Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) wants to contact an unearthly spirit he thinks has begun to inhabit him, so naturally he uses the old electronic game Simon as a medium. “Do you think I’m handsome?” he asks, laughing. A beep signals Yes. More seriously, “Are you my guardian angel?” Another beep: Yes. Then: “Are you good?” Silence.
Not good — for Jesse or any of his friends.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, the latest installment of the found-footage horror franchise that began in 2009, takes a detour off California‘s Highway One from the nice white people getting haunted in suburban Los Angeles and lands in heavily Hispanic Oxnard. After four PAs on consecutive Halloweens, the new movie is not exactly a sequel — PA 5 is due this coming October — but more a grafting of the familiar fright mechanisms onto the more robust L.A. Latino culture. This gives the series, which seemed to jump the shark, or the shock, with the last episode, a jolt of energy. Jokier and more sexually charged than its predecessors, with some of the dialogue in Spanish, this is Paranormal Activity, Univision-style. Mind you, one sound is understood in any language: a scream.
After a month of films whose December release dates announced their intentions as Academy Award candidates, the first weekend in January traditionally offers moviegoers a respite from cinematic worthiness. B-minus exorcism epics like Season of the Witch (2011) and The Devil Inside (2012) or the zillionth remake of a horror classic — last year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D — provide reminders that the business of Hollywood is business, and one of the best ways to make quick money is with horror for the teens. The PA series, whose first four films have earned $720 million at the worldwide box office on a ridiculously frugal total budget of about $13 million, was a natural for a January release. PA:TMO provides the familiar cheap thrills but with a salsa tang.
The first PA film, in which writer-director Oren Peli suavely updated the Blair Witch Project template of found-footage horror, introduced the creepy shadows into the new home of Micah Stoat and Katie Featherston (the actors using their own names). The second installment, set like the first in 2006, dramatized a similar ghostly influence on Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden). The third episode flashed back to Katie’s and Kristi’s youth, in 1986, to show the source of their possession. PA4 finally moved the chronology forward to 2011, and showed a new family getting spooked by Katie and her odd son Robbie. PA:TMO takes place in June 2012, but the method is the same: Jesse’s pal Hector (Jorge Diaz) has to record everything with his video camera, even when someone he cares for is getting assaulted by the undead, and two free hands would be a Big Help.
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The earlier films portrayed young married couples or mothers or even kids trying to defend their homes against demons who slip under the bedsheets or into the souls of the unwary. PA:TMO focuses on the teens Jesse and Hector, whose exposure to the dark side is a natural extension of their goofing off, as boys often do the summer after high-school graduation. They set off firecrackers just outside their apartment; why wouldn’t they walk into dangerous places at night without turning the lights on? “Let’s check this shit out, man” is the motto they live, and may die, by. And unlike the naïve stabs at resistance of people in the first four movies, when Jesse and Hector feel imperiled they call on the leader of the neighborhood gang; he and his enforcer enter unhallowed ground toting automatic weapons.
Writer-director Christopher Landon, who also wrote the second, third and fourth chapters, is the son of Michael Landon; the Paranormal series is Christopher’s own Little House on the Scary. Here, though, he gets out of the house and into the barrio. Jesse and Hector are hassled by two dudes who feel the first wrath of the spirit that has seized Jesse. The boys crash a party and connect with a couple of pretty girls (including the sinfully foxy Catherine Toribio) who will later wish they’d stayed home that night. In a bodega, Jesse’s gorgeous sister Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) chats up a friendly classmate (Julian Works), unfurling Jesse’s cosmic ire. Like the teen played by Dane DeHaan in the found-footage flick Chronicle, Jesse has acquired minor magical powers, but this gift is really a curse — a mark of the invasive demon.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Chronicle)
The PA:TMO trailer teases one of the movie’s milder gross-out tricks: Jesse slowly pulling a long black thread out of left eye socket — string theory made visible in cringe-worthy fashion. Another innovation is a chihuahua levitating against its will. But most of the thrills have been long embedded in PA films: a glimpse of a ghost shape, a door (here a trap door) slamming shut and, climactically, the convening of the coven and the outbreak of sensationally jittery camerawork.
PA:TMO also certifies its sibling (or cousin?) link with the franchise by bringing old friends back for cameo appearances. Oh look, there’s Ari (Molly Ephraim) from PA2! Katie and Micah, is that you? These indie actors, who get hardly any film work outside the series, may not have the marquee value of the guest stars who show up at the end of Anchorman 2, but they are no less welcome. You can expect them back in the official PA5 — because the cool thing about these undead is that you can’t kill them off.