Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin (2021)

NOVEMBER 1, 2021


Like most people in the world (including its crew, more on that soon!) I was disappointed with The Ghost Dimension, the alleged "finale" of the Paranormal Activity franchise that didn't really tie anything up and if anything just added more plot threads to the already overburdened canon for the once simple franchise. So when I heard that the revival film, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin (no relation to Patrick Swayze OR Australian sugar cubes) would be a standalone entry with no ties to Katie, Toby, etc, I was kind of relieved. Not only would I get to spare myself a refresh of the last few entries to properly arm myself for the storyline, but maybe there would be a "back to basics" kind of approach that would allow the series to actually be scary again.

Alas, my hopes went out the window in the first scene, when I saw that the film was presented in widescreen. As I've said before, the appeal of the "found footage"/POV aesthetic is that, when it works well (i.e. the first film) you can believe you're watching something that actually happened, which doesn't quite work when it looks exactly like every other movie out there. Some scenes don't even bother to try to sell the illusion of a first person perspective and present their moments in a traditional 3rd person manner, which isn't the worst idea (if anything I've called for it to be tried), but without changing the aspect ratio or putting up a timestamp/red dot "recording" kind of overlay, there's often no real way to know if you're watching POV footage or not. As with IMAX sequences in otherwise standard films, or Freddy's Dead with its "put your glasses on now" gimmick, there needs to be a clear "break" to prime the audience for this kind of change, but that never happens here. There's a dinner scene that is either switching back and forth between the two, or suggesting a very nimble cameraman - the fact that I'm not sure is kind of a problem.

So the movie curiously hamstrings itself with the found footage approach, but "cheats" out of it on occasion with no discernible rhyme or reason, and I spent half my viewing wondering why. The plot calls for cameras, of course; our heroine, Margot, is making a documentary about her search for her mother, who abandoned her as an infant and left her not knowing any of her family. Via 23andme she discovers a relative in an Amish community, so her and her cameraman (plus a kooky boom guy they hire) head there, and thankfully it only takes about nine seconds after their arrival for things to not seem right (I'll give it this much, it doesn't drag out the spooky goings on as much as some other films in this sub-genre). And apart from a few snafus with the POV approach (like an early scene where there is clearly two cameras filming the action but only one has been established), so far it's all more or less in the usual wheelhouse for this sort of thing - but it's at this point it seems that it would have made more sense if the characters dropped the cameras and the filmmakers presented the rest of the story traditionally, with perhaps one or two cam sequences for good measure and also trailers.

In fact, given the religious/demon elements that the film centers on, I couldn't help but think of [Rec] at times, and in turn, think about how that series' 3rd film took this approach, starting off with cameras and then switching out of that mode in order to give the story its ideal presentation. That's not what happens here; the narrative is actually pretty interesting (SPOILER: you might be reminded of The Sentinel), but it's constantly being held back by the needless POV structure. The best of the other films had their characters set up mounted cameras to avoid us in the audience having the "why are they filming this?" questions (no one will question why an oscillating fan is still filming!), but there's no such luck here. As a result, in order to get key information the characters have to film themselves doing everything, even going to the auto parts store to buy a car battery (considering they're in Amish country and have to rely on a tempermental generator to charge things, you'd think they'd be a little choosier with when they turned the cameras on). With every interesting story reveal, I kept thinking how much more engaged I'd be if I wasn't forced to constantly wonder why the cameras were being brought out, or - given that the cams WOULD be abandoned at times - why the director wasn't switching out of it there as well.

