Written by: Oren Peli (characters) and Michael R. Perry (screenplay)
Directed by: Tod Williams
Starring: Katie Featherston
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“What‘s happening to Hunter?”
Even though Paranormal Activity didn’t obviously lend itself to a sequel, its runaway success at the box office ensured a quick follow-up. You can hardly fault horror fans if their first thoughts took them back a decade to a similar situation with The Blair Witch Project. That film’s sequel never seemed to find an audience, no doubt due to its wholly cinematic approach that flew in the face of its predecessor. History doesn't repeat with Paranormal Activity 2, which goes the usual horror sequel route by offering up more of the same spooky bumps in the night that scared audiences a year ago.
This time, it’s a family of four that’s being visited by a malevolent entity. Things are going swimmingly for the family: the father is successful, the daughter is down to earth, and the one year old son is the pride and joy. It all goes south, however, when their house is apparently broken into one day; nothing is stolen, but everything is thoroughly trashed. This prompts the family to install a top of the line security system, which soon begins to capture a number of strange phenomena: doors opening on their own, pots and pans falling down, and other loud bumps that you’re likely to find in any haunted house.
Paranormal Activity 2 takes few risks; instead, it is content to follow the same formula that earned millions of dollars last year. Fortunately, the approach works a second time, and even manages to be more effective than the first film in many ways. Like any good follow-up, it remains faithful to its original, yet manages to expand upon it. The setup with the multiple cameras opens up the film to a variety of haunting sequences that still manage to maintain the intimate creepiness of the first one. Even though the film is shot in virtually the same style, it manages to be bigger--the bumps are a little bit louder, the creepy scenes are a little bit creepier, and all the demonic hijinks are a little bit more sinister.
Despite offering more of the same, the film does an excellent and clever job of tying into the previous entry. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t reveal the connection, but I will say that the film manages to build an intriguing mythology for the series. There are explanations for the events of both films, but these are handled gracefully and still manage to maintain a sense of mystery. The star of the original film, Katie Featherston, does return in a surprising way, and it’s interesting how you suddenly start to care more about her developing story more so than the film’s signature horror scenes. Any lingering doubts about the story’s ability to develop are laid to rest once all is said and done.
Of course, those signature scenes are a calling card; if you’re familiar with the original film, you know how it works. The “found footage” (from both the home security system and the family’s hand-held camcorder) reveals scenes of terror from each night that are interspersed with the family’s day-to-day interactions. This second outing seems to move at a bit more rapid clip and features a bit more variety in terms of the hauntings. Expect some of the same demonic shenanigans: loud noises, people being dragged away by invisible forces, and that low, rumbling bass that lets you know something is literally afoot. These sequences are genuinely suspenseful, most of them accompanied by an unnerving silence that gets punctuated by a loud jump. The fact that arguably the most jolting scare takes place in broad daylight is a testament to the film’s overall proficiency in this regards. There’s also an effective build-up with these sequences--the haunting begins on a small scale before escalating into a riveting climax set in a darkened basement (always the most horrific place in a house of horrors).
Director Tod Williams (who found himself behind the camera after Twisted Pictures and Lions Gate tapped the original choice, Kevin Greutert, to direct Saw 3D) knows that scares alone can’t effectively carry a film of this nature. Like the original film, the cast is just likeable and authentic enough to generate sympathy for their plight; there’s a nice mix of lighthearted banter and humor that complement the spooky happenings later in the film. Micah and Katie were believable in the original because their chemistry felt real, and the same can be said here--at times, it feels like we’re getting a peek at a real family. The most memorable of the bunch is Hunter, the one year old baby who becomes the demon’s target. Creepy little kids in horror movies have often been used well, and this is no exception, as Hunter eerily gazes off into the distance and is seemingly coaxed to follow the unseen malevolent force.
There’s something to be said for just how downright efficient and well-done this film is. With its shoestring budget, Paranormal Activity 2 continues to prove that sometimes all you need is a minimalist approach that relies more on the unseen and a viewer’s active imagination. When you mix that with genuine, likeable characters, the results are usually good, and that holds true here. As a sequel, I can’t imagine it being any more satisfying; in fact, it’s more than just a worthy follow-up because it manages to out-do the original by beating it at its own game. Last year, I said some people would probably be sleeping with their lights for a couple of days after seeing the original; if the reaction from my fellow theater-goers this evening is any indication, those same people might be leaving their lights on for a week this time around. Don’t hesitate to check this one out in a packed house because this one gives audiences exactly what they want: plenty of chances to peer between their fingers and reasons to inch to the edge of their seats before jumping out of it. Buy it!
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