Paranormal Activity 2
Dir. Tod Williams
Release Date: Oct 22, 10
(It’s probably in your best interest to not read ahead if you haven’t seen the first Paranormal Activity yet. This is a sequel that demands having seen the first installment, so SPOILERS AHOY.)
Apparently, around two months before Katie (Katie Featherston) murdered Micah (Micah Sloat) in their Carlsbad, CA mansion, Katie’s sister was similarly beset by a demon. That’s the clever, logic-hole-avoiding central conceit of Paranormal Activity 2, Paramount’s best attempt to put their game face on and act like they’re not trying to capture low-budget lightning in a bottle twice using more money. Mercifully, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch II this is not; the sophomore installment of what’s probably going to be our new yearly horror franchise does what it has to do by sticking to the formula that made the first an unbelievable smash.
If the above sounded workmanlike, that’s because PA2 is very much a churn. Director Tod Williams cleverly works around the visual limitations of the first movie by shooting the action through security cameras placed throughout a house. While a smart move for expansion’s sake, this also has the side effect of losing much of the bracing immediacy of the first film. For the first hour we get a repeated cycle of the same six camera shots (outside, backyard, kitchen, living room, front door, baby’s room) that in theory are supposed to lull the audience into a false sense of security. This is a strange enterprise I’ve noticed in horror films; the audience is watching with the full expectation that their sense of security will be violated, so why go through the motions for such an excruciatingly long time?
Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) and newborn Hunter discover that the same demon from the first movie has come to open and close their doors without warning, though PA2 takes place somewhere around three months before the previous installment. The scenes with Katie and Micah are rather obnoxious, as we’re one “He didn’t want to hang out today…” quip away from the film grabbing each audience member by the shoulders and violently shaking them while yelling “THEY WERE IN THE FIRST MOVIE AND NOW THEY’RE DEAD DO YOU GET IT!” Equally absurd is the return appearance of the Ouija board from the first movie; here it’s used for a sex joke in a throwaway scene, which I suppose is better than it erupting into badly rendered CGI flames.
The film also makes use of several ever-amusing horror tropes; that kids and pets can see ghosts before anybody else, that there will be a nice Hispanic nanny who burns candles and mutters prayers to keep evil spirits at bay and of course, that everything terrible happens in the basement. Not content to settle there, PA2 relies on what’s rapidly becoming the go-to replacement for the Dead Teenager Movie, the Dead Nice White People Movie. Everybody in the movie is completely harmless even under the most extreme emotional duress (at least Micah was a jackass in the prior film), and since the film starts with a title card thanking the families of the deceased for the footage, the only thing the audience gets to really wonder is how and when the pleasant father with the goatee is going to bite it.
As far as not fixing what ain’t broke, PA2 has taken that old chestnut as literally as it possibly can. In fact, it’s so devoted to replicating the screaming-audience effect of the first incarnation that it reuses a vast majority of the same visual tricks, nearly shot for shot. The invisible force pulling the woman out of the room, a sudden loud boom, a shadow looming over a lit room, it’s all here. The climax even recycles the exact final shot from the first movie, but to diminished returns; where in that film there were no final credits and a jarring passage of darkness after the abrupt cut to black, here we get that length of visual silence followed by comforting end credits, like a ride operator on a roller coaster soothing us back into the station so that we know it’s all over now.
The most egregious thing about PA2 is the blatant telegraphing of jump scares in a film that has no tricks up its sleeve except for jump scares. It’s clearly meant to be watched in a theater, as the bass mix starts subtle and builds to a roar. This would be a neat piece of sound mixing were it not for the fact that every single time the shot shifts to night vision, the low rumble begins. It’s a 91-minute reel of cheap sudden freak out moments with no real investment demanded from the audience. We’re not supposed to care about the characters, because the film treats them as perfunctory, there to be our proxy and freak out when Doors Start Slamming Behind Them. So, I give kudos to Paramount Pictures; if Oren Peli didn’t succeed in creating the cinematic equivalent of a haunted house the first time, they sure nailed it now.