Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin
Directed by William Eubank. US, 2021, 98 minutes.
Seven rounds in Paranormal Activity has evidently reached its Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) stage, with a standalone cult-horror riff that makes the self-destructive decision to abandon its predecessors’ formal discipline—but at least jettisons their wretched mythology as well. Does Next of Kin mean to reboot Paranormal as an anthology, like Twilight Zone? After the terminal narrative mythologizing and diminishing intrigue of the last few, I don’t hate that—this franchise was on a road to nowhere, so why not veer off track and aim for the trees?
The unusually gorgeous found-footage of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015) sets the tone for Next of Kin, which also suggests VICE documentaries in its distracting polish. This time a camera crew follows a young woman tracing her lineage to an Amish commune, where predictably menacing puritan elders have agreed to let them film their archaic practices and rituals. Surely aware it’s aiming for easy targets with this setup, Next of Kin literally stages a few jump-scares against the broad side of a barn.
As the camera presses forward through darkened attics, mine shafts, and a church in the woods, Next of Kin also riffs on Silent Hill and other survival horror video games, the accomplished first-person filmmaking and expressive lighting affording Paranormal Activity an atmosphere that ultimately feels too rich for its blood. By abandoning the franchise’s original concept—a fixed camera angle that locked audiences in position, placing its demon’s constant unseen activity in contrast to our spectatorial powerlessness—Next of Kin discards the productive faux-vérité that was once Paranormal Activity’s main attraction.
Consider the scene where our characters surreptitiously catch Amish adherents singing and pounding jovially on a dinner table, showily staged from contrived angles (including a 360-degree pan from the center of the table) rather than simply recorded by hotshot horror filmmaker William Eubank (who also did Underwater, 2020’s secret Cthulhu movie starring Kristen Stewart). Eubank’s slick approach and Christopher Landon’s self-aware script offer pleasures of their own, but Next of Kin gooses Paranormal Activity’s prior style with cinematic flourishes, a subversion of a subversion that’s more like a flat circle. Yet being reabsorbed into the mainstream is perhaps a fitting prescription for a franchise that long ago lost interest in its own concept. [★★]
Available with subscription on Paramount+.
Directed by Simon Barrett, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, Timo Tjahjanto, Steven Kostanski. US, 2021, 100 minutes.
As Paranormal Activity is ground down into powder, another found-footage regular rises from the ash. Fourth entry V/H/S/94 doubles down on the anthology series’ eclectic but director-friendly structure, wherein various rising genre filmmaking stars contribute horror shorts that are stitched together into an omnibus feature with a connective-tissue “wrap-around” segment. The differentiating hook is that each segment is produced in the style of amateur footage recorded onto VHS tapes; V/H/S/94, unlike its predecessors, turns this format fidelity into outright nostalgia. Its fuzzy, lo-fi aesthetics resurrect the feel of early ‘90s videotape, even involving the cultural events of 1994 in its storylines.
Unlike much of the scattershot first three, V/H/S/94 generally delivers on the promise of its overarching concept, enlisting a cadre of talented directors to revel in analog aesthetica on both formal and narrative levels. Most shorts are shot with old-school equipment and indulgently textured in post, featuring everything from a ridiculously uncanny Slap Chop parody (a “Veggie Masher” commercial by Psycho Goreman’s Steven Kostanski) to a darker satire of the much-circulated Heaven’s Gate videotape (“Holy Hell,” by genre deconstructionist Jennifer Reeder). Skips, static, audio blips, and constant degradation of image add to a constant sense of pixelated fetishism, if not historical accuracy. VHS in the hands of V/H/S isn’t a living medium but a reanimated one, imbued with crackling malevolence and a cruel sense of humor, still decaying as it plays. An entertainingly anarchic energy thus pervades the anthology—the filmmakers all break through the frame with brazen showmanship—eventually, one beats you to death with the camera.
The segments here are uniformly strong, though professional hellraiser Timo Tjahjanto—whose previous series contribution, “Safe Haven,” elevated V/H/S/2 (2012) with kinetic bloodlust—is again best-in-show. His disgusting “The Subject” peers out through the eyes of a human experiment—an amalgam of man and machine, recording through its retinas—that escapes and unleashes carnage when SWAT teams show up to bust its mad scientist creator. Tjahjanto literally makes his camcorder the protagonist, and in doing so displays a certain mastery of this genre’s immersive potential. When one of the countless meat-sack adversaries gets a blow in edgewise, static flashes across the screen in a simulation of agony; when the battery meter flashes empty, it’s at a climactic moment that raises the possibility of our video feed being suddenly disrupted. Disconnection signals death or at least an end to the carnage.
V/H/S/94 gets surprising mileage out of skewering our age of constant self-documentation and disengaged spectatorship. This film’s deterioration, coupled with its invocations of history, lends it real urgency, demanding you watch closely to see the horrors in its frames before they fade away. [★★★★]
Available with subscription on Shudder.
The Spine of Night
Written and directed by Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King. US, 2021, 94 minutes.
A similarly slavish recreation of retro aesthetics, rotoscope-animated fantasy epic The Spine of Night has been crafted with clear passion for highly specific cinematic traditions. Told as a series of convoluted and orgiastically violent vignettes involving the usual suspects from late 70s/early 80s swords-and-sorcery animation for adults—muscle-bound warriors, near-naked women, and brutish tyrants—Spine is a loose anthology connected mainly by the characters’ pursuit of a magical blue flower (and loftier ideas regarding power’s cyclical nature). The film’s flat coloring, though, is at war with its rotoscoping’s uncanny effect, and makes the dense plot extra numbing.
King and Gelatt, who spent seven years on this film, are better fans than storytellers. With Spine, they salute the classical tableaux of artist Frank Frazetta, the trippier stylings of Ralph Bakshi, and the duo’s fantastic collaboration Fire and Ice (1983). Bakshi’s Wizards (1977), his unfinished Lord of the Rings (1978), and Gerald Potterton’s raucous Heavy Metal (1981) also inform Spine’s studiously psychotronic approach. That the weird, blood-soaked, and gratuitously pervy tone of such dated influences has been preserved in full—buxom swamp witch Tzod (voiced by Xena’s Lucy Lawless), for one, completes her entire quest in the nude—clarifies King and Gelatt’s intentions but betrays a lack of perspective on the genre they idolize. [★★]
Now on VOD.
Isaac is a freelance film critic and entertainment journalist. He is from the Boston area, currently based in Chicago, and likely in attendance at horror-movie marathons in both cities.