I think I take on something of a duty of care over readers in reviewing a film as eagerly anticipated as Paranormal Activity 2. Like the first one, you’re best off knowing as little as possible about the plot, so I’ll endeavour to divulge as little as possible. If you want to go in knowing nothing at all, here’s the short version.
If Paranormal Activity made you throw your popcorn in the air and soil yourself with fear, Paranormal Activity 2 will probably scare you even more, and properly creep you out, to boot. If you found Paranormal Activity a little overrated, this is kind of a step up, but don’t go in expecting some glorious revelation. There you go, the short version. If you’re going to see it blind, then go now and read this later. Watch it (or not) in good health!
Rather than being a sequel to Paranormal Activity, this reveals itself around five minutes in as more of a companion piece. It’s about Katie’s sister and her family home being haunted by the same demon that plagued her when she was young. Her husband is sceptical, but her teenage daughter, Abi, is captivated by the idea that the demon is after their family, and specifically baby brother, Hunter.
The first film became, against all expectations, the kind of hype-zilla word of mouth smash hit that has frequently reoccurred in the genre ever since the release of The Exorcist in 1973. Stories of viewers fainting, screaming and vomiting become popular, especially in the age of the Internet, and turn horror films into events that appeal to a wider crowd than the usual genre lovers. Most appositely, the biggest one before Oren Peli’s low budget shocker was the found footage trendsetter, The Blair Witch Project, in 1999.
The relevance to Blair Witch goes beyond the method of storytelling. I seriously thought we were in Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows territory here. By the very fact that it’s numbered, we’re past the threshold where people might mistake Paranormal Activity 2 for footage of an actual haunting. I was underwhelmed by the first film and by the context of the sequel’s production alone, I went in expecting a cash-grubbing stinker of the lowest order.
Although I like the film more than I liked the first one, much of my enjoyment of the film undoubtedly came from the audience I saw it with. It’s a tricky proposition for people who want to avoid peak times at the cinema so they don’t get the talking and texting brigade. You never know if you’re in the auditorium with people who are there to see the film or with people who are there to hang out until the pubs liven up a bit.
Try and see it with a decent audience. This isn’t a film that will hold up too well on DVD, unless you replicate the conditions of the original by watching it on your own at night. I personally wouldn’t have had half as much fun without my crowd’s astonished interjections, nervous laughter and outright terror.
Director Tod Williams pulls you into his trap by making each and every one of you in the cinema into part of the film’s machinery. Your reaction to the jumps and the chills is, for your fellow viewers, as much a part of the action as what’s on-screen, and Williams carefully builds up to that first big fright with breathtaking tension. You know the rules, so your anticipation is most of what keeps you occupied for the first half hour.
It’s a double-edged sword, though. While Paranormal Activity could feasibly have been real footage, edited down after the fact to show the most pertinent events, this is a different beast. It feels more constructed, calculated by its director to eke out tension, rather than to relate real events as the first one purported to do. The logistics were so obvious to me that I found it a little difficult to invest in it at first, and I was annoyed at the very last by the inclusion of closing credits, where the first film closed with a simple copyright notice.
More than that, the characters are weaker than the first time around. By expanding the cast from Katie and Micah in the first film to a family and their acquaintances in the sequel, they’ve diluted the terror a little. The characters catch up with the audience at varying rates rather than all at once, and although the naturalistic acting is a boon once again, these characters just aren’t as interesting as the couple from Paranormal Activity.
There’s also a reluctance to break new ground. Although an infinitesimal amount of the Featherstone family back-story is uncovered, it’s frustrating that the film spooks us, like the first time around, but never flat out stuns us. It’s nice to see the demon being mischievous in broad daylight, but it’s an idea that’s not really pursued as fully as I’d like. If only this film had made fans as scared to be alone in the house during the day as the first film did for nocturnal happenings, we might have had something brilliant.
Instead, it’s occasionally given over to swerving the obvious developments to walk straight into another one. Thankfully, there’s no hackneyed killing before the opening credits. Hell, there are no opening credits. But then later on we get the housemaid character, who’s Hispanic and religious enough to sense bad juju before the demon arrives properly. You know, like everybody’s favourite character in Devil, recently. And the positioning of this character as an expert baffles me. Most of us would call Father Karras or Peter Venkman, but no, here’s an elderly Spanish woman all but shouting “Diablo” at an empty house.
It’s never anything less than entertaining, though, and it has more than its fair share of memorable moments. It’s simultaneously distinctive from the first one and yet enjoyable in a similar way, so for critics, it’s difficult to top Bloody Disgusting’s Brad Miska, who has already coined the best pithy review of the film by saying it’s the original’s “sexy twin sister.”
In a year that’s given us [REC] 2 and The Last Exorcism, I would measure it more as a cousin to those superior found footage flicks. The kind of cousin you like in small doses, and who apes the behaviour and language of [REC] 2 with some of its techniques and twists.
Ultimately, it’s still too packed with things I wish they hadn’t done, or things they had done differently, for me to give it the glowing review I would give to the audience’s responses. So, will it be with the inevitable Paranormal Activity 3, once the opening weekend figures come out and Paramount notices that they’re onto a Halloween multiplex fixture to replace Saw?
Paranormal Activity 2 could be the proper start to a chain of sequels that would form a tradition of a kinder nature than Saw. There isn’t much in the way of gratuitous gore, just a bit of consistently spooky escapism. It’s cynic-proofed itself by showing how mocking the fear factor only provokes the demon. If you don’t lose any sleep over these films, let that fester in your mind for a while. Either way, I hope you enjoy this one like I did.