Another year, another Paranormal Activity movie. You know the drill: the low-budget haunting, the little-known actors, the now-hoary "found footage" gimmick. How many things are more predictable?
And yet, these movies are scary, the latest no less than its four predecessors. The Marked Ones is being promoted as a side-trip for the series, possibly the beginning of a spin-off franchise. And while you'll be happy to know that's not entirely the case, the picture does have some fresh elements. Apart from offering more action (and a brief flash of full-frontal female nudity), this is the first PA movie to be aimed directly at Hispanic-American horror fans, a growingly important segment of the fright-flick audience. (One of the characters wears a t-shirt announcing "I just look illegal.") Despite the movie's ethnic slant, though, there's no need to be Hispanic to be creeped out by it.
The story is set in Oxnard, California, this time. It begins with a family celebration for a group of students who've just graduated high school. The action is a little slow getting started, but before long strange sounds —shrieks and moans—are heard from an adjacent apartment. Two of the teens, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz), take an immediate interest: "Let's go check that shit out!" Naturally, they bring along a video camera for our benefit.
The downstairs apartment belongs to an old woman who's said to be a bruja, or witch. Down in the basement to which Jesse and Hector are inevitably drawn after breaking in, they find flickering candles, walls filled with eerie symbols, furniture spattered with blood. There's also a box filled with items that will be ominously familiar to loyal PA followers. The weirdness quickly ratchets up: mysteriously swaying curtains, strange hooded figures. There's a visit to a store that sells Hispanic religious statuary—skeletons with saintly crowns and suchlike—where we hear talk of a doorway to unholy realms. Jesse wakes up one morning with a strange bite mark on his arm, and soon begins acting very oddly. Whatever demon is at work here makes contact through a Ouija-like game machine; its message is not comforting.
Despite the insane amounts of money the Paranormal Activity movies have made (the first four films grossed more than $700-million worldwide on budgets totaling less than $20-million), the special effects, like the production design, have remained proudly elemental. But the films' best horror jolts—like the memorable spine-snapping in PA3—have been effectively placed for maximum shock; and new director Christopher Landon, previously employed in scripting the last three movies, skillfully exploits this strategy. When a dead body suddenly plunges down into the camera frame, we rear back reflexively. And even the shots that don't really relate to anything—like a long icky thread being pulled out of an eyeball (see trailer)—are still irresistibly gruesome.
At the end of the picture, the story carefully evolves into something unexpected—which at this late date in the franchise is unexpected in itself. The Marked Ones demonstrates the continuing vitality of this bare-bones series. A sixth PA film—officially Paranormal Activity 5—will be out next October. If it does its job with the simple, shivery expertise of this installment, I'd say—unlikely as it may seem—that's good news.