Though now disparaged, the found-footage thriller at one time had a lot going for it, and not just as a gold mine making money for studios. Consisting entirely of video shot by the participants, these films in their earliest incarnations, such as the first “Paranormal Activity” (2007), raised and sometimes ironically explored issues about the culture of self-absorbed narcissism. They also introduced intriguing narrative challenges: They take place in medias res, with much of the story left outside the frame or between cuts, forcing viewers to fill in the gaps with their imagination, often drawing on their deepest fears.
But as with every successful concept, repetition was inevitable. All the appeal and mystery of the first “Paranormal” disappeared with the first sequel. Instead of leaving spaces in the narrative for the viewer to fill in, each new entry in the franchise added more back story, explanations, and subplots that made for a contrived, confusing, narrative mess devoid of development or suspense. Instead of raising questions about our compulsion to record our own experience, these rehashes raised more mundane, distracting questions. Like who is holding the camera, and where, and who could possibly have the presence of mind to keep shooting when such crazy stuff is going down?
And so we come to “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” which has no number in its title because it is a spin-off of sorts, a kind of parenthetical between “Paranormal Activity 4” (2012) and the upcoming “Paranormal Activity 5,” coming out later this year. It seems the coven of evil witches that caused so much trouble in the first films has moved westward and taken root in Oxnard, Calif. There, young Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) has just graduated from high school and is ready to party. He and his video-camera-wielding buddy Hector (Jorge Diaz) celebrate by spying on a neighboring apartment where two naked women are doing something strange.
Perhaps as punishment for this transgression, Jesse that night has strange dreams. He wakes up with a bite mark, and undergoes transformations. Some are cool, like superpowers reminiscent of those in the found-footage film “Chronicle” (2012). Others are less so: One of the most disturbing moments for me in the film was Jesse unspooling what looked like fishing wire from the corner of each eye.
But what I found more disturbing was the casual misogyny of the convoluted story line. As in last year’s inexplicably lauded “The Conjuring,” the source of evil here is female, in this case witches who steal first-born boys and infect them with an evil that matures when they turn 18. That’s probably the age and gender of the demographic targeted by these films. Seems like “Paranormal Activity” is business as usual in Hollywood.