Few who worked on — and the few who bought tickets for — Paranormal Activity 4 were pleased with the outcome.
Although the film performed fair enough in overseas markets, 2012’s installment was by far the worst-reviewed in the series and grossed the least in domestic theaters, just half of what Paranormal Activity 3 took in.
So the creators of the supernatural thrillers decided to sit out 2013 and shake things up, taking the found-footage films into an entirely different “direccion.”
The resulting work, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, is a Latino-themed story that ditches any number of Paranormal Activity staples, taking the characters out of WASPy suburbia and not only into a working-class barrio but also a new narrative realm. Unlike earlier films in the cycle, The Marked Ones, which opened in theaters Jan. 3, is less a tale of a haunted house than of demonic possession, laced with more humor, visual effects and gunplay than any of the preceding films.
But the Paramount Pictures reboot, made for about $6 million, raises a curious dilemma. In trying to pursue Latino moviegoers, who historically have turned out in droves for the low-budget Paranormal Activity films, and abandoning some of the franchise’s tried-and-true conventions, do the makers of The Marked Ones risk alienating the rest of its larger, core audience?
Sustaining energy in a franchise by its fifth film has never been easy.
“Trying to keep interest in anything for this long is a real challenge,” said Adam Goodman, president of Paramount Film Group. “And quality control is a really hard thing to keep up.”
The inspiration for The Marked Ones comes from data and a single moviegoer.
Latino moviegoers long have been supporters of horror movies, especially those with a supernatural twist. Paramount estimates that Latino ticket buyers accounted for about 11 percent of the domestic gross of the first Paranormal Activity film in 2009, rising to about 19 percent for the last sequel (Latinos make up 16.9 percent of the U.S. population.)
The moviegoer in question was a 15-year-old Latina who attended a Los Angeles research preview of Paranormal Activity 3 in 2011. Seated at a focus group after the screening, the teen expressed some complaints about the production, but it was her resolute ownership of the story and its characters — rather than her critical insights — that made Goodman sit up. “She was referring to the film as if [the story were] real,” Goodman recalled.
So the studio, writer-director Christopher Landon (who has writing credits on the last three Paranormal Activity films) and producer Jason Blum set out to create a film that would be designed to appeal to Latino moviegoers, with the caveat that it not pander to them.
“The audience is sophisticated and can see through something that’s inauthentic,” said Blum, who has produced all of the Paranormal Activity films, which have a total worldwide gross of $720.7 million. Added Landon: “We didn’t want to make a shameless cash grab.”
Because Paranormal Activity 4 was so disappointing, the creative team felt it had to try different things, primarily by taking The Marked Ones out of a confined dwelling, as had largely been the decree before.
Landon said that, in his initial research for the movie’s script, he visited Los Angeles botanicas, stores that sell alternative medicines such as herbs and spiritual amulets and candles, and was struck by the diversity of the remedies, clientele and religions represented. (One of the first botanicas he toured is in the film.)
While the Paranormal Activity movies tend to be about things (or people) that go bump in the night, the narrative design of The Marked Ones slowly evolved from a witch story into a possession plot, in which a recent high school graduate named Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) wakes to find odd bite marks on his arm.
Pretty soon, as his friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) documents on video, Jesse is exhibiting strange and disturbing powers, including the ability to levitate himself and others. “I really wanted Jesse to believe that something special was happening to him — that it was something he would be excited about,” Landon said, “before that blessing turned into a curse.”
Although the main players generally speak English (Hector doesn’t speak any Spanish), the filmmakers wrestled with how much Spanish dialogue to include. In following the unofficial rules of the found footage genre, the film couldn’t have subtitles — who would have slapped them on, after all? — but Landon didn’t want the characters to feel ethnically neutered. The solution was to add an abuelita who speaks no English, even though it’s pretty obvious what she’s saying.
“If you are Spanish-speaking, you might understand about 20 percent more of the dialogue than if you don’t,” Blum said. Close followers of the series will recognize several references to earlier Paranormal Activities, including a flashback to the movie that launched it all.