'Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones' Review: An Old Franchise Finds New Life

In truth, there wasn't really anywhere for the Paranormal Activity franchise to go but up after 2012's abysmal fourth installment. Even so, it's a relief to report that Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is a springy step up on every level. The spinoff functions exactly as a spinoff should, offering enough of the same-old to satisfy longtime fans while introducing enough new elements to keep the concepts feeling fresh and original.

That's a credit to writer/director Christopher Landon, who takes his time giving the community a warm, lived-in feel, and stars Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz, whose appealingly naturalistic performances fit right in. It also helps the film's authenticity that Landon does a better-than-average job of justifying the characters' constant need to film everything. Indeed, he may actually be too good at imitating genuine found footage. The perpetually wobbly camerawork won't be for the faint of stomach.

Behind that shiny, shaky new camcorder are best buds Jesse (Jacobs) and Hector (Diaz), who get curious about the rumored bruja (Gloria Sandoval) who lives downstairs. Their interest is only intensified when she unexpectedly dies at the hands of their other buddy Oscar (Carlos Pratts). It's not long after that that Jesse learns that he, like Oscar, is one of the "marked ones."

At first, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing. In a sequence reminiscent of the thematically richer Chronicle, Jesse eagerly tests his cool new powers. He discovers that he's able to throw bullies across the yard with a single punch, leap over his buddy's head with a simple leap of his skateboard, and throw himself to the ground without ever falling down. In a funny, all-too-real sequence, Hector documents these crazy occurrences on YouTube, only to get back snarky comments about his pathetic need for attention and his probable use of fancy VFX technology.

Then, about halfway through the film, the evil stuff kicks in. Landon is a veteran of the Paranormal series, having written all but the original, and he uses many of the same tricks here — jump scares, mysteriously appearing and vanishing figures, otherworldly hums, blank dead-eyed stares — but at a sprightlier pace. In earlier installments, the payoff was never as quite good as the tension leading up to it. This time, there are fewer excruciatingly long build-ups but more explosions and even gunfire. Not so much that Paranormal becomes Die Hard, thankfully, but enough to make this version feel different in a fun, exciting way.

But of course, the question with any horror movie is whether it's actually scary. The simplest answer is that it's about as scary as Paranormal2 and 3, which is to say it's spooky in the moment but fails to achieve the lingering sense of uneasiness that marks the best of the genre. Still, my audience found plenty to make them gasp or giggle nervously, including one particularly disturbing sequence involving a distressed dog.

To some extent, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is limited by the mere fact that it's a Paranormal movie. It builds on the same mythology as the previous films, rather than creating its own, and certain tropes (like the whole found-footage conceit) are too integral to the series to give up. There are requisite references to previous movies that'll excite faithful followers but may leave newbies scratching their heads.

It's all the more remarkable, then, that it not only improves on the last film but promises a fresh new direction for the series. The fact that it allows lower-class Latinos to take center stage in a genre that (like most others) tends to focus on upper-middle-class Caucasians is a bonus. Maybe the nicest thing I can say about Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is this: Between Paranormal Activity 5 and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones: Part II – Ghost Protocol, or whatever it ends up being called, it's the latter I'm really looking forward to.

/Film rating: 7.0 out of 10