The found-footage style of filmmaking has become so played out that the Paranormal Activity series’ most recent attempt at reinvention comes off as a different kind of rehash – of The Blair Witch Project, Chronicle, Project X, and an assortment of other films that weren’t all that original to begin with. This time out, instead of unfolding via homemade surveillance footage or via laptop cameras that have been conveniently left on, the gimmick is your usual guys-constantly-carrying-a-camera-around setup. Still, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones does depart from the typically bland McMansions of the earlier films and places us in a slightly more promising and alive milieu: a two-story apartment complex in a Mexican-American corner of Oxnard, California.
We open on Graduation Day at the local high school, and see Hector (Jorge Diaz) and his best friend Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) fooling around with their new camera. We watch the two buds goof around with Jesse’s dog, we see them ride a laundry basket down the stairs, we see them do tequila shots with Jesse’s grandmother. But foul deeds are afoot elsewhere in their building, as evidenced by the creepy goings-on around an odd, quietly cranky neighbor Anna (Gloria Sandoval), who has already earned the nickname bruja (witch) from the local kids.
Stylistic borrowings aside, it’s initially an interesting twist to the usual Paranormal Activity template. This time, instead of irritatingly disbelieving suburban-middle-class types, we have working-class Mexican-American characters who are somehow both credulous and foolhardy: They’re willing to believe in witches and ghosts and crazy goings-on, and they’re equally willing to go wandering in abandoned apartments where murders have just been committed. (After all, their tough neighborhood is scary enough; what’s a body-snatching demon or two?) Stereotypes abound, of course, but there’s still an ease to the performances that makes you wish at times that the film just abandoned the horror element altogether and spent some time with these folks. Seriously, maybe there should be a spin-off franchise: Normal Activity. A silly wish, but it’s a testament to the talents of these young actors, and, maybe, director Christopher Landon’s facility with them.
Unfortunately, a change in setting doesn’t forebode a change in tactics, and this Paranormal Activity still traffics in the same tired setups and obvious scares as the earlier ones. The camera wildly pans one way, there’s nothing; the camera wildly pans the other way, there’s nothing; the camera wildly pans back and ohmygodthere’ssomething! A creepy sound is heard and followed; suddenly all the sound dies down and then ohmygodthere’ssomethingelse! Does anybody really find this crap scary anymore?
For all its newfangled conceits, this new film winds up in a familiar place, tying the story of Hector and Jesse and their constantly running camera into the series’ continuing (and not particularly interesting) mythology of a coven of child-snatching and demon-worshiping witches. Even a late-inning entry by some machine-gun-toting gang members (like I said, stereotypes abound) can’t really enliven the usual third-act night-vision histrionics. The series went stale a long time ago, but there will surely be more of these. Let’s hope the next filmmaker to take a whack at a Paranormal Activity flick has the courage to try something genuinely new.