The more things change, the more they definitely stay the same in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, an offshoot of the popular horror franchise that moves the action from the suburban homes of the first four films to a gritty Latino neighborhood in Oxnard, California, while still employing the “found footage” esthetic and mixed bag of scare tactics that are the trademarks of the rest of the series. The result is a film that is undeniably effective in places, yet begins to get bogged down by the same wearying issues that have plagued the series’ more recent entries.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones begins with the high school graduation of Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) an affable young man who lives with his father, sister, and grandmother and spends his time hanging out with his clownish pal Hector (Jorge Diaz) and downstairs neighbor Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). Jesse initially spends the first few days of the summer break playing with his new digital camera, through which we view all of the action, which consists largely of him and Hector trying to make fools of each other.
But things take a darker turn when the mysterious “crazy lady” who also lives in a downstairs apartment, Anna (Gloria Sandoval), is found murdered – and all signs point to the valedictorian of Jesse’s class, Oscar (Carlos Pratts). Jesse, Hector, and Marisol end up investigating the woman’s apartment, finding evidence that she practices black magic as well as objects that connect her – not that the teens know this – to the other Paranormal Activity movies. And when Jesse wakes up the following morning, he finds strange marks on his arm which indicate that something lurking in the old woman’s apartment is now coming after him.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was explicitly designed for a Latino audience – a strange notion, actually, since the previous films have had no problems attracting Latino viewers – and the early scenes of Jesse’s life with his family and friends go a long way toward establishing the likability and empathy of the main characters. But they’re never developed with any real depth – in fact, his father and sister all but vanish from the story by the halfway point – except for the background details necessary to link them to the larger Paranormal Activity mythology. Jesse and Hector’s other problem is that they have that annoying horror movie habit of doing pretty dumb things, like breaking into an active crime scene or entering a hidden basement.
Thankfully, the whole “setting up cameras around the house” format of the other films is largely absent, but oddly, the middle portion of the movie seems to borrow heavily from another “found footage” success story: 2012’s Chronicle. Without getting too deeply into spoiler territory, let’s just say that the entity haunting Jesse at first appears to not just protect him but give him unforeseen powers. We have to wonder if writer/director Christopher Landon (who wrote the three previous Paranormal Activity sequels) was given a mandate to incorporate a Chronicle-type plot element based on that film’s success.
By this movie’s third act, however, that story point has been dropped as well and Landon begins an escalating series of set pieces, pausing only for some helpful exposition that arrives via a character from one of the previous films. The underlying explanation for what is going on makes less sense the more you think about it, but as the shock tactics continue in the film’s final 30 minutes, The Marked Ones is revealed as a follow-up to one of the earlier sequels in particular while also managing to create what could be an alternate timeline for the entire series.
Yet as all this happens, that sense of familiarity sinks in, and most harmful of all, the “why is he still filming this?” distraction comes into play as well. While the film’s first half makes a decent argument for why Jesse and/or Hector constantly has the camera running, there’s simply no excuse for it in the closing scenes, including one laughable moment where one of them is trying to pry a board off a window with one hand while filming with the other.
Despite its flaws, however, The Marked Ones is still creepy and even frightening in a number of spots, usually when things are left unseen or appear in the background of a shot rather than leaping at the camera. A couple of scenes where Jesse and his friends use an old game of Simon to communicate with the entity are unnerving, and those well-worn prowls through dark, abandoned apartments and houses can still make the gooseflesh break out. The cast is appealing enough even if they end up going through the same paces as everyone else who has marched through the Paranormal Activity factory.
Make no mistake, that’s what this horror franchise has become: an assembly line, rolling out one variation after another (the official Paranormal Activity 5 will be next October, delayed by a year) with some of the entries more enjoyable, some less (we’re looking at you, PA 4), but all of them at this point delivering exactly what you would expect. In a pinch, I’d still rather spend time in this universe than that of Saw or Hatchet , but The Marked Ones’ surface differences to its cinematic cousins turn out to be hiding the same birthmarks as the rest of the family.