Paranormal Activity 2
Director : Tod Williams
Screenplay : Michael R. Perry and Christopher Landon and Tom Pabst (story by Michael R. Perry)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Brian Boland (Daniel Rey), Sprague Grayden (Kristi Rey), Molly Ephraim (Ali), Katie Featherston (Katie), Michal Sloat (Micah), Vivis (Martine)
It was inevitable that Paranormal Activity 2, the sequel to Oren Peli’s near-brilliant low-budget horror phenomenon from last year, would be highly derivative since the material’s appeal lies entirely in conveying old-school haunted house chills via the intimately familiar medium of home video. Without veering wildly off-course into completely different subject matter and medium (ala Joe Berlinger’s disastrous Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), there was little that screenwriters Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst could do but cook up a new haunting scenario and perhaps expand the concept of videorecording supernatural intrusions. And this is precisely what they did, although what makes Paranormal Activity 2 better and more clever than it has any right to be is the means by which it slowly reveals how the events in this film actually constitute a prequel to the first film and in fact explain how and why poor Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat ended up being tormented by a demonic haunting in their San Diego townhouse.
Like the first film, Paranormal Activity 2 is rigorously organized around supposedly found video footage that has been edited together (sometimes with purposeful elisions and sped-up photography to compress time). It again opens with no credits or even a studio logo, but rather a title card thanking the families of the deceased and local police, thus immediately establishing the illusion of documentary “realism.” The characters this time around are a married southern California couple, Daniel and Kristi Rey (Brian Boland and Sprague Grayden). Daniel is somewhat older and has a teenage daughter named Ali (Molly Ephraim) from a previous marriage.
The film’s opening footage is of Daniel and Kristi returning from the hospital after she has given birth to a son named Hunter, and we see bits of pieces of the following year, which is generally banal in a home movie kind of way, with the exception of a strange incident in which the family discovers that someone (or something) has inexplicably trashed their home. They respond by calling in a security company to install surveillance cameras throughout the house, a clever narrative gambit that allows director Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor) to maintain the original’s stark visual approach while also expanding on it (instead of one static camera at night in the bedroom, we get six covering the backyard, the front walkway, the kitchen, the living room, the entry hall/stairway, and Hunter’s bedroom). There is also plenty of shaky filler material shot with the family’s home videocamera to both establish important plot elements and help us get to know the characters as people (it is here that we sometimes feel the strain of the film’s approach, as you can’t help but ask yourself, “Why are they videorecording this intense and private conversation?”).
The difference in the family make-up allows for Paranormal Activity 2 to potentially enlarge the emotional scope of the first film, which sutured us tightly into the experiences of Katie and Micah, both of whom also appear in this film, as it is revealed that Katie is Kristi’s sister, the one to whom she referred in the original film. Our attention and concern is spread across the multiple family members, each of whom provides a different source of identification. Daniel is the family’s skeptic who fires their Hispanic maid after catching her trying to ward off the evil spirits she senses in the house (the stereotype of the ethnically and religiously exotic housekeeper is the film’s one potentially embarrassing misstep, even though she is narratively crucial for multiple reasons). Kristi, like Katie, is generally sweet and unassuming, which is why she is constantly under threat, while Ali is a gregarious teen who is open to different experiences and is therefore more willing to believe that something supernatural is going on (and less enthusiastic about immediately labeling it dangerous). Hunter, who is but a toddler when the haunting begins, gives the film an added level of tension given that much of the activity seems to be focused on his room, with the static surveillance camera essentially mimicking the recurrent visual trope of the first film in which our eyes and attention are divided between watching him sleeping in his crib on the righthand side of the screen while watching for something to happen via the open bedroom door on the left. The high angle of the camera’s placement seems to intensify this perspective, as do the mirrored closet doors, which simultaneously expand our view of the space and make it more disorienting.
Thus, Paranormal Activity 2 delivers enough originality in its storyline and clever interweaving of its events with what transpired in the first film to overcome the feelings of familiarity its form naturally arouses. It also helps that the narrative delves into some horror tropes that the first film left untouched, particularly the culpability of various characters in bringing about the supernatural terrors; in its own way, the film digs into tricky ethical territory that forces us to consider just how far we would go to protect our closest loved ones, even if it meant damning others--and not necessarily strangers. The actors, all of whom are unnamed in the credits, have a natural presence that encourages us to see them as people captured on video, rather than actors playing a role, and despite the film’s much enlarged budget ($3 million vs. $11,000 for the original) doesn’t impinge on its intentionally unsophisticated aesthetic, which creates an unbearable sense of realism that is central to its effectiveness (although how long it will continue to work in this manner before being exhausted is a question worth asking). The house this time is much larger, providing even more room for your eyes to wander, especially given the open floorplan design, which turns empty space into shivery potential for the unseen to make itself present. And, while it can’t quite evoke the escalating dread and moments of sheer terror that Peli orchestrated so maliciously in the original film, Paranormal Activity 2 still delivers more than its share of tension and scares.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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