When the first Paranormal Activity started rocking audiences in 2008, creator Oren Peli must have had some inkling that its success would breed sequels. But did anyone expect this train to still be running over a decade later? Here we are again with a new entry, directed by William Eubank and written by Christopher Landon, who’s penned most of the sequels in this series and must be getting tired of the assignment. At least his latest round of Activity departs from the formula in a couple ways: by sending its protagonists outside of suburban safety (the demons used to make house calls, now you’ll have to travel to your doom), and by adding more formality to the camerawork.
Next Of Kin finds a young woman searching for the truth about her mother’s disappearance years ago. Margot (Emily Bader) is shooting a documentary about her journey, and makes contact with an Amish relative, Sam (Henry Ayres-Brown), following a 23andMe match. With a cameraman and a local friend in tow, she embarks to an isolated, snowbound North American Amish community, where her late mother resided before she gave Margot up and then vanished. “No car, no phone, and no one around for 30 miles,” someone points out. Margot can’t say she wasn’t warned.
As the crew drives into the religious community, a contemporary song spills into the frame through the radio. It already feels like Margot’s production is encroaching on a sacred space, and that sense grows stronger as she pokes around. The village looks Amish enough, with horses and buggies and a modestly-dressed citizenry. But something is off. Community leader Jacob, played by an authoritative Tom Nowicki with a damning Clancy Brown stare, gives canned answers to Margot’s questions, calling her mother, Sarah, selfish for leaving the group after having a child out of wedlock. Is Sarah still alive? Why did she drive so far away just to abandon her daughter? Why won’t the children talk about her? And why is the church—the only church in this highly religious enclave—locked and forbidden to outsiders?
There’s a fair amount of levity to Margot’s investigation, more than in previous installments. That’s probably Landon’s doing. Since writing multiple Paranormal entries, and directing the spinoff The Marked Ones, he’s moved on to the heavily comedic Happy Death Day movies. Here, humor makes its way into the proceedings via a comic-relief character played, with some zeal, by Dan Lippert. With his aww-shucks grin, “That’s what she said” quips, and genuine appreciation for tear-away pants, he’s a beacon of good humor in an otherwise run-of-the-mill horror movie.
The documentary conceit is just an excuse for the cameras to always be running—and a justification, on the stylistic front, for working in drones and mounted establishing shots. Eubank, who showed a relevant talent for orienting his actors within given spaces in last year’s Underwater, disappointingly half-commits to his found-footage approach. A throwaway moment of someone showing the pious children the camera’s slow-motion setting is included only to set up a random slowed-down shot later. Elsewhere, during a fevered escape sequence, you’d swear a supernatural entity was holding the camera. Given how long this franchise has been running, maybe it’s okay to see it try out new tricks. But like the Amityville sequels, Next Of Kin dilutes the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the original with whatever tropes are selling these days.
Margot is seemingly the bravest woman alive. She gets over her terrifying encounters overnight, operating as usual the next day. As a result, there’s no dread between the scares, nothing to sustain the bump-in-the-dark tension when something explicitly spooky isn’t happening. A viewer is left to spend most of the 98-minute runtime tallying up how many poor choices this documentarian makes on behalf of her crew. She’s an awful collaborator, running into danger when her cameraman is justifiably reluctant, and even spurring a horse to take off with a novice rider atop, with only an “Ain’t I a stinker?” grin as acknowledgement. It can make empathy a tall ask at times, even with a solid, stiff upper-lip performance from Bader.
She gets to shine in the final 15 minutes, regressing to a quivering ball of emotion; for all the full-steam-ahead attitude, Margot is still a child who wants to be seen and loved. Next Of Kin finally pulls itself together during this climax, relocating the demonic mayhem from a single home (as in previous PA entries) to an entire village, before building to a muted but disturbing ending that echoes the conclusions of earlier films in the series. But it’s too little and too late, and though Eubank and Landon deserve some credit for mixing up the Paranormal Activity storytelling formula, it remains clear that there’s not many scares left to milk from this franchise.