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In Movies & TV Reviews

Andrew Jacobs stars in "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," now playing.

"Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" is a marked improvement

As a grown man in a bat suit famously once said, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

No, Batman doesn't show up in "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" (though … "Paranormal Bativity" … somebody call Paramount!), but that's exactly what happened to the "Paranormal Activity" series. Once the little indie upstart that served as the perfect creepy antidote to the bloody, scare-free ridiculousness of the "Saw" series, 2012's part four turned the found footage franchise into the enemy.

What was once fresh felt like formula, the story now had its own "Saw"-esque convoluted mythology retconned into existence and it was adding almost nothing new, other than "But this one has a Microsoft Kinect!" Even the most forgiving audiences began to realize that the studio was making a lot of money for making intentionally crappy-looking movies and putting in very little effort.

After taking the past year off, the series makes its static-filled, lo-res return with "The Marked Ones" – or "Paranormal Activity 4.5" – with a couple of much appreciated tweaks in tow. Gone, for instance, are the blue-hued night sequences, which used to escalate in tension but eventually only escalated in tedium. We also get to leave the house. They may not sound like massive changes, but little stuff like that helps make this spin-off – even with its issues – seem fairly fresh, fun and freaky again.

Also missing in action this time through: generic white people. Playing toward the disproportionately large Latino audience that attends supernatural horror flicks, "The Marked Ones" moves the series to the barrios of Oxnard, California. There, we meet Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz), two Latino teens fooling around with their dad's new camera (and a tiny, travel-friendly GoPro), making amusing "Jackass"-lite videos.

Of course, things take a turn for spooky when the reclusive lady downstairs mysteriously dies, and their class valedictorian (Carlos Pratts) starts acting … off. The boys and their female friend (Gabrielle Walsh) decide to investigate, uncovering a bizarre witch cult.

Their amateur investigation also leaves Jesse with a mysterious bite mark on his arm, granting him nifty new abilities. The boys do the obvious thing – make more "Jackass" videos – until Jesse starts to seem off too, prone to unpredictably violent fits of rage and disappearing to the underground bunker in their dead neighbor's apartment.

It's not particularly revolutionary (writer-director Christopher Landon seems to have watched "Chronicle" a few times), but after the bland and predictable boredom of "Paranormal Activity 4," "The Marked Ones" feels like a fresh jolt of energy. For one, it's a lot more fun than most of the previous installments. Instead of just being filler, the friendship between Jesse and Hector is funny and natural, whether they're recording their juvenile antics in the hopes of some YouTube fame or excitedly discovering what they think is an eerie prostitution ring downstairs.

Even when Landon's script forces them into exposition-spouting mode, they seem like fun, real characters, impressive considering I couldn't even bother trying to describe another personality in the franchise other than "dead" or "possessed."

Most importantly, though, "The Marked Ones" is pretty freaky. It never quite gets under the skin like the first two films, but there's a new sense of creepy exploration. It's no longer just a standard haunted house tale; it's a possession story in a new, bigger environment, with new (or at least new-ish) rules and without the predictable format of the previous films. However, Landon uses the same eerie tactics, quietly building the tension to shrivel-back-in-your-seat levels for the film's big scares. Yeah, they're jump scares, but they're effectively built up and satisfyingly startling for the most part.

Unfortunately, "The Marked Ones" doesn't exercise all of the franchise's sins. By the end, the mostly stand-alone film is trying to make unneeded links to the series' past mythology. The series keeps filling in blank spots that were better left blank. The result is confusing, kinda silly and frankly, only series die-hards will care about the big connection reveal. The story calls back to "iconic" characters and locales, trying to get the audience to go, "Oh! It's that generic kitchen!" or "Hey, it's that generic teen girl that I kind of vaguely remember existing!"

The story overall isn't the film's strongest element, becoming a little incoherent at moments. For instance, a horrifying trip to a basement seems like it should be a big deal, but it's forgotten by the next scene. Also, some elements edge closer to funny than creepy, such as a possessed game of Simon (what's next? Evil Boggle?) and an oddly shotgun-heavy climax. Note to horror writers: Creepy things are less creepy when you can vanquish them with a double-barrel to the face.

Plus, the only thing that still haunts the "Paranormal Activity" series – and the whole found footage genre – more than ghosts is the question of "why are we recording this again?"

Still, for a series that I pretty much left for dead a year and a half ago, "The Marked Ones" is an enjoyably freaky jump back to life. The next proper sequel, "Paranormal Activity 5," is scheduled for this October, so I guess we'll find out then if this is a genuine franchise resurrection or just one quick lively spasm before dying off for good.

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