Rosemary's Baby notwithstanding, it's usually only white suburban people who fall prey to movie ghosts and demons — they're always the ones opening doors to rooms that shouldn't be entered, stepping witlessly into pentagrams painted on the floor in goat's blood, and wondering aloud, “You think this is some sort of devil-worship thing?” That's why it was a stroke of genius to set Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones in Oxnard, California, in a semi-urban Latino neighborhood, a place where multiple generations of family often live under the same roof, where your neighbors are so close, you can hear them through the vents in your bedroom. In this setting, one in which people literally live on top of one another and not a winding driveway's worth of real estate away, there really is something insidious about the presence of demons. They're equal-opportunity squatters, squeezing themselves into even the smallest space.
But if The Marked Ones is mildly brilliant in the first half, it stumbles witlessly into its own dumb pentagram in the second. This is the latest installment in the franchise that nobody claims to care about anymore but still somehow causes dollars to flow almost paranormally out of moviegoers' pockets. Actually, The Marked Ones has been conceived more as a spinoff of the series rather than a bona fide entry; it's aimed largely at Latino moviegoers, who apparently make up a large portion of the Paranormal Activity fan base.
While it's a drag that studios — in this case, Paramount — think about putting anyone other than affluent white suburbanites onscreen only when there are dollars to be made, the first half of The Marked Ones is lively enough, and funny enough, to work on its own merits. Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) are best pals who have just graduated from high school but who haven't given a single thought to the future. That's probably a good thing, because Jesse's cranky, reclusive downstairs neighbor might be a witch, and their days might be numbered. Life is short! Why not do dumb stuff and record it on a borrowed video camera? Jesse sends Hector bumping down a wooden staircase in a plastic laundry basket, preserving the event for posterity. The camera is right there when Jesse gets his grandma (the casually disarming Renée Victor) drunk on tequila shots. Hector also captures Jesse doing a wriggly dance with grandma's personable, and perceptive, Chihuahua.
Meanwhile, that witchy downstairs neighbor is murdered, and when Jesse and Hector break into her apartment, they find stuff like crude cow figurines and possible bonelike objects. There's also a grungy crib and an array of not-terribly-shiny medical implements, though none of that stops them from trying to turn the space into a love shack when they meet two local hotties at a party.
How can you not like this pair of numbnuts? Jacobs and Diaz are so relaxed and affable in their buffoonery that it's a bummer when the allegedly scary stuff starts happening. (A third pal, Marisol, played by Gabrielle Walsh, is treated more like an afterthought.) The Marked Ones isn't as mannered and meta as the 2012's Paranormal Activity 4, which was notable — and weirdly commendable — for how adamantly un-scary it was, focusing mostly on the iChat non-courtship between its two teenage principals. The Marked Ones isn't mannered at all, though it is a little meta: Written and directed by Christopher Landon, The Marked Ones attempts to pull together some of the plot threads from previous Paranormal movies and weave them into an elaborate mythology. It's a bit of a stretch, and the scares in The Marked Ones are both more graphic and less effective than the shadowy spook-outs of the other movies.
For those who care about stuff like formalism, The Marked Ones isn't so different from your typical found-footage romp, a la V/H/S. In the other Paranormals, it's always clear where the camera is and why it's there. In The Marked Ones, you're just supposed to presume that someone or other is recording at all times, whether or not there's any logical reason for it. And on the sliding scale of shaky-cam standards, The Marked Ones is really shaky. Bring Dramamine, or a barf bag.
But really, none of those factors alone would be enough to sink The Marked Ones if it were some combination of funny, scary, or funny-scary all the way through. The big problem is the picture's tone: In the second half, specifically, The Marked Ones is nastier and more mean-spirited than any of the other Paranormals. Landon co-wrote three of the previous entries, though this is his first time directing one, and he doesn't seem to know, or care, about the kinds of questions audiences may want answers to. At one point, we see Jesse torturing the Chihuahua; the camera lingers a little too sadistically before Landon cuts away. We don't see the outcome of the sequence, and the dog is never heard from again — I guess we're not supposed to care what happens to him, or, for that matter, to Jesse's abuelita, who apparently doesn't fare so well, either. Landon works hard at loading the last half of The Marked Ones with scary stuff, ticking off all the boxes. But the devil is in the details, and he leaves too many of those hanging. In the end, The Marked Ones isn't very paranormal at all. Really, it's just business as usual.