After a strong start, the Paranormal Activity franchise went downhill fast. The original was so intense and scary that I vividly recall feeling slightly sick to my stomach halfway through, due to the level of dread it built. Each sequel was increasingly dumb, and the last two, The Marked Ones and The Ghost Dimension, were virtually unwatchable. The gimmick had been done so often that it was rendered impotent. After a few years in retirement, the franchise is back with Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin. Although marginally better than the last few installments, very little of the original's magic can be found here.
In a twist that may be inspired or insipid depending upon your point of view, the movie is set on an Amish farm. Well, at least it's different. Margot (Emily Bader) was abandoned by her mother as a newborn and raised by an adoptive family. Now an adult, she has gone looking for biological relatives. It turns out that she's from an Amish clan led by Jacob (Tom Nowicki), her grandfather. She goes to visit, with the idea of making a documentary about the search for her past. Joining Margot are cameraman Chris (Roland Buck III) and sound guy Dale (Dan Lippert).
Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin cheats a little bit. The other entries were all about unseen ghostly figures. The menace in this case is glimpsed multiple times and is more demonic than spectral. Regardless, something is not as it seems at the farm. Whatever it is has a direct connection to her mother. The more Margot and crew look into it, the more danger they find themselves in.
In the wake of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, found footage movies became all the rage. They seem simple to execute, but doing them well is a whole other ballgame. That's where Next of Kin falters. The characters use HD cameras, which takes away the spooky grain of a video camera image. They also utilize drones. Such high-tech equipment makes the footage they shoot too polished to be scary.
In a similar vein, director William Eubank (Underwater) relies on carefully-composed shots and an excess of edits. For “found footage” to work, the camera has to basically just run, creating the illusion of reality. That's what sells the concept. The original had the camera on a tripod, recording what happened to main characters Katie and Micah as they slept. It looked and felt real. In this case, we can see the filmmaking technique at work, so the proceedings are never particularly frightening.
With one exception, that is. Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin has one legitimately creepy single-shot sequence involving a deep, dark, claustrophobic pit that Margot lowers herself into, not knowing what's at the bottom. I don't know how they pulled this off – it looks 100% authentic – but it's chilling. We feel like we're plunging into the darkness with her. For whatever else it lacks, the movie at least has this scene to fray our nerves.
That, along with Emily Bader's strong performance, gives Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin a certain level of watchability. There are far worse chapters in the series, for sure. A single terrifying scene isn't enough to make a horror movie work, though. Too much here betrays the notion that we're watching found footage, and some fairly big questions remain unanswered at the end. I haven't yet gone back to re-watch the original Paranormal Activity, but I suspect a second viewing – even knowing everything that's going to happen – would still be more consistently nerve-rattling than watching this picture once.
out of four
Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin is rated R for violent and bloody images, and language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.