Paranormal Activity. Remember that? Paramount churned out six of them in six years before box office and budgets met in the middle. It’s been six years since The Ghost Dimension. Might as well be 10. The big marketing push for that one? It was in 3D for the first time. Hell, it feels like more than a decade.
But in a streaming mill demanding infinite content, intellectual property — like the killer in whose head someone should just bury a knife already — is never truly dead. Thus, a moribund franchise is made flesh once again as Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin is now available to stream on Paramount+.
This series has only ever bounced from extremes of commendable to expendable. If pressed, 2014’s The Marked Ones is the best. Parts two and three have their moments. The original? Please. That fusty old thing courted attention-deficit cinema with lame Pavlovian cues to get people to stop tweeting, texting or talking and watch a Really Scary Thing That’s About to Happen. To be fair, most of its five follow-ups featured better humor, less tedium, stronger acting and devilish directorial talent. But they also perpetuated pointless mouth-to-mouth on time-hopping portals and devil-cult mythology that coded a few films earlier.
Thank Satan that Next of Kin is an all-out narrative reboot requiring you to recall none of the previous nine hours, even though it’s also written by general series architect Christopher Landon (the Happy Death Day films). Even if this outing’s demon has a far freakier name than Toby, Next of Kin is more playful about its premise in ways that its increasingly lore-larded predecessors couldn’t be. Perhaps that’s because the series’ traditional found-footage plane is broken early to achieve more of a hybrid style that even includes a full-blown score and some country-classic needle-drops; at least you’re not wondering if the onscreen crew is piloting that drone for several hours to get the perfunctory overhead winding-highway shots. Tension sometimes feels as tight as the corners in its creepy old farmstead setting, thanks to the work of director William Eubank (Underwater) and cinematographer Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe 2) — perhaps the best visual battery any of these has had. It also embraces the cultural snobbery and mean streaks that permeated the most palatable portions.
Thanks to 23 and Me, Margot (Emily Bader) has found her first biological relative, Samuel Baylor (Henry Ayres-Brown), whom she’s meeting for breakfast. Tagging along is Chris (Roland Buck III), a filmmaker friend who coaxed Margot into a documentary about her discoveries. For years, Margot’s only keepsake of either birth parent is grainy security-camera footage of a woman discarding her at a hospital. She hopes Samuel will be but the first new branch on her family tree … which turns out to have Amish roots.
Samuel is in the middle of his Rumspringa sabbatical, a cultural tradition of wild oats temporarily sown that has still caused a rift between Samuel and his father, Jacob (Tom Nowicki). Two centuries of Baylor-family stoicism is hard for Jacob and his gigantic family to shake, especially with what happened to Margot’s mother. However, he reluctantly allows Samuel back to the farm and Margot, Chris and doofus sound guy Dale (Dan Lippert) to stay and gather footage. But oops, it’s barely nightfall before some Baylors are sauntering into snowy woods with red lanterns. Or shoeless towheaded child sleepwalkers pop out of nowhere. Or a little girl tells Margot her mother is “still here and she doesn’t like you.”
Along with wiping its narrative slate clean, Next of Kin’s change of scenery is a smart play, something like a Resident Evil Amish expansion pack. Even in cramped headspaces of haylofts and small-corner attics, Eubank and Luque’s widescreen compositions create crannies in which to conceal more concerning sights than outright frights. There are also two first-person descents into a deep, narrow, cross-adorned hellmouth that serves as a sort of security system against something sinister. Landon also works up one of the series’ stronger conclusions, an appreciably bleak and nasty sendoff.
But it’s not all lucky-number seven. At 98 minutes, Next of Kin is the longest stretch of Paranormal Activity. You feel it when Dale tries his hand at horse-riding on a farm by that point fraught with enough fucked-upedness to leave, and you’ve already figured everything out an hour before that. Shot amid the pandemic, it’s set in March 2021 to show off its COVID safety-coordination bona fides when it could have just as easily taken place in 2019. And while Next of Kin becomes the installment with the most incident, it essentially feels like an anodyne vision of the apocalyptic hell Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans raised in their “Safe Haven” installment of 2013’s anthology V/H/S/2. For all of that, at least Next of Kin rests alongside the franchise’s finest … even if that bar is so low it’s sunken into the ghost dimension.