After launching the mockumentary horror franchise "Paranormal Activity" in 2007, Paramount Pictures began noticing that Latinos were buying roughly a third of all tickets. That was interesting, especially since all four movies featured Caucasian casts (aside from the occasional terrified maid). Given that Latinos are America's most avid moviegoers -- they see more movies per year than any other demographic -- what would happen if Paramount made a Latino-oriented episode of its successful series?
It's an experiment called "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones." Set in the Hispanic-American community of Oxnard, Calif., it brings Santeria religion and mariachi music to a franchise that has heretofore taken place in the generic McMansions of white suburbs like San Diego and Henderson, Nevada. Paramount's definition of this film as a spin-off, not an official sequel, may smack slightly of ghettoization, but "The Marked Ones" is the rare marketing ploy that feels both calculated and refreshingly welcome.
Like the previous, fourth film, which focused on a pair of likeable, tech-savvy teens, "The Marked Ones" bubbles with energy thanks to its appealing young cast. Andrew Jacobs plays Jesse, a recent high-school graduate living with his grandmother. His best friends are pretty Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) and goofy Hector (Jorge Diaz), whose new T-shirt bears the cheeky slogan, "I Just Look Illegal." Together, they're drawn into a mystery involving a cranky neighbor, a creepy journal and a strange bite mark on Jesse's arm.
Some of the Hispanic details feel overplayed (that bag of Maseca corn flour was surely placed there by a focus group) but others, like Jesse's humble apartment complex and Hector's limited Spanish, have an air of authenticity. They're likely due to writer-director Christopher B. Landon, who captured the rhythms of teenage life so nicely in his script for the 2007 thriller "Disturbia."
Where "The Marked Ones" fails, though, is in its overall narrative, a nearly identical clone of the past couple of films, and in its inability to convincingly explain its found-footage conceit. (Hector never drops that video camera, even when pursued by screaming demons.) The Latino cast gives the movie a fresh, modern feel, but the underlying formula is becoming unacceptably stale.
PLOT In suburban Southern California, three Latino teenagers discover a witch in their midst.
RATING R (nudity, language, gruesome imagery)
CAST Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh
BOTTOM LINE Five films in, this horror franchise gets fresh energy from its likeable cast of young Latinos, but the familiar storyline is wearing thin.