It’s June in Oxnard, California, and cheerfully unemployed best friends and neighbours Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) ease into their first post-graduation summer. These guys don’t fret much over having nothing to do. Jesse gets his hands on a GoPro, which he uses to document tequila shots with his abuelita, dancing with Chavo, his pet Chihuahua, and convincing Hector to do idiotic stunts like hurl himself down the stairs of their two-story walk-up in a rubber storage container. When asked how it feels to be out of high school, Jesse replies, “I feel like a man now.”
When a shut-in in their building is killed in her own apartment and their class valedictorian is fingered as prime suspect, Jesse and Hector decide to do a little private investigating—it’s not like cops spend much time in their neighbourhood anyway, and a few hits from the bong is all it takes to turn these guys into Shaggy and Scooby Doo. They break into the victim’s home, which seems long abandoned: everything’s covered in dust, including a huge collection of VHS tapes and a nursery. But wait, the dead lady didn’t have any children. Hmm…
The next morning Jesse wakes up to find that not only has Hector drawn a dick on his face in magic marker, but there’s also a inexplicable circular mark on his arm. Soon after he’s using an old electronic Simon game as a Ouija board, and soon after that he begins to sense that he has superpowers, or maybe a guardian angel! Rather than fight crime, consult a parapsychologist or report to the FBI, Jesse opts to laugh himself silly doing trust exercises and blowing up an inflatable mattress really fast on camera—which he and Hector immediately put online and await approving comments. All of this is pretty hilarious. Think of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones as a genre/sociological experiment: What happens when you put teenage Chicanos who live in walk-ups into an otherwise garden variety American horror story? You get comedy. Or anyway, half a comedy. I wish it stayed a comedy.
Watching The Marked Ones, which was written and directed by PA 2 and 3 helmer Christopher Landon, you begin to realize just how rare genuine ethnicity—not to mention class diversity—is in American horror, which is nearly always about white people and their token black/Asian/Hispanic pals. A veneer of normalcy is essential to most horror stories, but it seems that Landon or someone else overseeing the PA franchise finally clued into the fact that the American normal has shifted since Amityville. To be sure, The Marked Ones capitalizes on racial or class stereotypes, but this is (half-) comedy, and comedy is partially dependent on the shared recognition of such stereotypes, and I’d argue that the film doesn’t do so at the expense of its characters.
Now about that other half. As The Marked Ones burrows deeper into its not-very-mysterious mystery, the hi-jinx largely fall away and the humdrum boo moments accumulate. A conspiracy is uncovered. “He said they’re witches trying to build an army or some shit,” says the MIA valedictorian killer’s gansta brother. Where the movie was previously ridiculous in a good way, it soon just gets really dumb. There’s too much pointless exposition, the car won’t start, and no matter how much hair-raising mayhem unfolds, the camera, of course, always stays on and, miraculously, is always pointed in the right direction. At least the final moments forge a connection to the rest of the PA mythology that’s so absurd you have to laugh. And the audience I saw it with did laugh—a lot. They knew exactly what kind of movie they wanted this to be.