Look, nobody’s going to pretend that the Paranormal Activity movies are anything but a naked cash grab at this point. With Saw finally, mercifully bowing out, somebody had to step up to the plate and deliver a quick dirty horror movie franchise that people can rely on. Considering the appalling state of the genre in 2013, I’m prepared to take my pleasures where I can find them. And this fifth entry in horror’s latest Grand Old Man series has them. Modest and predictable, to be sure, but considering the release date are you going to ask for more?
By now, we all know the shtick: 80 minutes of found footage based on simple stimulus response and spawning an increasingly elaborate mythology than makes increasingly little sense. We get a gaggle to not-too-bright characters, one of whom is armed with a camera, and a supernatural menace that somehow connects back to the long-ago San Diego house where seriously bad shit went down in the original. The Marked Ones deploys the shock scares with route effectiveness. There’s no pretense of anything other than making you jump here, but as that goes, it does the job quite well. We shriek and giggle at the right points, the backstory elaborates a little more unnecessarily than it needs to, and the allotted time spools out with a minimum of regrets. Those who know the franchise understand what they’re getting into.
At the same time, it does a few things that quietly surprise us: notably with the cast and setting. The Marked Ones takes place in a Hispanic neighborhood, with a trio of teenagers and their families as protagonists. The main figure, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), graduates from high school only to find himself the subject of strange bumps in the night. He’s being stalked by something which seems to have its eye on his immortal soul, something his friends can’t seem to stop.
The teen angle is, um, less than new, but it makes their generally clueless behavior much more believable. When you’re eighteen, you don’t make wise choices and “let’s spoon in the murder house” is right up there. At least here, we buy that these kids might do such things. Credit the cast and writer/director Christopher Landon for making the shenanigans feel like genuine (if dim-witted) character attributes, rather than lazy contrivance.
More importantly, the mostly Latino cast addresses a grievous imbalance. You simply don’t see a lot of characters like that in horror movies, and when you do, they tend to fall into appalling cliché. The Marked Ones avoids that, and while we’ve certainly seen these kinds of figures before, it’s not thrusting “look how Hispanic we are!” in our faces the way most movies do. They’re fleshed-out figures, they feel real and when they get into trouble, we feel for them. It shouldn’t be a difficult trick, but you don’t see it that often, giving The Marked Ones a distinctiveness that helps it stand apart.
And let’s be clear: this is consumer product, no different than the Snickers bar you might purchase at concessions. It will never pass as high art or great horror. But it’s quite efficient at its appointed task, and while you won’t remember it for long, you’ll won't come out of the theater feeling ripped off by phony advertising. These movies differ little from the civic haunted houses that show up every Halloween. They do their jobs and get out, with little more than effective technique in their corner. In the bowels of January and with the traditional Stinky Movie pole position clearly in its sights, The Marked Ones manages to slightly exceed its very modest expectations. Give it credit for both respecting its goal and refusing to reach beyond its grasp.