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What Superhero Sequels Could Learn from 'Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones'

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 3, 2014 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 3, 2014 |

If you were a fan of previous installments in the Paranormal Activity franchise, then you will almost certainly appreciate Marked Ones, the best entry into the film series since its opening salvo in 2007. If you were a fan of the franchise, but were worn out by the repetitive nature of the previous sequels, then again, the reinvigorating departure Marked Ones takes will likely win you over. If, on the other hand, you have never seen any of the Paranormal Activity films, Marked Ones is not a particularly good place to start, although the original film is all you really need to have seen to understand where Marked Ones takes you (indeed, the callback to the original in Marked Ones is terrifically fun, and by that, I mean totally, completely terrifying).

If you have never cared for any of the Paranormal Activity films, you find them incredibly insipid, and they bore you senseless, if the comments in the reviews of the past installments are any indication, I’m sure you’ll re-express that opinion. I get it: The films work for some, and not others, although it doesn’t make either camp right or wrong, it simply means that your buttons are pushed differently.

Paranormal Activity films press my buttons in all the right, uncomfortable places. They have all worked to varying degrees on me for one very specific reason, which avails itself again in Marked Ones, and that is the hopeless inevitability of the narrative arcs. The paranormal power at the center of these films is not something that can be exorcised away; there are no silver bullets; and there are no magic spells. All you can do is wait helplessly, and excruciatingly watch the characters succumb to the evil. It’s uncomfortable to the point of unpleasantness for me, particularly since the tension and suspense is not in if the characters will survive, but how long it will take for them to die and under what circumstances. I never think, “Run, get away, don’t open that door!” I always think, “Gah, just let it take you already; I can’t bear the wait.”

Marked Ones also enlivens the series because the evil at the center of the film is not just an invisible force that tosses people around; it actually inhabits the character at the center of the movie, Jesse. He, like the haunted characters in previous installments, is marked, but unlike those characters, he’s not haunted; he’s possessed. That possession, in fact, imbues him with special powers, which are exhilarating at first, but eventually horrifying, affecting not only Jesse, but the friends and family around him. The new twist also adds a few extra layers, and a lot more action into the series, because it’s not just characters reacting, the malicious force actually embodies a visible person who can prey upon others (not that Marked Ones ever threatens to become a slasher flick).

To say much more is to take away some of the small joys in the unfolding mythology of the Paranormal Activity franchise. There’s not a lot of depth to it, and the mystery really isn’t all that captivating, but in combination with the other films, it’s interesting to see how it unfolds and intersects. You could probably outline the mythology from the entire five films in less than a paragraph, but by doling it out in tiny doses, the series continues to leave unanswered questions for future installments. Moreover, by not upping the stakes and by keeping the story intimate — centered on a small number of characters — the series doesn’t run the afoul of jumping sharks. By adding in small new wrinkles like the one at the center of Marked Ones, it can also avoid repeating itself. In fact, that’s a lesson that the superhero blockbusters could learn from the Paranormal Activity series: Bigger, louder, faster is not necessarily better (in fact, it rarely is) — the key to investing in the characters is to keep it small and intimate, and instead of stringing together one action sequence after another, gradually build to a more satisfying conclusion.