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updated: 1/3/2014 3:14 PM

Latest 'Paranormal' delivers new angles, humor

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  • Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) runs into trouble in "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones."

      Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) runs into trouble in "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones."

  • Video: "Paranormal" trailer

 
By Andrew Barker
Variety

It would be a wild exaggeration to suggest that "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" breathes new life into the increasingly fumes-fueled found-footage horror subgenre, but it certainly represents a shot in the arm after 2012's poorly regarded "Paranormal Activity 4."

Functioning more as a mythology-expanding spinoff than a sequel, this fifth installment (the first directed by series writer Christopher Landon) smartly switches the setting away from airy suburbs to overcrowded working-class apartments, and introduces a winning sense of humor that almost compensates for its relentless reliance on every terror trope in the book.

At this point, the conventions and limitations of the found-footage horror film are almost as well-worn and cliched as those of horror flicks at large: "Put down the camera, stupid!" has now probably been shouted at just as many screens as "Don't go down into the basement!"

Appropriately, the hapless heroes of "The Marked Ones" never put down the camera.

Kicking off with a high-school graduation, "The Marked Ones" centers on likably lunkheaded teenage buddies Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz), as well as Jesse's tag-along relative Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). Set in gritty Oxnard, Calif., the film boasts an almost entirely Latino cast of characters -- a welcome gesture toward a huge filmgoing demographic -- while smart casting and production design help capture the flavor of the environs with only moderate deployment of cultural stereotypes.

Seemingly possessing no greater ambitions than milling around and attempting stunts with their video camera, Jesse and Hector harass Jesse's abuela (Renee Victor), smoke pot, play basketball and occasionally run afoul of gangsters. Fortunately, Jacobs and Diaz boast an easy "Beavis and Butt-head"-esque chemistry, making for pleasant company as the audience waits for horrors to befall them.

The first complication comes from Jesse's elderly downstairs neighbor, Anna (Gloria Sandoval), whose reclusive behavior is strange enough for Hector to postulate that she is a witch. The two attempt to spy on her by lowering a camera down a ventilation shaft, where they witness Anna scrawling arcane symbols on the belly of a naked woman. When Anna is murdered, the teens attempt some amateur sleuthing, with predictably unpleasant results.

While the film hardly plays it coy about where this is all heading, it doesn't seem to be in a rush to get there, and it springs a number of smart ideas along the way. The idea that a victim of demonic possession would rush to YouTube to show off his gnarly abilities -- and be promptly torn to shreds by comment section trolls -- is sadly in keeping with the times.

The haunted house set-pieces provide reliable doses of jolts, even if one can see the scaffolding of each scare being built from miles away. A very meta twist ending promises to either open up new narrative possibilities, or else push the franchise deep into a self-referential rabbit hole.

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