Requiem for an aesthetic

The more Paranormal Activity movies come out, the more distressing it is that they made any sequels at all.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones follows Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) as he is marked and Imagepossessed by a demon. The demon is summoned by the same coven of witches associated with causing the events of the main storyline, and this film is intended to be something outside that storyline. Filmmakers have called it a “spin-off” or a “cousin” or an “excuse to pander to the Hispanic audience that this series has always had a bizarre affinity for.”

The Marked Ones, like every other movie in the series, is shot in found-footage style, and you have to ask — why? Why couldn’t this movie be shot from a regular, third-person perspective? Found footage horror has, in 15 short years, gone from borderline-revolutionary to mainstream to a cheap, cliché-filled gimmick, and the Paranormal Activity movies are almost solely responsible.

In the beginning, there was Paranormal Activity, still the absolute pinnacle of found footage. The camera — singular — is central to the plot, and several times it’s implied that nothing bad would be happening if the camera were off. During the day, Micah carries the audience around, narrowing its view and making it feel vulnerable. At night, the camera sits motionless, bearing mute, helpless witness to the haunting. The pattern is devastating. The mere passage of time is terrifying. And it all revolves around that camera.

Jump seven years — yes, it has been seven years — to The Marked Ones. They mention the camera is Jesse’s graduation present early on, and then it’s just sort of… there. For some reason, it’s Jesse’s friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) who is carrying it around most of the time. In fact, it’s unclear whether or not there’s more than one camera, and it seems more likely that characters gain and lose cameras as the plot demands it. Instead of limiting viewers’ vision and pressing theater walls in around them, this movie provides the same relatively omniscient perspective as a conventionally shot movie, but with extra motion sickness after every jump.

Fifteen years after The Blair Witch Project — really, six years after Cloverfield — the entire genre has died on the vine from a creative standpoint. Filmmakers have forgotten the core of the aesthetic, its realism. Not realism in the sense that everything in the film could actually happen, but realism in the sense that someone genuinely stumbled into the woods, found a camera, and this is what was on it. In the good found footage films, there’s no editing, outside of fast-forwarding through the boring bits. They don’t splice in footage from security cameras or bystander’s cell phones. No one is trying to tell you a story, they’re just showing you the footage they found. Sorry about the shakiness, it’s not our fault.

Where does The Marked Ones fall in the spectrum? There’s no way to tell who’s camera is recording what, when or why. The premise of a found footage story is abjectly absurd in this case, and audiences are just left only with the aesthetic’s downsides  — according to Hollywood, no one on Earth can be even mildly startled without waving their entire body around like an idiot.

So, why did this movie have to be found footage style? Because it’s Paranormal Activity! That’s what this series does! The series has become synonymous with found footage, even though the vast majority of the movies are regular, thoroughly-produced scary movies with lots of one-shots and violent shakes of the camera. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is an average, entirely unremarkable horror movie. The only thing worth talking about is the aesthetic, so they had to make it in that aesthetic even though it would be better served with normal camerawork.

Audiences are starting to realize how un-special this series really is. Found footage isn’t just dead creatively — it’s dead financially. The Marked Ones opened second to a children’s movie that has been out for six weeks.

The irony of it all is they almost did this with the original. When DreamWorks got the rights to Paranormal Activity, they wanted to re-shoot it with a bigger budget and include the original as a DVD extra because they had no idea what to do with it. But in the first theatrical screenings, viewers were actually walking out because they were so scared. Executives decided that turning their gem into a produced, scripted mess would actually hurt business, and the rest is history. But they only learned that lesson for one movie. From the found footage movie that held its camera more steady than most in the genre, the sequels have retained nothing but the shaky cam scare.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a senior staff writer for the NT Daily. Winter break’s already over?  For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at reelentropy@gmail.com. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for. Be sure to come back here for a review of Her.

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