31 Days to Scare ~ Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman’s search for her biological family leads her to an Amish community that is hiding some very dark secrets.

Stars: Emily Bader, Roland Buck III, Dan Lippert, Henry Ayres-Brown, Tom Nowicki

Director: William Eubank

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Creatively, the Paranormal Activity franchise was at a dead end by the time the previous entry, The Ghost Dimension, was released all the way back in 2014.  With diminishing box office returns and scares that seemed standard, there was little the series hadn’t explored in its own mythology and audiences could almost set their watches by when things would finally start to get rolling.  The beauty of the first movie was the way it slowly reached its boiling point, leading to a finale that paid off.  However, after the same rug pull and trickery were repeated time and time again it wasn’t fulfilling anything but a 90-minute gap of your evening.

The series took a small step away from its origins in 2015 by releasing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, taking the horror out of the suburbs and into the urban life of a Hispanic neighborhood but its cool reception brought producers quickly back to the familiar.  Now, they’ve gone even further by creating a standalone sequel, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin and bypassing a theatrical release entirely, opting to send the screams to stream on Paramount+ in time for Halloween.  (Naturally, it was intended for the big screen but, y’know, COVID.)  The result is still a timewaster but a re-energized one that feels like a move in a good direction if this is the way the franchise wants to frighten us going forward.

Left at the doors of a hospital by her mother when she was just a baby, Margot (Emily Bader) has grown up longing to know her birth parents and find out why she was abandoned but has hit nothing but dead ends.  Now working as a documentary filmmaker with her boyfriend Chris (Roland Buck III) she’s met Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown, Monsterland) after matching with him on 23 and Me.  A member of a small Amish community in upstate New York on his Rumspringa year, Samuel offers to take Margot, Chris, and local sound designer Dale (Dan Lippert) back home when he returns.  Knowing this is her opportunity to learn more about her roots and an opportunity to get footage for a potential documentary, they arrive in the dead of night to a snowy farm that practically screams “Welcome Death!”.

Over the next several days, Margot and her friends will experience the traditions of the community and eventually see some things they weren’t meant to.  Doors with huge locks on them will suddenly be opened and what’s behind them will be explored, hidden rooms will be entered and their contents become clues for Margot to the identity of her mother, suggesting that perhaps she might still be somewhere among the people gathered…or elsewhere on the grounds.  The creepy commune has practices that may remind audiences of Midsommar or other folk horror flicks that thrive under their isolated setting and the claustrophobia of both the insular location and found footage setting helps the film to keep the tension high even if the story feels a bit predictable.

The last film director William Eubank was responsible for was 2020’s Underwater, a highly underrated creature feature starring Kristen Stewart that I’m convinced will someday get the recognition it’s due.  On that film, Eubank showed attention to the small details in character traits which gives us more of a read on who those people were in a short amount of time.  The script from Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) doesn’t flesh these Next of Kin folk out too much so Eubank has his work cut out for him but he’s cast the movie well with fresh faces and respectable stable of character actors playing elders in the group.  Journeyman actor Tom Nowicki (The Dark and the Wicked) is an especially good get as the leader of the society.

Coming it at a rather long 98 minutes, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin follows tradition by lighting a flame early on with scare licks here and there and gradually increasing the frequency until boiling over for a prolonged finale that is a bit too chaotic.  It doesn’t skimp on the jerky camera movements (note: it’s not all found footage, some of it is filmed like an actual movie) or a nice dose of mayhem but there is such a thing as too much of a scary thing. Reaching a level that gets disorienting, I realized what a far cry it was from a rather humble beginning…and not just of this movie but of the first one that came out 2007. We’ve left that California thread behind (hopefully) and who knows what will be next, but there’s effort being made to resuscitate it by a team that obviously cares.

Movie Review ~ Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After being “marked,” Jesse begins to be pursued by mysterious forces while his family and friends try to save him.

Stars: Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Renee Victor, Noemi Gonzalez, Richard Cabral, Carlos Pratts, Eddie J. Fernandez, David Fernandez Jr., Kimberly Ables Jindra, Tonja Kahlens, Frank Salinas, Molly Ephraim

Director: Christopher Landon

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By the time you get to the fifth entry in any series a routine fatigue sets in.  One need only look at Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, Saw V, or the fifth James Bond film You Only Live Twice to see that if the keeper of the keys to an established franchise isn’t on top of things, you’ll be lucky if you’ll see the green light of #6.

Though it didn’t quite make the 2013 cutoff to keep up with the established release schedule of one per year like the previous three Paranormal Activity installments, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones earns an ever-so-slight passing grade due to it being an improvement over Paranormal Activity 4 and for confidently taking the series into new territory.

Never fear, however, because the series formula remains intact with a bunch of unknown actors going up against dark forces – all captured on handheld cameras that seem to always be looking at the right  place at the right time.  The previous movies have mostly been shot with stationary cameras that pick up the ghostly hauntings of various California families that all seem to be part of a larger story of evil demons, crafty cults, and sneaky witches.

The first three Paranormal Activity films did a nice job of weaving their overlapping characters together and moving the mythology forward in admirable ways and if 4 didn’t do much in the way of advancement of character or overall plot it still had its moments.  So hearing that the series was shifting things out of the suburban valley and into an urban community in Oxnard, CA where the cameras would move with the actors I was curious to see what writer/director Christopher Landon (who wrote the last three entries) had up his sleeve.

Turns out that what Landon had prepped was a needed shot in the arm for the series, providing several interesting turns that shows there could be several chapters left in this formulaic novel.  Found footage movies can be rough to watch but Landon and cinematographer Gonzalo Amat (The Devil Inside) keep the action framed well without a lot of shaky shots and skewed angles that can cross your eyes and turn your stomach.

The problem I consistently have with movies shot in this way (like Chronicle) is that you have to suspend more than a little disbelief that during some of the more terrifying moments the person filming wouldn’t have dropped their camcorder and ran for the hills.  After all, if you’re trying to escape a coven of witches, wouldn’t you want both hands free to claw your way out of a boarded up room?

Another aspect of the film I took issue with was an increased level of violence, profanity and nudity, something noticeably absent from the franchise until now.  With one shot of full female nudity, more blood than before, and a colorful vocabulary from our better than average newcomer leads, the series feels like it gave in to peer pressure in trying to stay current.  What made these films so refreshing initially was the feeling the filmmakers were charting their own course with each new entry and not running alongside what their contemporaries were doing.

The film doesn’t skimp on frights and happily doesn’t save them all for the traditional final freaky act.  Landon makes nice use of a modern oujia board in the form of a popular 80’s game and ratchets up the tension as the movie moves toward its twist of a climax that winds up being not so much a game changer but one that hits the soft reset button for future entries.

Neither a home run nor a strike out, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones comfortably rides that mediocre fence with one foot firmly planted on the what-the-hell-I-liked-it side.  If you’re a fan of these types of fright films or the series as a whole you’ll want to check this one out to get your first scares of 2014 taken care of.