For horror fans, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was a strange, schizophrenic animal from the moment it was announced. To optimists (count me as one), it sounded like a nifty way to refurbish a franchise that was clearly showing signs of wear in its fourth installment. Taking a lateral, rather than a linear, step in the ever-expanding universe of demonic possession and conniving witches could have been just what the series needed to get it back on track, and the story might have reaped considerable benefit from a change of venue; taking the narrative from the affluent suburbs to a blue-collar urban apartment complex was a reminder of how surprisingly underrepresented that latter world is in horror movies, and offered nearly endless possibilities for a different kind of creep-out.
But it was also tough to ignore the possibility that the film would be authored more by focus groups than filmmakers. Latino audiences count for roughly one third of the Paranormal Activity fan base, so it was hard to not see it as a calculated experiment at best or, at worst, an overt cash grab.
The Marked Ones, then, is both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment. It's better than cynical fans had any reason to expect, but it never capitalizes on its advantages.
It's the fifth film in the surprisingly durable franchise, but it's not Paranormal Activity 5 (for better or worse, that's coming in October). Instead, The Marked Ones attempts to stake out some new territory in the series: the notoriously treacherous hinterland of the spin-off. This time, the man behind the camera is Hector (Jorge Diaz), a Hispanic teenager whose best pal, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), has just graduated from high school. At first, the camcorder is really just a toy—something the boys use to record their Jackass-inspired stunts and while away the days that come between high school and whatever might be next for them.
Their video experiments turn to voyeurism when they hear noises coming from the apartment below Jesse's. The woman who lives there, Anna (Gloria Sandoval), is rumored to be running a brothel, but the boys soon learn there's another, more sinister explanation for the pretty young women who are frequently Anna's guests. Anna is a bruja, a witch, and Jesse eventually learns that he has some rather unfortunate connections to the ceremonies Anna has been performing with young, pregnant women. Hector winds up documenting Jesse's transformation from a surly, moody teenager to a surly, moody teenager who might be possessed by a demon.
The Marked Ones' first mistake, then, is to ditch the home-surveillance conceit of its predecessors in favor of the more common, and far less interesting, jittery-guy-with-a-camcorder device. That's a choice motivated, at least in part, by the film's setting, but it's a shame to do away with the creepy stylistic advantages offered by a more static camera, not to mention the technological inventiveness the previous entries have shown. A GoPro is introduced early in The Marked Ones, but it's chucked to the side as soon as its use starts to get interesting. There's also the matter of justifying the presence of the camera; here, as in so many found-footage messes, we're asked to believe that Hector would keep holding the camera, even while he's running—or fighting—for his life.
More frustrating, though, is the film's determination to ignore the many opportunities presented by its set-up. Taking the Paranormal Activity franchise into an entirely different culture is kind of brilliant, but writer/director Christopher Landon, who wrote the second, third, and fourth installments of the series, rarely takes advantage of the possibilities offered by the Latino culture at the center of The Marked Ones. Besides the obvious opportunities—the incredibly rich folklore of Latin-American cultures, for instance, which is only utilized in a couple of scenes—this was a great chance to bring some interesting themes into the mix and explore different, creepy perspectives on family ties, adolescence, religion, and so on. Instead, we get a few ill-advised sequences that would be more at home in a Chronicle sequel than a Paranormal Activity spin-off; much of the film is devoted to Jesse's discovery that getting possessed has its advantages.
What Landon does very well, though, is use this spin-off to expand the mythology of the Paranormal Activity universe. The film introduces an off-the-wall but fun new element to the series: time travel. It's completely insane, but serves to tie this installment to the previous four in ways that reward loyal fans without completely alienating newcomers. Characters from the first four films make some clever cameos, and the idea of setting as character is played up in The Marked One's chaotic conclusion, which involves objects and locations familiar to the franchise's fans. Whether any of this indicates a new life or a death rattle, though, remains to be seen.