[3 January 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“That lady is weird.” Ana (Gloria Sandoval) lives in the apartment below Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his grandmother, and to be sure, strange sounds do emanate through the vent. Being boys with a camera in a movie called Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Jesse and his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) do pretty much exactly the wrong thing: they attach their lens to a string they drop down the vent in order to spy on the old lady, whereupon they’re at once thrilled and horrified to see that she’s conducting bloody rituals on a naked girl.
With this scene, the fourth-and-a-half entry in the Paranormal Activity series embraces the basic premise, that cameras reveal what you’d rather not see. Initially quite effective in the franchise’s use of static cameras, the premise famously reached something of an apogee in Paranormal Activity 3‘s oscillating fan, but has also, just as famously, run into some creative dead ends. The new installment makes an effort to reinvigorate the franchise, via expanded mythology, new characters, and a new camera gimmick. As it strains to sustain or at least remember the originality that made for the first film’s success and also deliver to consumers now expecting more of the same, The Marked Ones conjures non-static but more or less found footage imagery and elaborates on the corny-from-the-start witchy Midwives’ mythology.
As Jesse and Hector scream and fret over their view of the naked girl, you might think for a minute that The Marked Ones has found a new idea. The ostensibly new idea here is the introduction of a Latinos-in-LA backdrop. Apart from the welcome change from the white-folks-lost-in-the-burbs proposition that drives so many horror-slasher film franchises, this movie’s urban milieu doesn’t get much traction (unless you count its general borrowing from End of Watch). It does set up for a visual gag having to do with heavily inked, heavily armed cholos facing down screeching witches, as well as a sensible plot point, that when Jesse turns out to be “marked” (possessed), the fact that Hector and their friend Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh) seek help from the cholos instead of the police or maybe a lady exorcist with geek associates. Here the kids are left to their own devices not because they’re kids and adults don’t get it; they’re alone because they’re Latino kids in an alien, oppressive culture.
That culture surrounds another one, of course, the one in which Ana and Jesse’s grandmother provide a sort of point-counterpoint in another version of the witches’ business: Ana’s rituals are plainly scary and the grandmother’s, involving eggs and roots, are earnest, or at least organic. These rituals are both relayed by an increasingly mobile camera—as well as several frame black-outs under thumps and crashing sounds—mostly wielded by Hector, who provides as well an assortment of fearful moans and gasps.
As Hector does his best to record his friend’s transformation (with early discoveries of seeming superpowers recalling Chronicle), he becomes The Marked Ones’ affable and appropriately frightened every-person. As such, Hector might embody a cynical or appreciative gesture toward a particular fanbase, an effort to expand same, or maybe just a device to get you into perilous situations, as he agrees to all sorts of patently bad ideas, hoping to please Jesse, impress Marisol, or maybe sort out his own identity. He never gets far enough along in this latter enterprise to make you worry for him, only worry for how he might provide your perspective.
In this, Hector’s work in The Marked Ones replicates or replaces the franchise’s earlier static camera: he’s on hand for teases and revelations or leaves the camera where it needs to be when he’s not. Whether sneaking into Ana’s police-taped apartment, recording Jesse’s decidedly odd abuse of his grandma’s Chihuahua or running away from witches, Hector performs his viewer-stand-in duties. This performance is never as ingenious as the oscillating fan, at once a trick, solution, and innovation that made all the previous static camera machinations seem a lead-up to that one moment of brilliance. Neither is Hector an especially developed personality, his sidekick status matching his amateur-ness as a camera operator.
Hector’s role as contrivance more than character only makes him like so many other slasher film victims, a means to put the audience in place, to anticipate, and then react to a jump scare or gory extravagance. But even in this so regular role, Hector might be understood as something else. For Hector, a kid caught between cultures, is at once an every-person and not.
He lives in Jesse and Ana and the cholos’ neighborhood, but he only understands English, and needs Marisol or Jesse to translate whenever the grandmother or a gangster speaks Spanish. This helps to make both the witchy and the gangster stuff exotic and mundane, reduced to paraphrases or left hanging, unfathomable. Hector’s insistent, implausible use of the camera might be a cheap device, but it also shows his efforts to understand an old lady’s weirdness, to make sense of multiple codes and expectations, to survive sex and violence. Either way, it lays out the limits of what you can see.