Want to face-palm over the future of civil discourse? Wade into the particularly thick minefield of YouTube comments, where faceless virtuosos of vitriol gather daily. In its uncommonly engaging first half, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones takes an amusing potshot at these disaffected disbelievers.
“They’re all just sitting around in their underwear jerking off to R. Kelly videos,” quips Hector (Jorge Diaz) about haters who insist he has somehow faked his footage of best friend Jesse’s (Andrew Jacobs) strange new powers.
Marked is the unnumbered fifth film in a pesky found-footage franchise long on repetitive, uninventive scares and short on a sense of humor. So we’ll take whatever chortle we can get. But the joke is on us for thinking Marked would amount to much more than a number of loopy plot inversions to rival R. Kelly’s own Trapped in the Closet saga.
Dubbed a “cousin” to previous Paranormal films, Marked is a conscious effort to engage, and embrace, the Latinx audiences who are quite often a horror film’s bread and butter at the box office. Nearly all of its actors are of Hispanic / Latinx descent, the California locales have switched from lily-white Carlsbad to multicultural Oxnard, and it’s awash with the indelibly vivid folk-religion iconography of Santa Muerte.
Initially, the film benefits from these fresh faces, as well as its change of scenery and broadened cultural horizons. Here, the inevitable victims aren’t just paper targets for spooky stuff; the bonds of friends and family they forge are believable. As a first, there’s shrewdly mounted dread as the oppressive hands of doom and fate slowly close around them. Plus, between the fireworks and firearms that find their way into the story, there’s much more action (and activity) than you might expect.
Marked employs more traditional, but effective, tactics to unsettle. Hell, it even makes a malfunctioning game of Simon seem more sinister. But if it’s the reasonably entertaining overachiever of the series, that only means it has the most to lose.
By now the series’ narrative architect as a writer on four of the films, Christopher Landon steps behind the camera for this installment, which opens at a high school graduation. Oscar (Carlos Pratts) is a bright-eyed, optimistic valedictorian delivering the usual go-get-’em speech, and Jesse is a good-natured goofball who just wants to spend the summer screwing around before real life, in whatever form, comes calling.
His family lives in an apartment complex above Anna (Gloria Sandoval), a woman who papers over her windows to keep out prying eyes. Neighbors have long suspected she is a bruja, or witch, but the bizarre midnight-hour wailing Jesse and Hector hear one night piques their curiosity.
Newly equipped with a GoPro, Jesse and Hector dangle the camera down a vent to film their investigation. (For those pleading for gratuitous nudity from this franchise, your long wait is over, but it arrives with a winking dig at said impulse.)
Shocker: Anna is a witch and warns Jesse he has “no idea what’s going to happen” to him. Jesse brushes off her threat, especially as he exhibits awesome powers of strength. But Anna winds up dead at the hands of an unlikely killer whose descent into madness, it is said, also awaits Jesse. As his friends and his sweet, tequila-swigging grandma try to save him, it becomes clear he can’t forestall a future forged long ago — one entwined with characters from the previous films, many of whom pay an eye-rolling visit to this one.
If any good comes from hitching Marked to the others’ narrative wagon, it’s that the cruel irony of Oscar’s graduation speech comes into stark relief. Good casting counts here, too, from Diaz’s dense, dim, but likably loyal enthusiasm to Jacobs’ ability to harden his face into a rigid, rictus crease from early, easygoing smiles.
There are good balls of subtext about the seeming invincibility of 18-year-olds and their difficult transitions into what’s next, not to mention the ins and outs of Mexican religiosity. Too bad Landon doesn’t run with them somewhere, anywhere, other than a frenzied first-person sprint-through-the-spook-house with which every PA film lazily concludes now, often uproariously beyond a point where any of us would drop our camera in favor of an extra fist to strike whatever’s attacking us. A spoiler-free note on the last moments of that finale: At first glance, they seem hilariously impossible, but there’s an explanatory escape hatch early on. Too bad the idiotic twist still slams the film into the wall doing about 90 miles an hour.
Well before that, though, Marked stops drawing its own breaths and futilely performs mouth-to-mouth on mythology that’s been coding for three consecutive films now. As someone who’s sunken 7 ½ hours into the series so far, there’s a morbid curiosity to see it through to the bitter end (or time of death, if you will). But for all of its early momentum, The Marked Ones only ends up marking time.