There's exactly one moment in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones that's quietly unnerving: the image of a teenager crouched against a door, hiding from the possessed things in pursuit of him, shot from the ground because the camera he's been carrying has been fleetingly discarded. The camera's positioning, lodged against the door to connote both the character's desperation and the spatial entrapment of his current predicament, is a welcome instance of actual cinema, a moment in which the filmmakers appear to be telegraphing meanings and achieving effects deliberately with the good old-fashioned meat-and-potato fundamentals of mise-en-scène.
That scene might not be as noticeable in a better movie, but you take what you can get when you're watching the fifth entry in a horror series that reached its spiritual expiration date three films ago. As sequels this far down the line in an unexpected ongoing international cash cow go, The Marked Ones isn't awful; it's merely numbingly perfunctory and embarrassingly dull. The chill elegance of Oren Peli's original film and its first sequel, both of which encouraged viewers to play a game of supernatural “Where's Waldo?” in which deceptively banal images had to be scanned for the quotidian evil lurking just out of sight, has given way to unceasing repetitions of one scare idea.
In The Marked Ones, characters navigate hallways while carrying a camera in an outward and probing manner that's designed to produce the same cheap gotcha moment over and over in order to keep audiences goosed up enough to overlook the fact that they're watching what can barely be called a movie. Time and again, characters point the camera in the direction of point A for a moment so prolonged that the ghoulie's appearance out of nowhere from point B becomes practically preordained. You could time an egg by the rhythm of these “surprises.”
Marketed as a spin-off, rather than as a direct sequel (that's due later this year), The Marked Ones initially benefits from a change in characters and locale. Rather than following the same doomed white family of the last four films, we're now tethered to the first-person POV of Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), a recent high school graduate in a Latino neighborhood in Oxnard, California. For a little while, writer-director Christopher B. Landon appears to be taking advantage of the new perspective, as he shoots the close-knit community of cramped apartments in a manner that allows us to feel both the reassuring stability of multiple generations living side by side as well as the claustrophobia that arises from an atmosphere in which one never seems to be alone. The premise is ripe for a parable of the differences between generations and of the distancing familial effects of the time-honored American art of gentrification.
But Landon quickly eschews his new milieu in favor of the usual generic abandoned homes and basements, which eventually figure into a climactic siege that's occasionally beat-for-beat redundant of moments in prior Paranormal Activity films. Sitting through this movie, one is driven to respect not the artistry of the filmmakers, as there's precious little of that on display, but the ingenuity and shamelessness of the businessmen who've coerced a significant amount of ticket-buyers into plopping down their money, yet again, for the opportunity to watch several reels' worth of ugly, unshaped footage that wouldn't have been deemed fit for a movie's end-credit outtakes not so long ago. That's scary.