It’s up to Latino audiences to decide whether the film is catering or pandering to their “demographic,” but artistically speaking, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones takes the franchise in a slightly new direction, and it’s an effective, if not necessarily satisfying, one. Eschewing many of the hallmarks of the franchise, including regimented pacing and those nail-biting stationary shots, writer/director Christopher Landon falls in lockstep with the horde of found-footage horror movies inspired by the success of the first Paranormal, rattling audiences as much with interminably clichéd behavior as constantly unsteady handheld camerawork.
Andrew Jacobs plays Jesse, a recent high school graduate who gets his hands on a digital camera and promptly decides to document every minute of the hijinks he gets into with his dipshit best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz). After a mysterious downstairs neighbor unexpectedly dies, Jesse and Hector infiltrate her abandoned apartment, finding religious paraphernalia and a handful of personal photos. After awakening the next morning to discover a bite mark on his arm, Jesse soon discovers the presence of a spirit that grants him increased strength, if also incomplete control of his body.
Realizing the spirit has darker designs than helping him pull off stunts with his skateboard, Jesse, Hector and their friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) attempt to figure out what has latched on to him. But as his behavior grows increasingly unpredictable, the trio soon realizes Jesse is part of something much larger, and they race to save him from the clutches of this spirit – and also from himself.
The film’s divergence into a Latin community in Oxnard, California, is merely a change of scenery; although Landon utilizes their sense of religiosity to provide the film with attempted solutions for Jesse’s possession, it’s less than window dressing on an utterly conventional found-footage concept. Meanwhile, with no static shots and only handheld cameras used to follow the action, the sequel’s shaky-cam disorientation is as bad as it has ever been in this franchise, especially in early sequences when the filmmaker – I mean, characters – are unaware that you can turn your head in real life without moving the camera back and forth.
The disappointing byproduct of this choice is that there’s almost no suspense -- at least not traditional Paranormal suspense -- in the film. With but one or two exceptions, every scare occurs because someone is running around with the camera, pans left and right, and turns around to see someone unexpectedly looming in the frame. As a person in his late 30s, I accept that I’m more familiar (and less tolerant) with stupid horror movie decisions, but The Marked Ones features a seemingly endless string of bad choices, such as re-entering the neighbor’s massively creepy apartment multiple times, and always at night. That they’re always holding a camera actually becomes the least of the film’s problems, because what they’re doing is so inadvisable and just plain dumb that audiences will have little time to fixate on the fact they’re filming everything nonstop for days.
That said, however, the film does effectively deliver scares. Balancing the brisk comedy of Hector’s constant stupidity with his and Jesse’s forays into gross, scary places, Landon manages to ratchet up suspense as the film advances toward its epic, occasionally really smart finale, and even if you’re cowering in your seat anticipating a scare around every corner, there are more than a handful that will still catch you off guard. In that sense, The Marked Ones is vastly superior to Paranormal Activity 4, which unnecessarily confused the series’ mythology while offering the dumbest and weakest motivation for filming – all of which is probably why Landon seems to have ignored that installment as he crafted his story.
Ultimately, however, there are few if any truly innovative ideas in the film, even as set pieces – such as the Wii outlines in Paranormal 4 – and anyone who’s seen Chronicle or the forthcoming Afflicted will recognize the beats of its story. But if you’re even remotely curious about the fifth installment in this indefatigable series, none of that matters; it’s at least a fun sort of scary, and it will certainly ensure that dates hop into each other’s laps a few time in fright. But even if the mythology of the series finally begins to come together in a more concrete, meaningful way, the well of this franchise is only moderately damp, leaving room for a handful of more films, but few if any that will likely attract new viewers, much less sustain the interest of longtime ones.
In which case, the barometer for success with a Paranormal Activity movie comes down, not to true creativity, originality or imagination, but to how freaked out you are after it ends. And while The Marked Ones managed to genuinely startle this critic a couple of times, its effect pales in comparison to its predecessors: If they left you haunted, sleepless and staring at shadows in the corner of your room, at absolute best this one might make you hesitate for another second or two before turning out the lights.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is in theaters now.