By Josh Oakley
When critics call for more representation in media, this isn’t exactly what they’re talking about. The newest addition to the Paranormal Activity family, dubbed a spin-off but fitting snugly into the series’ overarching story, trades upper-middle-class white suburbia for a lower-income apartment complex in a Latino neighborhood of California. The change is welcome in some regards: despite shallow characters and tepid exploitation of macabre iconography, it is nice to see diversity make it to the screen in any manner. But the whole project reeks a bit of “here’s one for these guys,” pulled back some by a fear of turning off a more mainstream audience. The only food items named are “salsa” and “tortilla chips” and tequila flows freely (it’s not that these details are false, but rather that they’re simple, easy truths). What could have been a real offering for an oft-underserved audience instead becomes a flat serving of cliché, both in terms of stereotype and the Paranormal Activity franchise.
This PA entry borrows from more than Chronicle, Latino stereotypes and previous Paranormal Activity films. There are a number of effects, namely the ol’ “string of evil blackness in the eyeball” that hew closer to CGI-exorcism gore-fests than the more suspense-driven direct precursors to this film. This is a louder sequel, more driven by action than atmosphere. Normally, this would be unwanted, but after the dreadful Paranormal Activity 4, any jolt of reinvention is welcome. Even if the reinvention is simply borrowed from outside the series.
When The Marked One strips the effects and plot away and simply aims to scare, it occasionally lands quite nicely. There’s nothing remarkable here, but one image in particular (a white sheet that slowly moves on its own) unsettles as well as anything in the series. A basement in the complex is an effectively chilling setting, utilizing the warped shadows formed by fluttering tarps. The film suffers in framing, something no PA director since the original’s Oren Peli has been able to master (compare his perfectly constructed bedroom set-up to the lazily shot apartment here). Space has always been the key to the horror of these films, from something in the corner of the frame to the brilliant oscillating camera of the third entry. Director Christopher Landon does nothing special with his surroundings, especially disappointing given the more chaotic environment.
That lack of the new, beyond surface elements, is the most troublesome aspect of The Marked Ones. This was an opportunity to revitalize a flailing franchise, but Landon seems to sigh in every scene, uninterested in creative set-pieces or jump scares. The film is achingly mundane at times, represented best by a Simon Says standing in for a Ouija board. The corners of the series’ mythology are pushed somewhat interestingly, for the three or four people who care about that sort of thing, but not even a batshit and semi-clever ending make up for the regurgitated points that previous entries have beaten to death. The Marked Ones doesn’t speak to a new direction in media representation of the Latino community, Paranormal Activity, or the found-footage genre writ-large. Instead it parrots what has already been said, only altering the cuisine and living quarters.