Not so much a sequel as an offshoot of the four previous “Paranormal Activity” pictures (a “Paranormal 5” is actually in the works), “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” abandons the staticam style of its cousins in favor of a whiplash “Blair Witch” POV approach that by this point couldn’t be more tired. And since it’s basically nothing more than a standard-issue possession tale, the combination of an unimaginative plot with what’s by now a pedestrian technique makes for a pretty barren ninety minutes.
The sole element of interest is the change of locale that Christopher Landon (son of Michael Sr. and a regular writer on the last three PA installments, here taking on directing duties as well) has adopted, setting the story largely in the Latino community of Oxnard, California. There Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) has just graduated from high school, and he and his buddy Hector (Jorge Diaz) spend their time doing dumb things and documenting them all with an omnipresent camera. One of their supposedly harmless pranks involves stringing a camera down a heating vent into the apartment below, where they spy their obese neighbor Anna (Gloria Sandoval), a reputed witch, painting some sort of sign on the stomach of a pregnant young woman. They decide to harass the witch—a real couple of jerks, these two, though we’re meant to like them—when their old classmate Oscar (Carlos Pratts)—the class valedictorian, but now wearing a vaguely zombie-like look—kills the woman.
They begin to investigate the killing in their typically doofus way, simply breaking into the dead woman’s place, but their efforts are complicated by the fact that Jesse begins acting strangely and finds himself endowed with unusual telekinetic powers. An explanation is forthcoming in bits and pieces from a “Simon” game, here acting as a sort of electronic Ouija board, along with information that Hector and Jesse’s concerned sister Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) acquire from Oscar’s hoodlum brother Arturo (Richard Cabral) and from a knowledgeable ghost-hunter named Ali (Molly Ephraim); and all of that leads Hector, Arturo and Marisol to a dangerous effort to save Jesse from malevolent forces through an assault on a house that ties his fate to the larger PA mythology.
Fans of the series—especially those obsessed with tying the various story strands together—may find “The Marked Ones” an interesting new piece to the puzzle. And at least it avoids the grotesque bloodletting that afflicted other horror franchises like the “Saw” pictures. But for ordinary viewers the movie offers very few pleasures. There are some engagingly loose moments near the start, when the celebratory atmosphere of Jesse’s graduation is nicely caught, especially by Renee Victor as his grandmother Irma, and the use of “Simon” as a gateway to the other side is an amusing touch. But the characters quickly become irritating—the boys’ endless goofing off (no summer jobs for these two) and habit of recording every dopey moment of their lives make one wonder whether they’re worth caring about at all—and plot elements that could have been expanded to advantage (like Irma’s attempt to respond to Jesse’s predicament by seeking out spiritual aid) simply go nowhere.
What remains is a lot of the same old, same old—plenty of sudden cuts to black and loud noises—occasionally interrupted by uncomfortably ugly moments (a gratuitous sequence of the torture of a dog, for example). The threadbare production, which was a fiscal necessity the first time around, now seems nothing more than a calculated device to keep costs down rather than a choice of gritty realism, and as usual the acting is amateurish, with the exception of Victor and Sandoval, veterans who know what they’re doing. When you add the banal POV camerawork to the mix, it makes for an outing that’s marginally better than the abysmal “Paranormal 4,” but not by much.
One would like, however, to have the specifics on the camera Jesse and Hector are using. Though it’s said to have cost only $300, like the old watches it can take a licking and go on ticking, and must be very easy to carry, since Hector seems to have no difficulty holding on to it even while scrambling over fences or scratching away at locked windows in fear of his life. One wouldn’t mind picking one up oneself. But other than that singular piece of equipment, this latest bout of “Activity” is subnormal horror fare.