Review: Strong choices make ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ a smart left turn

I would be hard-pressed to name any horror franchise that got to film number five that still had my attention in any serious way. I gave up on Freddy Krueger way before most of my peers, I don’t acknowledge the existence of more than one film about Michael Myers, and two times around the track with Pinhead was plenty. But somehow, against any logical odds, the “Paranormal Activity” franchise appears to actually still be wringing new tricks out of a very, very basic formula.

“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is written and directed by Christopher Landon, and if there’s anyone who can be considered the chief architect of the underlying mythology besides Oren Peli at this point, it’s Landon. He was the screenwriter on all but the first film, and one of the things I respect about the way they’ve parceled out the story so far in this particular series is that each movie has added a new idea or a new perspective to paint a portrait of a wide-reaching conspiracy that has taken years to bring to fruition. All of these tapes fill in some part of the story, and in this case, the story being told doesn’t appear at first to have any direct connection to the other films. This time, the main characters are Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz), both just out of high school, two Hispanic kids in East LA.

It’s a canny move for the franchise, and it could easy come across as a cheap stunt. I’ve been married to an Argentinian woman for almost twelve years now, and she works in immigration law, meaning we are in contact with tons of families with deep roots in Los Angeles, in Central America, in South America. In the last decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to be welcomed into a culture that is a major part of this city in a way that not every white mainstream American ever gets to experience, and I love that my kids are growing up in a multi-cultural household, bilingual as long as they’ve been speaking.

When I see the Los Angeles presented in this film, I can attest to the accuracy of it. This isn’t just a case of making a play for a particular audience. This is a strong example of taking a proven franchise formula and taking a chance that includes a new audience. Truth be told, any time I’ve gone to see any theatrical horror film in Los Angeles, and especially if I go to midnight shows in the San Fernando Valley, the audience will end up being at least 2/3 Latino. By making these characters the focus and making their daily cultural experience the background for the movie, the film gets to play with a different angle on the mythology. It also makes protagonists out of characters who would be, in any typical horror movie, relegated to the sidelines and most likely killed off early.

There is a different relationship to superstition and the occult and Catholicism in the Central and South American families I know, a sort of inclusive super-mythology that leaves room for both a devout attendance in church and a belief in all sorts of daily magic. There’s a moment in this film where Jesse’s grandmother does something involving eggs, a sort of half-whispered ritual where she’s passing this egg over his arms and his chest and his head, and while I’ve never seen that particular trick, I’ve seen things very similar. There’s one woman in the Argentinian community whose house all the moms know to go to if one of the kids is sick, and she does this prayer/blessing/hypnosis thing with a measuring tape that I am fully confident does nothing whatsoever. But not one of those moms would consider not going to see her, even as they call in their prescriptions from the pediatrician to pick up on the way home. It’s reflexive. It’s a deeply-rooted belief that they probably can’t even fully articulate. They would laugh it off if someone asked them about, but they’d still keep doing it.

The film plays the descent in the supernatural in a very matter-of-fact way, and there are a few sequences, heavily teased in the trailers for the film, that almost feel like a ghost-driven version of “Chronicle.” I think one of the things that surprised me most is that they’ve broken some of the stylistic rules of the “Paranormal Activity” series so far. I’ve written about how I find it interesting that these may be the only films I’ve ever seen where they squeeze genuine tension out of the rhythm of repeated cuts to the same images.

The pace of a “Paranormal Activity” movie is very recognizable at this point. They normally take place over several nights, and there’s a mounting sense of dread that comes from seeing the same series of shots over and over, each night the same, so that when something does finally happen in one of the frames, it’s very clear how much of a violation it is. This one is structured in a much more straightforward “found footage” narrative, and while it gives them room to do more and to follow a less predictable arc, it also robs the series of one of the things that made it unique. There are plenty of haunted house found footage movies out there now, and that makes this feel a little less special.

The film fills in a few new details about The Midwives, the coven that has been manipulating the events in all of these films, and there are two scenes that introduce a big new concept to the series. The first might be the single most sophisticated effects gag we’ve seen in any of the films so far, and the second does something sort of crazy that folds the entire series in on itself. The real question now is how the next film, supposedly due later this year, brings together the various story threads that have been laid out. While this film doesn’t make the same mistake as “Paranormal Activity 4” last year, treading water without really adding anything to the larger story being told, it does end up in a familiar place, and there’s only a finite number of times they can do that without finally paying off what they’ve done such a careful job setting up.

I paid to see the film tonight, and at the 10:45 show, there were probably 40 people in the theater, spread out, no one sitting particularly close to anyone else. When the film started cranking up some of the big tension and scare scenes, though, the theater sounded more full just based on how vocal they were. “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones”  is a blunt instrument, but it is effective.

“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is in theaters now.