It’s been six years since we last visited the “Paranormal Activity”–verse, but if you were wondering what might happen next in the increasingly weird journey of Toby the Demon — or about the swiftly-forgotten army of supernatural super-soldiers introduced in “The Marked Ones” (which also had time travel!) — you won’t find it in “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin.”
William Eubank’s film is an apparent reboot of the whole “Paranormal Activity” franchise, with new characters, new mythology and a whole lot of Amish people. It’s got even less to do with its predecessors than did the disappointing “Hellraiser” straight-to-video sequels, which also functioned separately from the original stories but at least shoved a couple of Cenobites onto the screen once in a while.
While it’s fair to say “Paranormal Activity” had long since abandoned the relatable and character-driven horrors of the earlier installments, relying instead on tacky gimmicks and wonky world-building, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed that this new installment feels more like a subpar found-footage “Midsommar” than a proper chapter in its own series, even a heavily rewritten chapter.
That would be a meaningless critique if “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” worked on its own merits, and about a third of it does. The final third. Right at the end. After we’ve long since lost interest. The last act is a pulse-pounder. The trick is staying awake long enough to get there.
The film stars Emily Bader (“Anonymous Killers”) as Margot, a young woman who never knew her birth family until she finds a DNA match on a 23andMe. Surprise! Her family is Amish, and miraculously, one of her relatives, Sammy (Henry Ayres-Brown, “DC Noir”), happened to try out the website during his Rumspringa.
Margot and her boyfriend Chris (Roland Buck III, “Chicago Med”) decide to film her visit to Amish country for a documentary project, enlisting a local sound guy named Dale (Dan Lippert, “Son of Zorn”) for much-needed comic relief. Margot is driven by the plot, Chris is a non-entity of a character, but at least Dale seems to react genuinely to his surroundings and to spit out the occasional quality zinger.
Things sure are suspicious out there in Amish Country. Sammy seems unnaturally strong, breakfast is Froot Loops, mysterious red lights appear in the woods, and a little girl tells Margot that her mother might secretly be hiding in the neighborhood somewhere. There are also spooky sounds emanating from the attic, which you’d think would build to something but actually doesn’t seem to, at least not in a meaningful way.
For a protracted amount of time, Eubank relies on heavy-handed set-ups, some of which are just red herrings, and familiar found-footage jump-scare techniques. Some of them work, so hang on tight to your popcorn, but the first two-thirds of “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” are frustratingly formulaic.
Written by Christopher Landon (who wrote four of the other “Paranormal Activity” movies), “Next of Kin” kicks into high gear at the end. The mystery is revealed and a high stakes rescue ensues, forcing Chris to save Margot (with a little help from Dale) by venturing into creepy, unexplored corners of the town and encountering the film’s central evil. The finale has an impressive amount of heat, given how tepid the rest of the movie is, and — unsurprisingly, from the director of “The Signal” and “Underwater” — culminates in an almost satisfyingly epic fashion.
The word “almost” really matters. While there’s tension galore and plenty of eerie excitement, the last act of “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” contains revelations which retroactively undermine the rest of the story, more or less confirming that the whole middle act is just padding. What’s worse, when the horror’s true nature is revealed, it also invites a million disturbing questions about faith that might have been genuinely unsettling if they were, just throwing it out there, explored even the tiniest little bit.
Meanwhile, the film’s awkward set-up of slow-motion as a visual gimmick, rarely employed in the found footage genre, has very little payoff by the end of the movie. We are assured early on that slow-motion photography will pick up “stuff the human eye can’t see,” which sounds promising, but it turns out we can already see everything just fine. It’s just slower once in a while, whenever the movie thinks it would look nifty.
Generally speaking, the film is well-served by cinematographer Pedro Luque (“Don’t Breathe 2”), who brings textured lighting to a genre which is often typified by its visual simplicity. Luque also employs a few entertaining new visual gags for the film’s many jump scares, a sterling accomplishment given how well-trodden this territory is.
It’s difficult to tell a story in the found-footage format, where every shot must be justified, and every shot must, at the end of the day, be realistically “found.” And yet that’s the test the filmmakers chose to undertake. The limitations define the genre and force filmmakers to get creative. Unless of course there’s just a couple of shots that completely break the visual vocabulary of the movie, taking the audience out of the action completely by making us wonder how, exactly, we could be seeing this part of the action since nobody is filming it.
“Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” doesn’t play like a “Paranormal Activity” movie, and it’s not strong enough on its own to revitalize the series and take it in a new direction. The film isn’t centered on universal anxieties that Eubank can exploit to get under our skin. It’s centered on its own muddled plot, which doesn’t even hold up to scrutiny. There are some potent shocks here, but the strongest aspect of the film is the unmistakable odor of squandered potential.
“Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” premieres Friday on Paramount+.