Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones belongs firmly in the mainline continuity of a franchise that now reaches its fifth entry in the most pandering and condescending way I can imagine. Latinos are a reliable audience for this franchise? Then throw some Latinos at it. Incomprehensibly-written demons don't care what skin color you have.
In truth, The Marked Ones is something of a return to grace for the series, which had been steadily worsening all though way through to Paranormal Activity 3 in 2011, but only ran aground on Shit Island with the fourth entry in 2012. I don't know if it's quite the case that The Marked Ones is back up to the level of quality represented by PA3, and I don't know if it would be the case if that was really a good thing anyway. What I do know is that in its clumsy, obvious way, The Marked Ones is openly trying to be a scary movie, and all things being equal, I do tend to prefer horror films that make an attempt to be scary over horror movies that all excited about collating the narrative details of the films preceding them.
Certainly, the kind of scares to be had here are of an entirely reductive sort, but that will happen with fifth films: the camera moves here, it's empty, it moves to a close-up of the mildly confused protagonist, it moves back only this time somebody is standing in shot as wasn't there before! Accompanied by a noisy musical sting or clanging sound effect, things that typically cannot be incorporated into the nominally real and entirely diegetic onscreen world of found-footage horror movies, though bless me if The Marked Ones doesn't think long and hard about making that leap. For a franchise whose creepiness bona fides have relied primarily on slow builds and letting the viewer soak in the frame, this film is awfully dependent on stock-issue jump scares. Which, I can never emphasise this enough, is more than PA4 had going for it, so congratulations to writer-director Christopher Landon (who's had his hands in every Paranormal Activity since the second one): he knows how to make a mechanically functioning movie, which is apparently something we can't take for granted now.
This newfound love for jump scares comes hand-in-hand with the other big aesthetic leap in this movie, which is a charmingly optimistic way to phrase it. This is the first Paranormal Activity to largely eschew the static camera looking at a room style in favor of handheld consumer-grade cameras being shakily carried around by the main characters, the dominant mode of pretty much every found-footage movie outside of this franchise. Which is maybe what is meant in calling this a "spin-off", though I think structural niceties are probably not what Landon or series guardians and producers Oren Peli and Jason Blum had in mind. If the result is that The Marked Ones is, in a walk, the laziest and most generic of the Paranormal Activities, it also doesn't reach the frustrating depths of the last two.
The plot, anyway, takes us to the summer of 2012, in a predominately Latino neighborhood of aouthern California. Here, recent high school graduate Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his best friend, the affably dopey Hector (Jorge Diaz) spend their days goofing off and recording all of it, because why not, and through all the dipshittery, we get just enough hints that Jesse's downstairs neighbor, an older woman named Anna (Gloria Sandoval), is generally regarded in the community as a witch to give us a good sense of where the plot is going. Sure enough, she ends up dead at the hands of local good boy-turned-bad Oscar (Carlos Pratts), who leaves just enough breadcrumbs for Jesse, Hector, and the vaguely defined Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) - I think she's somehow related to Jesse, but I wouldn't swear to that in a court of law - to start piecing things together when Jesse starts having weird dreams and begins to experience unexplained phenomena, like bite marks, levitation, and random flashes of demons from out the blackest Hell.
After the complicated plot developments in PA4 (and really, PA3, but in retrospect they weren't so brutalising then), the generic simplicity of this (teen is possessed by witch; other teens try to help him; they fail, because Paranormal Activity ceases to function as a franchise if significant percentages of the named characters survive to the end of an individual feature) is honestly refreshing, even if The Marked Ones serves its duties as a nonsensical chunk of mythology in a franchise that was at its best when it was plainest by introducing every overweening screenwriter's favorite, time-travel. Which gets its first of, I have no doubt, many workouts in a final scene that commits the cardinal sin of using fanboy-pandering coolness as a panacea for a lack of the kind of drama so taut and well-conceived that it can generate a logical, satisfying ending.
But that's not a rabbit hole with going down. The elegant sparsity and quiet of the first Paranormal Activity is long gone, and if jangling noise is going to be all we get to replace it... well, at least The Marked Ones progresses cleanly through the first 75 minutes of its plot. There's nothing fresh or rejuvenating here: the Latino angle is clearly a marketing gesture that does not meaningfully inform anything but the accents and the replacement of "witch" with "bruja" in dialogue; also, the requisite superstitious old Colorful Ethnic Lady is a grandma, not a maid, which makes her at least marginally less problematic of a representation (also a mind-melting "You're like Sherlock, holmes" joke that only a white dude would have ever though might be worth writing). But this is the typical January horror movie version of a frozen dinner: something that you ingest entirely because you know it's not going to be very good, and therefore do not run the risk of having your expectations thwarted. It yells "boo", you jump, you forget about it, and at least it's not actively painful in the process. This got the coveted The Devil Inside release slot, after all.