Demons of mediocrity, be gone! Here we have a shrewd sequel a touch better than the original.
Set two months before the San Diego County hauntings of Paranormal Activity, Paranormal Activity 2 gives low-budget honor and modest, gore-free but nerve-wracking glory to ghost stories, sequels, prequels and the dark Hollywood art of the cash-in.
In crucial ways the second film is a lot like the first, which was released commercially last year (a slightly different version of Oren Peli’s picture was completed in 2007). The conceit remains the same. We’re watching home video and surveillance footage throughout, confined to the house and grounds of a pleasantly generic-looking two-story Carlsbad, California home.
In the original, young co-habitators Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) installed a camera in their bedroom to record strange doings while they slept. Not much happened, and then gradually just enough happened to put the whammy on the audience. Peli’s film wasn’t “about” anything (nor is the new one). Its brand of fright wasn’t psychological or nuanced. It was, however, stealthy, patient and devoid of the customary 21st century viscera. For teenagers benumbed by the explicitness of the Saw and Hostel franchises, Peli’s monster success provided an antidote, a taste of something designed to spook them without assault.
All of which is true in the sequel. Director Tod Williams cannily expands the visual scope of the original without violating its found-footage aesthetic (hardly a fresh idea, but effective in the right hands). The focus in this prequel is on Katie’s sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), who returns home from the hospital with newborn Hunter. Katie comes by early and often. The sisters have experienced hauntings in their childhood, dismissed as hokum by Kristi’s jocular husband (Brian Boland). There’s also a maid (Vivis), who senses evil spirits; a dog, Abby, rightly protective of the infant; and a teenage daughter (Molly Ephraim) from the father’s previous marriage.
Instead of one fixed surveillance camera, we get six, each stationed in different rooms, installed by the family after their house apparently is burglarized. The script by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon and Tom Pabst, with story help from producer Peli, improves on the original in its depiction of the central couple. (The bickering in the first film put the audience squarely on the side of the unseen demon.) Here, the banter’s looser, more relaxed. But the pacing remains methodical, so that when the kitchen cupboards and drawers suddenly fly open in union (a Close Encounters moment for sure) it’s pretty arresting.
There are quibbles to be had. The movie doesn’t get the ending it needs (unlike the first one, which had help from an advisor named Spielberg). Paranormal Activity 2, like its predecessor, doesn’t advance the genre so much as strip it for parts. But I’m a fan. I like the restraint. The timeworn lessons apply. Those skeptical of the supernatural are doomed to suffer. And somehow, even after all these home-movie movies, where the narcissists on screen are intent on videotaping every single moment of their lives, the sight of a dog or a baby watching something the idiot with the camera cannot see ... well, I’m scared just thinking about it.