The first “Paranormal Activity” film in six years attempts to revive the series, and does (sort of), by setting a demon thriller on a farm in Amish country that’s actually a creepy cult.
At the movies, I don’t scare easily, but the “Paranormal Activity” films have usually found a way to get under my skin, at least for a few moments. They’ve been coming out since 2007, and in all that time they’ve turned into their own genre, with its own tropes and shivers (the stories told through a camcorder darkly, the flash-cut ghosts and demons). But the forces behind the series — led by the independent horror mogul Jason Blum, who “Paranormal Activity” first put on the map — must have realized, around the time of “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” (2015), that the series was starting to run on fumes. It had become a fear franchise of diminishing returns (creatively and at the box office), and that’s why “The Ghost Dimension” was presented as the final film in the series.
You knew they couldn’t stick to that. But “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin,” which is the seventh “Paranormal Activity” film and the first in six years, is certainly an atmospheric change-up. It’s set on the 200-year-old Baylor farm in Amish country, to which Margot (Emily Bader), who grew up adopted, has traced her genetic lineage. As a baby, she was abandoned at a hospital entranceway by her biological mother (an event caught on surveillance footage that she’s watched countless times). Now she’s shooting a documentary (of course!) about her journey to discover where she came from.
A genealogical research firm has linked her to a young man on the farm, who invites her there. But as soon as she arrives, accompanied by a pair of filmmaking pals, her no-nonsense cameraman (Roland Buck III) and gangly, goofy sound person (Dan Lippert), the farm turns out to be just creepy enough in its archaic sternness to look like some sort of cult.
The “Paranormal Activity” films have been all about technology, so there’s a certain minor ingenuity at work in setting one at a place where technology isn’t even allowed. The Baylor family elders have agreed to let Margot shoot her film there for a couple of days, and to share their own lives of puritan piety and sin. Margot and her friends are put up in a room of old wallpaper and metal-framed beds that looks like the world’s least quaint bed and breakfast. In conjuring its image of life on this farm, “Next of Kin” plays off several other movies — “Witness,” for one, but also two films that aren’t about the Amish: M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” (which I think is the last really good M. Night Shyamalan film) and “Midsommar,” Ari Aster’s epic nightmare set in a pastoral cult community in Sweden.
“Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” is like “Midsommar” made with a lower budget and a cruder sense of shock value. Yet it squeezes some entertaining suspense out of characters like Jacob, a dour elder with long white hair and a dab of beard, nicely played by Tom Nowicki, who turns even the act of saying grace into a veiled threat (he says they’re grateful “to have our sister Margot return to us,” and a red flag goes up — do they think she’s joining them?). There’s an unsettling scene with a little girl who, when Margot tells her that her mother used to live there, replies, “She’s still here. She doesn’t like you.” There are shivery scenes set in an attic, where Margot discovers a disturbing letter written by her mother — and begins to sense her presence in more concrete ways. And then there’s the old church behind the woods. It appears to be a place of ritual sacrifice, and at its center is a trap door that opens up into a cavernous vertical mine shaft. Is it leading to hell? Or is there something at the bottom of it that’s terrifyingly of this earth?
“Next of Kin” is like “Midsommar” meets “Breaking Amish” meets “The Blair Witch Project: Fifty Shades of Dark.” That Margot wants to strap on a harness and go down to explore that mine shaft says a lot about the kind of horror-film heroine she is: plucky to a fault, someone for whom the phrase “Don’t go in the basement” was invented. She’s looking for her mother, and finds her (kind of), just as the movie is looking to inject some life back into this series, which it does (kind of). By the climax, though, you can feel the film shooting the works and petering out at the same time. On some level, every “Paranormal Activity” film is about monsters caught on camera, but in this one the demons remain scariest when they’re sight unseen.