Having a favorite entry in a franchise isn’t always synonymous with thinking it’s the best entry of the franchise. For example, my favorite film in The Exorcist series is the third film. I don’t think it’s a better made film than the masterpiece original, but I simply do like it more. I’ve rewatched it more. It’s my favorite of the series, and a good bit of that is owed to the fact that it’s a film that’s not afraid to get weird with it. I like sequels that get weird with it, and The Marked Ones goes nuts with it.
The first Paranormal Activity reignited the found footage genre and put legs underneath Blumhouse as a serious studio. The second film worked a lot better than I would have expected. The third is objectively the best film of the series, there’s no question about that. The fourth is pure shit, we don’t talk about it. The final film, The Ghost Dimension, was a letdown overall. But going 4/6 ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. Many franchises wish that they could hit that well. After the trash of the 4th film, it was clear the franchise needed a good rail of blow to reinvent itself. Christopher Landon, who would go on to direct the successful Happy Death Day films for Blumhouse, took over the reigns for this installment and gave the series the shock it needed to wake itself back up.
The Marked Ones one throws all the formula of the first four out the window. It makes the decision to finally take the series out of a nice white suburban home and instead supplants us in Oxnard, California with a hispanic family living in an apartment complex. It’s the summer of 2012, and Jesse Arista (Andrew Jacobs) has just graduated from high school. Over the summer, he discovers that he’s being targeted by an evil entity coming from the apartment of a mysterious old woman who lives underneath him while his friends Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) try to uncover what’s happening to their friend. Landon takes the witch coven idea and expands it outside of the nice white family in the first three films to really make it feel like this secret cult is more spread out and focused on things other than that nice white family. It’s a global evil. It’s relationship to the previous films are tangential and intriguing without hijacking the film.
The movie can get insane successfully because it gets real first. You get quality time with Jesse and his family and friends before the craziness kicks off that really grounds you with them and makes them not feel like a cardboard cutout and actually authentic, which is something plenty of found footage films have struggled with. You really like Jesse and these characters and want them to be okay, and the scares are heightened because you connect with them so easily. A scene as simple as watching his grandma get drunk and start singing or them playfully making their dog dance does so much to make the characters feel real somehow. There’s a sequence where Jesse basically discovers he has superpowers and he and Hector start doing jackass routines. It’s so much fun. For a series built on furniture moving around in a room on its own, having some wild superhero shit in this one and having a blast with it is immensely refreshing. Just getting to watch them live and interact with each other makes you feel like you’re getting a peek into lives that still happen off camera. It often feels in found footage that they’re trying too hard, but not here. As far as found footage goes, this film contains some of the most authentic feeling characters.
The Marked Ones contains one of my favorite “blink and you’ll miss it” moments of horror of the 2010s happening in the background during a scene in an abandoned church. I didn’t discover it until the second time I watched the film. NOTE: This scene is only available in the unrated cut, which is the cut I must suggest you watch. They perform a black mirror ritual in a church to try to find out more about what’s haunting Jesse, and there’s a small detail that makes the scene absolutely terrifying. Now when I say you have to pay close attention here, I mean you have to pay CLOSE attention. The main shot we’ll be discussing is a wide shot with Jesse, Hector and Marisol in frame. In the background, you see the stained glass windows with street light shining through. Watch the window frames. At a certain point, on the second pillar from the right on those stained glass windows, a figure appears and is slightly blended into the darkness of the pillar. It doesn’t move, it just stands there. You really have to look for it, but it’s mighty scary once you find it. I felt like I was in on a secret when I found it and showed it to my friends. It’s a fantastic detail that is dread-inducing. In a subgenre so focused on jump scares, to have one slowly fleshed out instead is rewarding. I honestly don’t know why it was cut from the theatrical version, because it’s the best scene in the film.
Every horror movie has a scene where the characters figure out what the evil’s motive is and get the clarity they need to confront it for the final act. That particular scene in this movie is something else. They find the contact info of Ali Rey from the second film and she fills Hector and Marisol in on the conspiracy of the witch coven. When they ask her why all this is happening to Jesse now when he was marked at birth, she calmly asks if he was 18. She writes 666 and then adds it up to 18, Jesse’s age. I howled. When I showed this film to my buddies Huston and Robin, they howled at this part as well. 6+6+6=18 I mean that’s just simple math, right? WRONG. IT’S THE DEVIL’S NUMBER AND THE AGE HE POSSESSES YOU. Their whole conspiracy revolves around 666 adding up to 18. It’s hysterical. And I love it. It may sound like I’m mocking it. I’m not. That shit is hilarious, and it rules.
The last act is just so gleefully nuts. They decide to go rescue Jesse at the coven’s house and they bring some mexican gangsters with shotguns with them. It fucking rules. A gangster cocks a shotgun and says “Let’s go smoke these bitches.” And they do just that. Witches are running at them while one of them just obliterates them with a shotgun. It’s the only found footage film to contain a sequence so blissfully insane and ridiculous, few films dare to get this wild. If watching some Vatos Locos blow away witches with a shotgun doesn’t appeal to you, then I don’t know what to tell you. You and me are not the same. This shit rules.
No matter if you’ve seen the Paranormal Activity movies or not, I recommend you add The Marked Ones to your October horror watchlist. I wish more horror films, especially franchise entries, would be as boldly wacky as The Marked Ones is. It is not the objectively best film of the franchise, but it is by far the most memorable one for how gleefully bonkers it is. I miss this franchise, it was somewhat a comfort to have one of them every year or two. But if they never make another one, at least they made a film as excitedly strange and captivating as The Marked Ones.