Even though I was immune to the overwhelming dread and anxiety generated by “The Blair Witch Project,” I understand both its appeal and its effectiveness. I saw the film during its theatrical release in 1999, around the time that it was being called a “sleeper hit.” Made on a shoestring budget of that did not exceed $500,000 — and may have been as little as $200,000 by some accounts — the horror hit is still among the top 10 highest grossing independent films of all time, earning an estimated $258 million. That’s a pretty good return on a project launched by a couple of film students at the University of Central Florida who seized upon the idea that documentaries on paranormal phenomena were more shocking than contemporary horror movies.
I admit that “The Blair Witch Project” may have succeeded in making me jump in my seat a few times, but it did not induce nightmares or stir up long-term trauma that would make me think twice about hiking through the woods or partaking in camping trips. It had a more profound effect upon my wife — then my fiancée — who remains traumatized by the experience to this day.
Although “The Blair Witch Project” wasn’t the first entry in the found-footage film subgenre, it certainly sparked a trend in horror that has persisted for two decades. It undoubtedly provided the creative stimulus that motivated filmmakers to greenlight films such as “Cloverfield,” “REC,” and “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” as well as one of the most successful found-footage franchises: “Paranormal Activity.”
“Paranormal Activity,” the first film in what would become a sprawling supernatural horror franchise, hit theaters in 2007 and revolved around a young couple — Katie and Micah — who move into a house in San Diego, California. There, they are beset by a demon that has haunted Katie since childhood. A home video camera — which is often stationary — is used to emphasize believability over action and gore.
Both “The Blair Witch Project” and the original “Paranormal Activity” share one important characteristic: Neither film utilized a formal script. The theory is that the dialogue will be more realistic. More often than not, this is the reason so many found-footage films fail to connect with viewers.
“Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” is the seventh film in the franchise — and the first following “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” which was promoted as the final installment of the original storyline. The new film, released Oct. 29 on Paramount+, is considered a standalone sequel.
The good news: If you haven’t seen a single film in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, you won’t find yourself unable to follow the story. The bad news: The absence of any connection to previous films in the franchise may not hurt this installment — but it doesn’t help it, either.
Directed by William Eubank, “Next of Kin” follows Margot (Emily Bader), a documentary filmmaker who discovers the identity of her birth mother. Margot’s mother abandoned her on a sidewalk outside a hospital when she was still an infant. Upon learning that her mother came from the Baylor farm in a secluded Amish community, she decides to make a “prestige documentary” chronicling her homecoming. To do so, she taps fellow filmmakers Chris (Roland Buck III) and Dale (Dan Lippert) to travel to the remote setting — in winter.
The film starts with a meeting between Margot and Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown), a member of her extended family, who claims to be partaking in rumspringa, a rite of passage, by temporarily separating himself from the community. He agrees to take Margot and her associates to the farm, but when they arrive it seems he failed to communicate his intentions. They initially refuse to let the group stay at the farm. It is only when the documentary filmmakers discover Eli, a young member of the Baylor farmstead, somehow followed them to a local motel that they manage to earn the trust of Jacob (Tom Nowicki), the patriarch, by returning the child safely. Allowed to stay on the farmstead, Margot searches for clues about her mother — who supposedly fled the community — while trying to connect with her family.
But things are not quite as they seem.
The visitors hear — and record — strange noises emanating from the room that formerly belonged to Margot’s mother, Sarah. A young girl claims that Sarah is still on the farm. Family members are observed walking into the woods in the middle of the night. Chris, using a drone, discovers a strange church hidden deep in the forest.
“Next of Kin” depends heavily upon its primary characters repeatedly making unwise, illogical decisions. It teases viewers with painstakingly drawn-out setups that lead to unimpressive scares. When it intends to startle, it dawdles. When it intends to evoke hideousness, it underscores its mediocrity. When it strives to fabricate a compelling mythos, it yields only worn-out horror tropes.
Were it not for an eleventh-hour story adjustment, “Next of Kin” could be considered both offensive and exploitative. Even with the reorientation, its depiction of what appears to be a traditionalist Christian church fellowship is rather manipulative.
Within the first five minutes of the film, it is fairly apparent that little time was wasted on story basics such as front-end research, character development and dialogue. It’s never made clear why Margot wants to make a documentary. It’s never clear who’s funding the project. It’s never clear how the team manages to continue charging their video equipment after their portable generator fails.
It is clear that this 98-minute film really boils down to few sequences of running through the woods and blood-soaked spectacle. The core concept at the heart of “Next of Kin,” though interesting, is underdeveloped. The last 15 minutes feel more like a first-person shooter video game with the main character deprived of any form of weapon.
By the time “Next of Kin” bombards the viewer with a stream of carnage and simulated dread, its lackluster reveal can’t hope to compensate for flagrant plot inconsistencies, questionable technical choices, and a complete lack of tension. Instead of jumping in my seat out of fear, the most significant physical reactions I experienced while enduring this poorly chosen Halloween selection was sporadic eye-rolling accompanied by uncontrollable yawning.