Film

How ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ Tries To Right Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

Horror movie lore jokes that the person of colour always dies first, but as this spin-off shows, the genre's a pace-setter for progress.

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Movie cliché lore jokes that a person of colour always dies first. Naturally, behind every joke is a kernel of truth, but in this case there’s an entire cob. “Brothers don’t last long in situations like this…”, joked Duane Martin moments before smartly jettisoning a college campus’s massacre ground zero in Scream 2, a point underlined in bold italics by the film’s tongue-in-cheek opening scene that offed two African Americans (Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett) in a movie theatre as they watched a “dumb-ass white movie about some dumb-ass white girls getting their white asses cut the fuck up.” Irony, I hardly knew thee.

History Repeats Itself

The list of horror movies where a person of colour — usually African American — dies first or early is disturbingly long: The Killer Shrews (1959), New Year’s Evil (1980), Christine (1983), Slaughter High (1986), Dr Giggles (1992), Ghost Ship (2002), and Queen Of The Damned (2002) are just some of the many instances.

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Still, for all the evidence supporting the scary movie theory that if you aren’t an attractive Caucasian you’ll bite the dust sooner rather than later, the horror genre has proven to be the most racially inclusive and diverse of all. The list of horror titles that subvert this most peculiar form of tokenism is equally as long: Night Of The Living Dead (1968) did it most famously, but then there’s I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), Gothika (2002), 28 Days Later (2002) and Death Proof (2009) — films that not only allow characters of colour to stick around for longer than a few scenes, but even become the hero and survive the maniacal slaughters at their heart.

Rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J somehow managed to survive three separate threats on his cinematic life: a gunshot in Halloween: H20 (1998), some super-intelligent sharks in Deep Blue Sea (1999), and a fall through a glass window in Mindhunters (2004). Elsewhere, Loretta Devine lived through two encounters with a masked killer in Urban Legend (1998) and Urban Legends: Final Cut (2002), and, against all odds, Anaconda (1997) somehow allowed both an African American man (Ice Cube) and a Latina woman (Jennifer Lopez) to reach the end credits. Madness!

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Activating Race

Hollywood studio Paramount has gone one step further and made an all-Latino cast spin-off of their popular Paranormal Activity ‘found footage’ franchise. Perhaps recognising that Latino audiences are the highest cinema-attending demographic in America, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones sees the never-ending ghost story set its sights upon Oxnard, California, which the 2010 United States Census claims is 73.5% Hispanic or Latino.

A friend of Latin descent shared with me that she thought the race-oriented decision was an off-putting money-making effort with a high potential for offensive content, especially as it pertains to witchcraft, a very real part of the culture. While I can’t speak to any of that, I think it shows keen awareness of a racially diversified nation. The film even features entire blocks of Spanish-language dialogue without subtitles, which suggests that this isn’t just a cynical marketing ploy, but a concerted effort to appeal to Latino audiences who may otherwise have given up on the franchise after 2012’s disappointing — and incredibly white upper-middle-class — Paranormal Activity 4.

I enjoy these films because I find their world of ghosts and witchcraft entirely relateable, whilst rewarding patience and attention like classics of the genre. You can’t sit around texting during one of these movies for fear of missing a skin-tingling apparition or gasp-inducing bump in the night. This so-called “cousin” to the Paranormal Activity franchise — to be followed by Paranormal Activity 5, due this coming October — repurposes classic bits from the series’ best entries (the first and third installments), while bringing some new tricks and a doozy of a twist ending that helps solve questions you never knew you had.

Like the racial rainbow that is the Fast And The Furious franchise, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is an example of Hollywood attempting to bridge the gap. Maybe the next sequel in this radically multiplying franchise will not be exclusive to one race or another (whether that be white or brown), but it’s certainly a start and a telling continuation of the horror genre’s pace-setting.

A Change Would Do You Good

The likes of Robert Rodriguez (Machete Kills) have long known this, but with audience polls frequently citing women and people of colour as the most frequent ticket-buyers for scary movies, it’s only fitting that more of these films are about them. As Paramount’s film president Adam Goodman told The Wall Street Journal, the latest set of paranormal shenanigans are “set in a multicultural and bilingual world that we believe will resonate in an authentic way for Hispanic and non-Hispanic audiences alike.”

It’d be welcome news if Australian filmmakers followed suit. The infamous ruckus caused by Neighbours’ casting of an Indian family in 2011 showed how white we perceive our on-screen worlds, whether intentional or otherwise. And despite a global market for Australian-made horror titles that’s seen Daybreakers (2009), The Loved Ones (2010), Needle (2010), and others screen to rapturous festival praise and better box office overseas than at home, the closest you’ll find to ethnicities in any of them is a German backpacker in Wolf Creek 2.

The Marked Onesopening weekend was down 40% from Paranormal Activity 4, in both the US and the UK, but that’s to be expected for the fifth film in a fairly repetitive franchise, released in the dregs of January. Considering these films are made for just a few million dollars each, anything after opening night rush is pure profit, anyway. Its biggest success, however, will be whether its out-of-the-ordinary representation of the ordinary spurs on other minority-focused films, sequels and franchises. If nothing else, the injection of new creative blood into the Paranormal Activity series has given us a pretty good film when most genre franchises are straining for freshness.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is now showing in cinemas nationally.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer and film critic from Melbourne, and currently based in New York City. His work has been seen online (Onya Magazine, Quickflix), in print (The Big Issue, Metro Magazine, Intellect Books Ltd’s World Film Locations: Melbourne), as well as heard on Joy 94.9.