LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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 for this series after 2012's poorly regarded "Paranormal Activity 4."
Functioning more as a mythology-expanding spinoff than a proper sequel, this fifth installment (the first directed by longtime 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!" (Look for "Tilt your viewfinder 20 degrees to the left!" to finally supplant "Look out behind you!" within the present decade.)
Appropriately, the hapless heroes of "The Marked Ones" never put down the camera even as they venture into dark basements, or struggle to start a stalled car, or split up in the middle of a haunted mansion - and it's to the credit of the film's primary cast that these bits of genre-appropriate stupidity generate more laughs than groans.
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 that rarely gets to see itself onscreen - while smart casting and production design help capture the flavor of the environs with only moderate deployment of cultural stereotypes.
Seemingly possessing no greater postgrad ambitions than milling around and attempting "Jackass" stunts with their omnipresent video camera, Jesse and Hector harass Jesse's abuela (Renee Victor), smoke pot, play basketball, occasionally run afoul of some local gangsters, draw penises on one another's faces, and generally break each other's balls for a decent chunk of the film. Fortunately, Jacobs and Diaz boast an easy "Beavis and Butt-head"-esque chemistry throughout, making for pleasant company as the audience waits for the inevitable 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 "maybe the bitch is a bruja." The two attempt to spy on her by lowering a camera down through a ventilation shaft, where they witness Anna scrawling arcane symbols on the belly of a nude younger woman. Being teenage boys, they're far too intrigued by the boobs on display to fret over the obvious occult ritual taking place, but when Anna is subsequently murdered, they decide to attempt some amateur late-night 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. Replacing the typical Ouija board with a haunted Simon game is sure to provoke howls of laughter from those in the appropriate age bracket, and the idea that a victim of demonic possession would rush to YouTube to show off his gnarly new 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, and director Landon has fun with some clever camera placement here and there. 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.
"Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," a Paramount release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "pervasive language, some violence, graphic nudity and some drug use." Running time: 84 minutes.