Looking back at my review of the first Paranormal Activity I recommended you wait for it on DVD; at the time I reasoned that a small, suggestive haunted house movie would work better in your own darkened living room. For Paranormal Activity 2 I recommend seeing it in a big crowded theater, because this is a movie that mostly works on the power of the audience reaction. The first film, which is mightily flawed, built up tension in an organic and escalating way. The sequel doesn’t do that. I don’t know if it’s a problem on the filmmaking end – that director Todd Williams, working in a rushed manner to follow up the massive hit of the first film, couldn’t match original director Oren Peli’s graceful pacing – or if it’s a problem stemming from the fact that this is essentially a remake of the first film, just with more characters.
The big twist is that Paranormal Activity 2 is actually a prequel. Except that when it’s all said and done the movie feels more like a very extended prologue, followed by a very short set up for Paranormal Activity 3. This film has us following the sister of Katie (the handsome young lady from the first film) as she brings home a new baby to live with her, her husband, her stepdaughter, their dog and the nanny. Besides the addition of more characters (which is what every slasher film sequel does – upping the potential body count), the big innovation of Paranormal Activity is to have the family install security cameras in the house. This helps eliminate the nagging question of ‘Why the fuck would someone be filming this’*, and it also serves up more of the first film’s most effective moments. See, in the first movie all the best stuff happens while the stationary camera in the bed room is passively filming; this movie has about six more such stationary cameras, allowing six times the opportunities for good stuff to happen.
Forget the fact that there’s not a single character in this movie (the nanny is Mexican, and thus superstitious and prepared to fight the evil. That’s the movie’s idea of giving someone a character), the biggest misstep that Williams makes is to never do anything with those stationary cameras. The really great stuff in Paranormal Activity is the stuff occurring outside of the character’s awareness in the bedroom -when they’re sleeping or not paying attention. That’s scary, and Peli made excellent use of his frame, keeping our attention dancing between the couple in bed and the long, empty hallway. Williams, though, does almost nothing with his frame. The stationary cameras offer large frames with extraordinary depth of field, and you’ll be anxiously scanning every inch… and nothing will ever happen back there.
The only time something happens is when the soundtrack begins humming, playing the old brown note. That’s not new to this one – Paranormal Activity makes the same irritating, telegraphing decision – but it feels overused. I just wanted to see something scary happen in the background that totally escaped the character’s notice, something that made the looming threat seem to loom larger. But instead it was just jump scares telegraphed in advance by buzzing and camera choice (the film, which purports to be a documentary, is edited together by someone who is willfully holding back footage to make stuff scary. When a character upstairs hears a noise downstairs, which is wired with cameras, you can’t help but wonder ‘Why not show us what just bumped?’ And the answer is ‘Because we want to deliver a jump scare in a minute’).
The second biggest misstep Paranormal Activity 2 makes is an attempt to expand the ‘mythology’ of the first film. The original movie, I felt, covered all the necessary bases. Something had been hounding Katie since she was 8, and it was something scary. It had caused her childhood home to burn down. That’s enough for me, but in modern Hollywood we need more backstory. And so in this film the idea that someone in Katie’s family made a deal with a demon is introduced, and the demon is given the motivation of wanting the soul of that new baby. In the first film we see a ragged, burnt picture of young Katie that mysteriously shows up in the house; at the time it was obvious that the picture was burnt because the demon had torched her house. But no! This film shows us why the picture is burnt, and to some it will be a cool connection to the first film but really it’s just a belabored piece of lazy mythmaking. I don’t need to know the goddamned origin of the demon, and in fact creating a backstory for the ghost lessens the feeling of existential dread that came in the first movie. Poor Katie was just damned to be lusted after by a demon. Life sucks.
There is one thing that Paranormal Activity 2 has over the first film, and it’s that there is one character I actually liked. In the first film Micah was an unbearable douche and Katie, while very attractive, came across like a useless lump. None of the new humans in this film are particularly interesting (I don’t know that there’s an actual characteristic of any type that I can ascribe to Katie’s sister), but the dog Abbey is a wonder. Loyal, brave and caring, Abbey is someone you can really get behind.
In the first paragraph I said it was kind of unfair to judge this as a film, so here’s how I judge it as a haunted house – modestly effective. The first film is much scarier, much creepier and has a much larger sense of dread. This one has a sense of inevitability; you know which corners conceal boogey men, so when they jump you’re startled but not scared. You’ll feel like you got your money’s worth when you walk out, but there’s nothing new, interesting or spooky at play. There was an elegance to the first film that’s missing here; while I don’t think Paranormal Activity was a particularly great film it was a phenomenal haunted house. Paranormal Activity 2 is a terrible film, and a passable haunted house.
Now bring on Paranormal Activity 3, which will probably explore the already awful mythology of Katie’s great grandmother further, and will hopefully be told only via ATM security cameras and Google Street View.
* to an extent. There are a number of bad expositionary scenes that not only do you, the viewer, not want to watch but that also make you wonder why someone would want to record them for posterity.