And yeah, you can "just go with it" the way you did for things like Parks & Rec (which aped The Office's documentary structure but never actually had a camera crew present in its narrative), but that doesn't quite work for a horror movie. By constantly being flip flopped between being a fly on the wall or being "in their head", the scare potential is constantly being betrayed by (attentive) viewer confusion. When a character descends into a long shaft, it could have been an atmospheric creepfest, and a typical horror film would have a very wide shot to illustrate the depth of the hole and how isolated the character was, but instead we get her POV... sometimes. Sometimes it goes up to her friend's POV, who is sure to grab his camera and look at the hole as he operates the winch. As a result, it ends up being kind of a dull scene (not helped by the fact she goes back up almost instantly), hampered by nonsensical character decisions being made in order for us to see all of it. There's another scene where they have to restart the generator during a snowstorm, and I couldn't help but think how tense it might have been with traditional angles and editing, instead of me wondering "Don't they have flashlights? Why are they risking dropping their expensive camera in the snow to film themselves trudging through snow? Do they plan to use this footage in their family documentary?" It's that sort of thing, over and over, until I just kind of checked out. As with 3D, the POV aesthetic is a tool, and a good one when wielded correctly, but when misused it's just a turn off, at least for me. If you're going to ask me to deal with shakey camerawork, a lead character who we rarely see, etc., there should be some benefit to the approach, but I could find no such thing here.

Which is a shame, because the climax is great. If you participated in any of the "drive thru" haunts that cropped up last year due to covid, you might feel right at home when two survivor characters attempt to escape the burning farm as various possessed (or just angry?) townsfolk chase after them, as does the film's new demon - it really felt like one of those Halloween Horror mazes that I drove through last year because doing them in person wasn't possible. Also the final scene is pretty chilling, as is the implication for what could happen next if this film proves to be a success for Paramount Plus (and yes, I AM annoyed I couldn't see this in theaters; it's actually kind of ironic given its widescreen presentation that this is the first one that actually went direct to video). But alas, too little too late.

Not to mention that this is a weird way to try to revive a dying franchise after six years. Someone from the film likened it to Season of the Witch, and while that is an acceptable point of reference in theory, it doesn't quite work the same way. Halloween III came out one (1) year after Halloween II, a film that seemingly finished off the Michael Myers story for good. This film is coming after a narrative that was riddled with unanswered questions, and after several years to boot, so the fact that it's unrelated AND doesn't even really FEEL like an entry in the series (they don't even do "Night #1"!) makes the Halloween III comparison a poor one. What the series needed was something like H20, a soft reset that brought back the elements and characters we enjoyed and got things back on track while ignoring specific beats that weren't working. I mean, even Spiral had more connection to its older franchise than this had - this often felt like an unrelated movie entirely that was slapped with the PA name.

It was released alongside Unknown Dimension, a documentary about the franchise thus far, covering each film in sequence. One might think it's too new of a franchise to warrant the "Crystal Lake Memories treatment", but one should consider that the films' blu-rays have been noticeably bare bones so far - no commentaries, no behind the scenes pieces, etc. Some have deleted scenes or extended versions (sans any commentary explaining why the scenes were excised), but that's been about it, so this doc is really the first time we've gotten to hear the cast and crew (pretty much everyone of note is here) talk about how their film(s) came together. One entry was basically shot and reshot up until the release date, which finally explains why its trailer had so much footage that wasn't in the film itself. In fact it might have even been the first time I actually saw what any of the directors looked like besides Oren Peli, because I've met him (a good place as any to note I am in the film as well, as a "horror expert" or whatever the hell they call me when I do these things).

It's also refreshingly candid; the director of Ghost Dimension alludes to there being too many cooks in the kitchen and having the 3D element forced on him, and Jason Blum flat out says that one and PA4 are bad. And that makes me wish they had waited a bit longer so they could be frank about the new film as well; the cast and crew appear near the end, speaking from the set about how they want to bring the series back, but noticeably absent from this section is the film's writer, who has noted (via Twitter) that there were unfortunate compromises on this new one as well. If the IMDb is to be believed (...) another film is on the way, apparently (subtitled The Other Side, so we might get someone filming their trip to the dentist to get braces), and will return to the world of Katie and Kristi. But honestly I don't care so much about that as I do the producers taking a good hard look at what made the first film as good as it was and trying to revive THAT, with or without video cameras.

What say you?


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