Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones: Film Review

A shift in focus helps revive the low-budget horror series, despite the near-absence of returning castmembers.

Screenwriter Christopher Landon directs the fifth installment of Paramount's long-running franchise.

Taking a new tack with the hugely successful and lucrative Paranormal Activity franchise, the series’ filmmakers target a young Latino audience with the fifth installment, which acts as a spinoff from the original films. Playful rather than cynical, this fresh approach provides sufficient variation to bring back fans loyal to the established brand, as well as engage a larger urban audience as well.

Paranormal-scale returns seem unlikely, but Paramount could still see a big weekend when The Marked Ones’ take is combined with box-office earnings from holdovers The Wolf of Wall Street and Anchorman 2.

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Recent Oxnard, Calif., high school graduate Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and homeboy Hector (Jorge Diaz) plan to spend their summer goofing off and chasing girls, but the sudden death of Jesse’s downstairs neighbor, middle-aged recluse Anna (Gloria Sandoval), messes with their plans. Breaking through a window into Anna’s shuttered apartment after the authorities have sealed the front door, the teens discover a collection of ritualistic art and a children’s nursery outfitted with ominous surgical equipment. Shortly after removing a journal full of occult writings and illustrations from Anna’s place, Jesse finds a mark on his arm that looks like an animal bite and begins to experience strange physical sensations and a growing sense of strength and power, but he’s also losing track of events and unable to control his increasingly violent temper.

Hector and Jesse’s sister Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) take their concerns about Jesse’s erratic behavior to his grandmother, who quickly senses the young man’s unease and consults a local healer, but the prescribed ritual only enrages Jesse further. A series of clues leads Jesse’s friends to Ali (Molly Ephraim), who helps them connect recent events and warns that Jesse is in extreme danger from the supernatural forces that have possessed his body and psyche.

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Adopting a looser approach to the found-footage conceit than in the previous Paranormal Activity films he’s scripted, Christopher Landon gets behind the camera on the current outing, but stylistically, he doesn’t manage to noticeably enhance the technique or innovatively employ alternatives to the franchise’s overly familiar brand of shaky handheld cinematography.

Landon’s screenplay displays a fresh, often amusing perspective, however, and this lighter touch serves both the material and the intended audience well, even without returning castmembers beyond a few brief appearances. At the same time, the script succeeds by expanding the Paranormal Activity mythology with additional details and even a few surprising twists, including a particularly sinister use of Milton Bradley’s Simon electronic game.

Jacobs and Diaz share an easy rapport throughout, enhanced by their use of Latino slang and cultural references, along with frequent humor in the early going. Minimal Spanish-language dialogue ensures that the film remains accessible to a broad audience. Further attempts to leverage specific demographic segments of the Paranormal fanbase might irreparably fragment the franchise, but for now a sense of reinvigoration prevails.

Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Solana Films, Room 101
Cast: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Gloria Sandoval, Richard Cabral, Carlos Pratts, Eddie J. Fernandez, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Screenwriter-director: Christopher Landon
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli
Executive Producer: Steve Schneider
Director of photography: Gonzalo Amat
Production designer: Nathan Amondson
Costume designer: Marylou Lim
Editor: Gregory Plotkin

Rated R, 84 minutes