You have to hand it to the keepers of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise — after four movies set in anonymously upscale houses, the new chapter takes us to a working-class apartment complex in Oxnard, Calif. While it’s exciting to see a hit series take on an almost entirely Latino cast as just a matter of course, the new zigs only barely balance out all the familiar zags.
“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” the latest in a seemingly endless array of “put the camera down and run, fool” fright flicks, will certainly please fans who are happy to get more of the same with each successive film. But if, like me, you’re suffering from “Paranormal” burnout, the change of scenery won’t feel like enough to make a difference.
Recent high school grad Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) — who has just bought his first hand-held camera, go figure — spends the summer hanging out with best pals Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). All is not well, however; the creepy lady downstairs, considered by many to be a bruja, is murdered by class valedictorian Oscar (Carlos Pratts) not long after Jesse lowers a camera through the vent and catches his neighbor painting a strange symbol on a naked woman’s stomach.
Jesse and Hector (and the camera, of course) later sneak into the lady’s apartment and find all sorts of creepy books, not to mention a cache of VHS tapes that will be familiar to anyone who’s been following the series. Suddenly, Jesse seems to have strange powers, and his old Simon machine is answering yes/no questions like a Ouija board, and the family dog is freaking out, and Jesse’s abuelita heads to her local bodega santero for help in driving the evil out of her house.
“The Marked Ones” makes a noble effort to shake up the franchise, but it doesn’t commit to anything that might prevent the sixth, seventh and eighth chapters that are no doubt in various stages of production. Mexican mysticism might have made a more palatable opponent to the wicked witches than the bland bourgeois agnosticism of the previous chapters, but the film winds up being not all that interested in pursuing the idea.
Instead, we get a very predictable progression from “check out my cool powers” (any found-footage movie about a teenager suddenly endowed with magical abilities can’t help but call “Chronicle” to mind) to screaming and bleeding and running.
Writer-director Christopher Landon delivers a few good scares, and not always where you expect them, but where he really excels in the cast and their performances; their exchanges feel spontaneous and unforced, vital for a found-footage movie, and Landon (with the help of casting director Carla Hool) has assembled a charismatic and empathetic group of actors. (Particularly the scene-stealing Jorge Diaz, who all but walks away with the movie.)
“Paranormal Activity” fans will certainly appreciate the effort that Landon (who has written every installment since the second one) makes to ground the tale in series canon. And he’s to be applauded for ethnically diversifying this studio cash cow since, after all, it’s the franchise itself that’s the star and not any of the actors.
But if you’ve already jumped off this bandwagon, or have considered doing so after the last few movies, there’s not much in “The Marked Ones” that will compel you to follow the camera-operating protagonist down another dark hallway.