Paranormal Activity 2
Directed by Tod Williams
Screenplay by Michael R. Perry
Katie Featherston as Katie
Demons: “They’re just… like, evil.”
If you are investigating Paranormal Activity 2, either as an audience member or simply a reader of reviews, you probably exposed yourself to the original Paranormal Activity, a monumental disappointment made in 2007 and unleashed on most of America during the summer and fall of 2009. There are two ways to look at a franchise like this. The first is to wonder why audiences keep falling for the “scariest movie ever made” marketing campaign. The less cynical (and probably more correct) attitude is to consider the appeal of getting a bunch of friends together to act rowdy and ridicule a film like this. The audience seems to be in on the joke, but I don’t think the makers of the movie are. I think they sincerely intended this film to be taut, edgy, and full of terror.
The director establishes the familiar false documentary format with home videos of a family moving into their new home. Meet Kristi, the sister of poor Katie from the first Paranormal Activity. She has a lovely house, a clean-cut teenage stepdaughter, a generally inoffensive dork of a husband, a faithful German Shepherd, and a sweet new baby boy named Hunter. It’s the modern, upper middle class ideal family, perhaps like the ones in your own neighborhood. We know these are real, ordinary people because they talk and act just like real, ordinary people, not like carefully written movie characters. Because that’s interesting, right? Wrong. People trying hard to act like regular people is boring and stupid. There, I’ve said it. It was the biggest failing of the first Paranormal Activity, and it doesn’t help here.
Through some haphazard and confusing setup, we meet the original kids from Paranormal Activity – oh boy, it’s a prequel – and see the family invest in a whole-house security system. For a more complete and obnoxious tirade on fake horror documentaries and their camera problems, see my review of The Last Exorcism. I will only add that if single-camera forced perspective is mostly a cheat, the conceit of multiple security cameras feels like an outright swindle. Will someone please shoot another scary movie the old-fashioned way? This genre is so stale by now that no alleged innovation is going to recharge it. And anyway, the movie does not play by its own rules. Most of the really important stuff is captured on the family home movie camera.
Why would a seemingly normal family choose to act out all its deep dark family therapy sessions on the same tape used to record baby’s first steps? These people have seemingly endless amounts of battery power to keep a camcorder running day and night, pointed askance at their flapping mouths. Maybe this is meant as satire, since most of the superfluous life-blogging is done by the teenage daughter. Curiously, hers is the only enjoyable and convincing performance.
Let me now apply a brief sequel checklist, quoted from a review of Paranormal Activity by my colleague Julia Rhodes. “Badly acted exposition,” check. “Obnoxious characters,” check. “Inability to create believable tension,” check indeed. It captures the tone and spirit of the original, all right. At least there must be some good scares. Well, yes, there are… like, three or four. If you are willing to wait around for them. Masquerading as a slow-burning exercise in mounting dread, this is simply a film with zero sense of pace, tone, or focus. After four or five nights pass in which all is mostly well, except for the odd bump in the house, one longs for the movie to quit with the atmosphere and make with the scare. The most misleading visual motif is the droning vacuum sweeper that scuttles around the swimming pool night after night, cultivating the expectation that something significant will take place in that pool. Nope. And even if you think ghostly forces are messing with your stuff at night, could we please have some more disturbing evidence than tossing the pool sweeper out of the water while the family sleeps?
And don’t even mention pots and pans to me. Looking for more substantial ways to frighten us, the movie resorts to chucking these around like crazy. This breeds two unfortunately hilarious results. First, the family becomes so jittery that when anything in the house twitches, they bound away like frightened rabbits, around a corner, in a most comical way. I suppose in their situation I would do the same, but it is not a reaction that plays well on screen–not if you are trying to take these people’s fear seriously. Second, the mass kitchen polter-geistery pays off in the most ridiculous shock scare I have ever seen. In broad daylight, as Kristi enjoys a quiet cup of coffee, the entire kitchen sneezes. I do not know how else to describe it, but I doubt it was the intended effect of the scene.
The first good scare arrives somewhere around the film’s halfway point. A door slams, and the undeniably supernatural makes an appearance. Then we take another break for some domestic stress, as the family argues over weird things which may or may not be happening around the house. Once you get a movie like this going on track, the absolute worst thing to do is let up.
Some time later, to compensate for this rift in tension, the film suddenly hits what Mel Brooks would call “ludicrous speed.” It does so in every sense of the term. People being violently dragged around by invisible forces is kind of scary, but we saw all that in Paranormal Activity. Come on, people. This is Paranormal Activity 2, for crying out loud! Get with the program! Also, by this time the movie has failed to establish whether we should be screaming or giggling at all this. My fellow audience did a bit of the former and a great deal more of the latter.
The tone of the film’s final twenty minutes captures the kind of unrelenting dread that should have been active from minute one. Kristi has a run-in with dark forces, and becomes very frightening. Real suspense starts brewing. The baby and the dog play their crucial and upsetting roles in the story. All the foreshadowing about what’s in the closet (not R. Kelly, I’m afraid) and what’s in the basement (possibly Joey Ramone, but I doubt it) comes tumbling back as the sensible family falls headlong into stigmata, possession, quasi-Catholic protective rites, and a night-vision climax akin to the best junior high haunted house you ever visited. And of course, there’s more. Remember that this all has to do with the events of the original Paranormal Activity. Incidentally, I hope you liked how the first film paid off, because for all that fuss you won’t get anything more surprising this time around.
The film does earn its single star, largely on the merit of one very scary moment, which actually followed me out of the theater and sat by my bedside all night. I have to salute the deeply disturbing scene where Kristi, devoted mother turned something else entirely, broods in silence at the window as her infant son wails in evident distress. When sister tries to intervene, mom whirls around to snarl, “Stay away from him!” It is a haunting highlight of a story which delivers so few real scares that when one finally shows up, hungry viewers may be tempted to ask resentfully, “Where have you been?”