that respect he succeeds quite admirably.