Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) Reviewed

I can’t think of any other case of a sequel to a movie making the original movie better. Can you? Let me know if you can. Sequels that are better than originals are a dime-a-dozen, so to be clear: we’re not in Bride of Frankenstein/ALIENS/Evil Dead II territory here. What I’m asking is: how does a sequel pull off the amazing feat of not only bettering the source material, but also giving it a boost by enhancing the franchise mythology? In other words, how can it be that Paranormal Activity 2 makes me want to go back and watch a movie I didn’t care for at all? Oh, I see you looking at me with the incredulous face of a non-believer.

The incredulous face of PA2's non-believer, Daniel.

But I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what’s happening here.

What didn’t I like about the first PA? Glad you asked! –and actually that’s a nice place to start the review, because the nature of this type of movie makes it inherently difficult to review without blowing the best twists. So let’s compare the two in lieu of a spoil-y plot breakdown.

My primary beef with PA is that for most of its running time, nothing much happens. Subtlety can surely be a source of genuine scares, so it’s not like I’m saying it should have been beefed up with Poltergeist-style ILM effects or some kind of loose-end-uniting big finale. I like ambiguity in my horror movies and find that I’m often more scared by what I don’t know. (What are The Strangers‘ motives?! Where do the creatures from The Mist come from?!) What I am saying is: make me give a shit. Insist that I give a shit by presenting me with decent actors portraying believable characters. The characters in a movie like PA should be full-on empathy magnets.  Instead, PA gives us assholes I grow weary of about five minutes in. Oh right — and they can’t act their way out of a wet paper bag. I don’t necessarily have to like a story’s characters, but if your premise is wobbly and your execution dull, it sure as hell helps if the characters with whom you’re making me spend 90 minutes are people I can stand to be around for at least five.

Just how the heck do you suppose he got out of his crib? ...Uh-oh.

In PA numero uno, I actually felt dissatisfied that the young suburbanite primaries didn’t have enough terrible things done to them. I wanted them to suffer more and perhaps a part of me was rooting for the demon in question to get down to business and start really effing things up. Instead of spontaneously combustible board games, foley clanks, and moving sheets, howabout…i dunno…making the walls bleed or something? Again, I don’t normally ask for these things, but in the absence of anything more interesting, I guess you’d better give me the ILM light show.

I’m not supposed to hate the protagonists. I’m supposed to find them relatable and believable. And believability takes a major hit when the acting sucks. In a pseudo-doc/found-footage flick like PA believability is paramount and I just didn’t buy what they were selling. Luckily for the makers of Paranormal Activity, plenty others did. And lucky for us that success begat a highly entertaining, infinitely better sequel.

Here’s what PA2 gets right, in contrast to the things that PA1 did wrong:
-Instead of an obnoxious young couple portrayed by non-actors, PA2 presents a believable, mostly likable family portrayed by good actors. (How do you know a good actor when you see one? You can’t TELL that they’re acting!) The parents, Kristi and Daniel, have a toddler named Hunter and a teen daughter named Ali. The ho-hum concept of putting a nuclear family at the center of the spooky goings on is given an appreciated dimension when it’s revealed early on that Kristi is Ali’s step-mom, and her biological mother is dead.  When unexplainable things begin to happen it makes sense that initially Ali is stoked at the idea of living in a haunted house. “What if it’s Mom,” she asks Daniel, who angrily refuses to believe anything paranormal is going down — perhaps for the same reason.  It creates an interesting dynamic between Kristi and Ali, between Ali and Daniel, and finally between Kristi and Daniel. It’s something that might not register immediately but provides food for thought as things go from creepy to horrific. Already we’re knee-deep in the type of subtle characterization absent from PA1. What’s more, the performances are good across the board; from the least likable character (probably Daniel) all the way down the line to the set of twins that play little Hunter. Especially impressive is Molly Ephaim as Ali. The kid just seemed real to me and PA2‘s believability owes a lot to her performance.

...not since the Poltergeist's "stacked-chairs" sequence...

PA2 relies less on “jump scares” than its predecessor, which is not to say that it doesn’t have a few of its own. But they feel well-earned and essential. If we’re jumping, chances are, the characters are too. No one is cranking up the sound effects for the sole purpose of startling us. We’re being startled right along with the people we’re watching, which helps us identify with their predicament and fear for them.

-The use of video cameras feels far more natural and organic to the story. When an early disturbance, not captured on video, occurs while the family is out, they jump to the same conclusion we would; that they’ve been victims of a break-in. Since they clearly have the means, surveillance cameras are installed in key points of the house. This, for me, works far better than watching an amateur videographer annoying people with his new toy, and then employing that toy to play amateur Ghost Hunter. There is some camcorder play in PA2, but it’s used judiciously, and most often by the teen daughter, which somehow makes it far less annoying. (While we’re on the topic of props, note that PA2 has its own Ouija board scene, and it’s a masterstroke of subtlety that makes the flaming OB in PA1 seem even more ridiculous than it already does.)

How many demons must be released before Parker Brothers recalls its most notorious game?

-The most notable special effect in PA1 happens at the end of the movie, appears in the trailer, and was included as an afterthought. The original, pre-Paramount cut doesn’t have it and for the little it’s worth, the original ending worked better without it. There are some impressive special effects in PA2 and they almost all work because they’re not in your face or showy. In fact, the scene in PA2 that I find the most chilling and effective, features special effects that could be either CGI or practical stunt work. I have no idea which — and think about it, when was the last time a special effect made you think “how did they do that?!”

All of the above improvements aside, PA2‘s greatest accomplishment is how it ties itself to the original movie without cheating or forcing unnatural connections. It’s fucking masterful actually and should be the envy of any screenwriter saddled with the task of writing a sequel to a movie as self-contained as PA. (Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which I actually kinda’ like, was a noble attempt that doesn’t come close to pulling off what PA2 is able to achieve without even breaking a sweat.) I’ll tell you this much, and it’s no more than you would find out by looking at the cast list on IMDB: both Katie and Micah from PA1 appear in PA2. And they appear without any cheesy flashbacks or contrived posthumously viewed messages from the beyond — both of which are the only strategies the Saw franchise could think of to keep Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw in the sequels after killing him off. (Dude, what is your deal with hating on Saw?!…I know. I know. It’s just…six sequels?! Seriously?) It just works. And as previously stated, it somehow performs the magic trick of making PA1 a good candidate for a second viewing. You’ll know what I mean when you see it and I’ll be happy to argue about it with you if you think I’m wrong.

Hmmmmm...

That about does it for a (essentially) spoil-free review of PA2, because the less you know going in, the more likely you are to enjoy its surprises. Many said the same thing about PA1. The difference is, I’m telling the truth.

*** – three out of four stars

[Kudos and thanks to John Stockdale for pointing out a HUGE error in this review in time for me to correct it before I had too much time to embarrass myself.]

~ by willnepper on February 16, 2011.

One Response to “Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) Reviewed”

  1. This review is masterfull. I could not agree more.

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