31 Days to Scare ~ Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin

1

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 ~ Underwater


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mysterious creatures terrorize crew members aboard a research station located seven miles below the surface of the ocean.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie

Director: William Eubank

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I write these reviews as if the reader has read every other post I’ve written these past nine years so I feel I should probably start out my review for Underwater to say for all you first-timers out there that I. LOVE. MONSTER. MOVIES.  Also.  I. LOVE. UNDERWATER. MONSTER. MOVIES.  There.  It’s out there again, I can be free to go on with my reflection of Underwater, and you can understand why I was both excited and a little bit nervous going into this 2020 release because I really wanted it to be good.  I wanted it to be so good, in fact, that I even spoke the words out loud in the theater beforehand to my partner so it would be clear that, no matter what happened, I was always rooting for the film to succeed.  It has been so long since we had a good creature feature that I felt it was high time for something new to try to break through but I never thought it would come from 20th Century Fox starring indie-darling Kristen Stewart.

Filmed all the way back in early 2017 (we’re talking March-May), Underwater was made when 20th Century Fox was still its own studio and not owned by the Disney corporation.  Once Disney shelled out big bucks for Fox they acquired all of their movies set to be released and have been gradually rolling them out to strategically not interfere with the release dates of their own in-house movies.  Ad Astra was given a bit of a short shrift earlier this summer and, while it did decent business and received good notices, it wasn’t nearly the blockbuster it might have been had it been solely under the Fox banner.  Then again, that movie had its own share of challenging advertising issues…not really being an action movie but being marketed as one.

Back to Underwater, this is another case of Disney burning up a Fox release in that no man’s land of January and hoping that something will come of it.  Thankfully, this is one title they blessed with an advance screening so others could get the word out, but with the studio releasing it against the Oscar hopeful 1917 and the comedy Like a Boss, there wasn’t a huge audience left over for Underwater. That’s likely why the movie didn’t make much a dent during its opening weekend, despite costing upwards of $80 million to produce.  Ouch.  Let’s put that aside for the moment and focus on the movie, though.

It’s good!  Like, really good!

Actually, let me take a step back and I’ll temper my enthusiasm with a caveat that I was pre-destined to like this film based on my above mentioned penchant for this particular brand of horror movie.  Even if it was kinda bad, I probably sorta would have liked it.  That it was competently made, admirably performed, and skillfully executed only added to the enjoyment level of it and I have to say that it exceeded any expectations I had going in.  Knowing next to nothing about it thanks to a buzz machine that barely got started, it was fun to go in fairly blind and I think you should do your best to know as little going in as possible.  So I’ll keep this brief.

The set-up sounds familiar.  In an isolated area miles below the surface, an accident decimates a drilling station that is exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench, stranding a handful of crew members that were lucky enough to survive the initial incident but unlucky to live to face a perilous fate.  Mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart, Charlie’s Angels) is plucky and resourceful, rarely fazed by the obstacles that lay before them.  This comes in handy when the survivors realize they have to exit their doomed vessel and walk a stretch of exposed ocean floor in suits that may not stand the pressure to another station that might be in a similar wrecked state.  Oh…and there’s a rash of sea monsters released from the depths of the ocean by their drill trying to eat them.

Writers Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) devise some nifty set-ups and nasty ends for the workers and it helps that most of the supporting cast is played by familiar but not too familiar faces.  You never know quite who is famous enough to make it to the end, and even that isn’t a guarantee.  There are some surprising twists I wasn’t expecting but they all make sense in the overall story Duffield and Cozard set out to tell.  Along with William Eubank’s tight direction, there isn’t a moment wasted in Underwater and even some late-breaking attempts at giving greater depths to certain characters don’t feel completely out of nowhere if you consider the life or death situation they are all in.

I find it so intriguing the choices of roles Stewart is drifting toward lately.  Though filmed several years ago, taking on a studio monster movie must have been a leap for her but I can see why this more introspective character appealed to her.  There are shades of Alien’s Ellen Ripley in Norah and while she doesn’t have the opportunity to go full Ripley mode, the final twenty minutes of the movie are an exciting ride with Stewart in the drivers seat.  When T.J. Miller (Office Christmas Party) pops up I groaned, fearing the weary comedian’s way of sucking the life out of anything he appears in but aside from a bumpy start he actually becomes quite endearing.  I get the impression the Captain character played by Vincent Cassel (Trance) may have been trimmed in editing to save time but what’s been left behind is good enough to make it a memorable showing.  Rounding out the small group of survivors are Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane), with Henwick nicely going from naif-y to taking charge after being pushed into service.

From a production standpoint, Underwater is incredibly successful and highly effective; the sets and visual effects are solid even if you can’t always make out what you are seeing.  This adds to some, if not all, of the tension Eubank creates and there are several true edge-of-your-seat-hold-your-breath sequences that were quite enjoyable to sit through with a packed audience.  Even better, these passages lead to a pay-off of value, not some cheap scare that vanishes into the ether.  All in all, a handsome effort in front of and behind the camera.

The performance of Underwater, 2018’s The Meg, and 2019’s Crawl, not to mention their better than average reviews, indicates audiences are open to the next wave of monster movies and they don’t have to be franchise pictures either.  I don’t need a Godzilla: King of the Monsters to fill my bucket when a simple story about nature run amok will suit me just fine.  Here’s hoping more of these are produced over the next few years – if they are as well made as the three I just mentioned above, this creature feature fan would be in seventh heaven!

The Silver Bullet ~ Underwater



Synopsis
: A crew of underwater researchers must scramble to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory.

Release Date:  January 10, 2020

Thoughts: Watching the preview for Underwater, I kept wanting to shout out “This trailer knows me, it really, really knows ME!”  Horror movie? Check. Underwater horror movie? Check check. Underwater horror movie with creatures from the deep picking off the crew of a felled sea lab? Check check check!  As excited as I was to see this, I can’t help but feeling a little nervous at the same time.  I just finished reading an exhaustive profile of star Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper) and though it talked about several of her upcoming projects, there was not a peep about this one – strange, right?  Also, its January release date is either a smart move of counter-programming to clear out the post-holiday stuffiness or a keen way for Disney to quietly burn off a 20th Century Fox film that came with the studio when they purchased it.  I did a quick check online and until today there had been next to no news this movie even existed…much less that it had already received a PG-13 rating and a locked in release date.  Yet, nerves aside, I’m pulling for this one…if only to help me relive some 1989 nostalgia and resurrect some interest in titles like  DeepStar Six and Leviathan.