New milieu, fresh cast re-invigorate Paranormal Activity
05:00 AM, Jan 03, 2014
Paranormal Activity was becoming the inert norm. Tales of demonic possession and spooky covens had grown predictable in this series of low-budget shaky-cam sequels.
This fifth installment, however, injects new life into the tired franchise. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (*** out of four; rated R; opens today nationwide) is a marked improvement over its predecessors, having changed the locale and characters from privileged white suburbanites to a mostly Latino cast in a working-class urban setting. It’s a welcome update, qualifying as the best in the series since the first film captivated and unnerved audiences in 2007.
Best buddies Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) have just graduated from high school. Both have a likable Everyman quality and evident chemistry. The film relies more heavily on interpersonal connections between Jesse’s friends and family than on recorded chronicling of things that go bump in the night, which formed the cornerstone of the previous films.
But, as with its predecessors, darkened corners, spooky corridors and desolate rooms are integral to a mounting sense of terror.
The plot centers on Jesse and Hector’s morbid fascination with Anna (Gloria Sandoval), a creepy middle-aged neighbor of Jesse’s, and the strange goings-on inside her apartment. Hector totes around a new digital video camera and stumbles on Anna performing an occult ritual.
In the first couple of films, common household items took on a sinister cast. Here, Jesse’s pet Chihuahua, his feisty grandmother (Renee Victor) and a retro electronic game play key roles.
This fifth film, written and directed by Christopher Landon, has convoluted sequences and moments that stretch credulity.
But it also has more fresh humor, viable scares and character development than the past few sequels. It’s easy to become invested in the welfare of this charismatic cast and to feel trepidation when they encounter hazards.
Jesse is stricken with mysterious bite marks. In short order, he exhibits super-human strength and bouts of nasty temper. He’s “changing,” as predicted by class valedictorian Oscar (Carlos Pratts) who was similarly cursed.
His friends stand by Jesse. His grandmother attempts to counteract the spell he’s under with some unconventional remedies of her own.
While the producers of the franchise are clearly courting the films’ sizable Latino fan base, the calculated effort doesn’t come off as pandering. Ethnic cliches and caricatures are avoided. Jesse and company are more fleshed-out characters than any since Katie and Micah of the first film, and their exchanges feel strikingly natural.
Jesse’s grandmother speaks only Spanish and no subtitles are provided for non-Spanish speakers. Jesse, Hector and their friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) refer to the mysterious Anna, who engages in black magic, as a “bruja” (Spanish for witch) without bothering to translate. All this adds to a sense of authenticity, but doesn’t preclude general audiences from understanding the story and being duly spooked. Those who speak Spanish, however, will appreciate linguistic details and features of Latino culture depicted with more realism than in most mainstream American films.
The series continues to rely on the found footage style, with ubiquitous jumpy edits and murky shots to intensify the intended jittery effect.
A scene involving tattooed gang-bangers taking on supernatural forces provides comic relief during mounting tension. References to earlier films build on the series’ established mythology and deepen its fright quotient.
Horror movie fans will appreciate the nightmarish story arc and the unexpected conclusion in this fresh re-vamping.