Like The Blair Witch Project, that most influential (and effective) of found-footage fright flicks, the Paranormal Activity films tend to sharply divide genre fans. For every viewer happily creeped out by the franchise's simple scare tactics—its video vision of things going bump and creak and moan in the dark—there's another moviegoer completely unfazed by such low-budget prankery. Odds are solid, however, that the believers and the skeptics will agree on Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which bears only a passing, unflattering resemblance to its four forebears. Not a sequel but a spinoff targeted specifically to Latino audiences, this latest installment relocates the spooky proceedings to an apartment complex in Oxnard, California, where two teenagers fall victim to some of the same forces that terrorized the cursed family of the earlier movies. Yet the geographic and cultural deviation matters much less than the stylistic one; gone is the nocturnal surveillance footage and nightly hauntings that heretofore distinguished the series. Without them, The Marked Ones plays like just another anonymous found-footage cheapie.
If there's a model here, it's not Oren Peli's inventive 2006 original, but the mock-doc superhero film Chronicle: Director Christopher Landon, who wrote all three of the Paranormal sequels, borrows a spirit of adolescent tomfoolery—and a consumed-by-the-darkness narrative—from that found-footage highlight. Poking around in the abandoned apartment of a murdered neighbor, high-school buddies Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) get in over their heads, the latter eventually discovering a bite-like wound on his arm. He's been singled out for demonic possession, though the devil looking to get inside isn't so unreasonable that he won't perform a few supernatural parlor tricks to amuse his future host. Whereas the other Paranormal films rely on an escalation of terrors, The Marked Ones is characterized by long stretches of mundanity, occasionally interrupted by a cheap shock. There's no nifty technological gimmick, like the fan-cam of part three or the X-Box Kinect vision of part four. Mostly, Landon relies on the limiting POV of the handheld camera, repeating the same basic jump scare—panning away from an empty space, then panning back to reveal the funhouse-attraction now filling it—over and over again.
Viewed from the right angle, The Marked Ones does have a faintly interesting subtext. The film foregrounds gang activity early and often, enough so that it's possible to see the possession plot as a metaphor for the life-destroying allure of gang culture. The neighbor is murdered by a possessed straight-arrow, a class valedictorian whose older brother runs with a tough crowd. Furthermore, Jesse's descent into darkness is basically a transformation from good-natured knucklehead—loyal to his friends and family—to baseball-bat-wielding sociopath. Alas, that angle is eventually compromised when the film (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) turns the local gangbangers into de facto heroes. What a shame, as there's really nothing else distinguishing The Marked Ones from its junky January contemporaries; it's a Paranormal Activity movie in name only. Considering that these films cost about as much to make as they do to see, the series will probably live on. Here's hoping subsequent chapters feel a little less haunted by cliche.