‘Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin’ and the Mistakes of Modern Franchises

Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin isn’t a complete movie. With the smoke cleared—literally—and the cops on the scene at this little farm in the middle of Amish country, a character we recognize emerges from the devastation, kills the officers using demon power, steals their car, and heads toward civilization to wreak demonic havoc. One of the few paranormal acts in the flick isn’t to incite fear or make us look over our shoulders but to set up the franchise for more sequels. In its last few moments, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin fully embraces Hollywood’s current franchise fetish and reveals the entire movie was all set up for future installments. This is one trend horror doesn’t need to copy and will be worse off if it does.

Horror is no stranger to sequels or big franchises. The difference between Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives and the latest Paranormal Activity is the former functions as a complete story. Even when it’s revealed that—shock—Jason isn’t really dead before the credits roll, it’s okay because we got a beginning, middle, and end to this chapter.

But then there’s Next of Kin.

For most of its runtime, we’re bombarded with backstory and lore. We’re hit with ancient names, old-school rituals, and a lot more questions than answers. It’s undeniable when a movie seeds ideas for later, and Next of Kin is an entire field of future developments. Characters don’t finish sentences, long-term mysteries are intentionally teased, and one of the movie’s central mysteries goes unsolved. Plus, the fate of our main characters is kind of up in the air in more ways than one. All that aside, the movie pulls the greatest sin of all: It’s focused so much on world building that it weirdly pays little attention to the actual scares.

2009’s Paranormal Activity is a highly effective flick that still rattles around in my head when it’s over. The movie increases intensity the longer it goes on while throwing in backstory without overwhelming the audience with information. Sure, it’s cool to know why Katie is haunted, but the movie never lets that fact take precedence over someone getting dragged out of a bed or loud footsteps followed by a door slamming very angrily. When it teases backstory, like Katie’s childhood home catching fire, it’s never presented as a breadcrumb of a larger meal.

Like Saw, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Halloween before it, Paranormal Activity didn’t put the spooky cart in front of the invisible ghost horse. Oren Peli focused on the movie before him and told a self-contained story that didn’t need a sequel. Obviously, everyone with a financial investment in the series would beg to differ as they laughed all the way to the bank. Duh.

But Paranormal Activity wasn’t engineered to spawn six movies; it organically became a thing.

Big studio horror is playing on a field where established properties and franchises are safe bets. On that same field, movies are created to lead from one installment to the next like a series of conveyor belts. Horror doesn’t work well under those circumstances because the narrative structure is built on setup and payoff. And not one that comes a year or two years after the fact. Paranormal Activity put us in that house at that moment with those two people, and we knew we were getting a resolution. Now, while we didn’t know how it would look and who would survive—although anyone could see that Micah needed to go—we understood a definite ending was coming because that’s how horror movies generally functioned. The Conjuring, which spawned the other big horror franchise of the last decade, finishes its story when the credits unfurl. Even without the sequels or spin-offs, James Wan’s 2013 movie stands on its own two evil feet. Next of Kin, like 2017’s The Mummy, seemingly needs another movie and more story to feel complete.

The problem with modern franchises isn’t that they exist but that they sacrifice story and plot for setup and world-building. If you look hard enough, you can almost see the cash registers on the screen. And in some cases, you really don’t need to look that hard at all. Applying those methods to horror means potentially sacrificing the very nature of a scary movie for the greater good of the studio’s bottom line. Ironically, if a film like Next of Kin doesn’t whet the collective appetite for a sequel, then the half-ass meal fed to us with a pinky promise of more food to come is all for nothing.

Rather than looking to Disney and playing “follow the leader,” Paramount and Blumhouse should copy what the first film in this franchise did almost 15 years ago. There’s sort of a handshake agreement between the fans and the filmmakers: Give us your best shot today, and we’ll keep coming back to see what you do next. It’s why after all these years through highs and lows, characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees will never die. And it’s why if the powers that be aren’t careful, Paranormal Activity‘s demonic resurrection might be an incredibly brief one.