22 October 2010


This review contains SPOILERS. These are my thoughts, post-viewing, to be read after seeing Paranormal Activity 2 in cinemas. My spoiler-free review can be found on Den of Geek.

The Paranormal Activity phenomenon passed me by last year, as you might have noticed. I caught the first film on DVD last weekend and was stubbornly refusing to see the sequel in the cinema for reasons that shall become apparent. The first film is fine, for what it is. The pacing is languid because it's posing as the relation of relevant events in a haunting/homicide, but it was engaging enough to keep me watching even though not much was happening.

As you'll have gathered, I have now seen Paranormal Activity 2.

It's not so much a sequel as a companion piece, which makes it, as Brad Miska has brilliantly called it over on Bloody Disgusting, the original film's "sexy twin sister". It's set 60 days before the death of Micah Stoat at the end of the first film, and thus he and Katie appear in this film while visiting her sister. This particular Featherstone girl is happily married with two kids, but finds her baby boy in danger when the family home is set upon by the vicious demon who stalked her in the night when she was young.

Part of the reason I was so resistant to the hype-zilla word of mouth appeal of Paranormal Activity was knowing how the Internet has further inflated the system of success in the horror genre. Stories of a film being so terrifying that viewers fainted and screamed their way through viewings date all the way back to The Exorcist, and more recently to The Blair Witch Project. Then I was even more resistant to the sequel, because I assumed, and I think fairly so, that we were in Blair Witch 2- Book of Shadows territory.

There's a different director, a different writer and it was rushed into production for release near Halloween, in the same slot as Saw, the multiplex fixture it trounced at the box office last year and which it now seems set to replace. The truth is, Paranormal Activity 2 is far better and far more fun that it has any right to be, all things considered. Nevertheless, it's still on equal standing with the first film, for me.

With only the merest amount of extra effort, this could have been something brilliant. For starters, it ekes out the tension brilliantly for the first half hour in a way that didn't work as well in the first film. Director Tod Williams holds shots for long periods without any jump-scare or fright, anticipating and simultaneously fuelling your reaction to the familiar style of horror that everyone liked the first time around. There's no cheap Opening Credits Kill, and when that first jump-scare eventually comes, it's in broad daylight. Oh, how I wish they'd followed that line of thinking to its conclusion.

If this film had made fans as scared of their house during the day as Paranormal Activity did with the nocturnal noises and disturbances, it would be something very special. Instead, the film follows the slightly more mean-spirited line of terrorising Hunter, the baby boy who the demon has marked for spiritual repo, and the tortured family's German Shepherd- two innocents, both confused by the panic of the household's other inhabitants.

Had I stayed through the credits, I'd have been able to tell you some of the cast and characters' names, because there's no cast list online just yet. Never mind though, because they're not doing anything special here. The first film had the interesting relationship between Micah and the spectral intruder, the former trying to assert a possessive masculinity over an entity that's more interested in the demonic kind of possession. This one has a larger cast doing the same brand of naturalistic acting and not a lot else.

Crucially, I think the film feels more constructed than its predecessor. This feels like it was assembled for an audience rather than exhibited for posterity, as it would have seemed for those who were fooled by the found footage gambit. We know it's not real simply because it's Paranormal Activity 2, but it would be nice to see them trying, instead of putting credits on the end where the original had a copyright notice that at least partially preserved the ambiguity of what we'd just seen.

All an actor can really do in these films is react to spooky stuff. The characters aren't interesting enough this time around- they catch up with the audience at different times, and once they're all with us, they call in precisely the wrong person for help. Most of us would call Father Karras or Peter Venkman, but this family calls in their Hispanic religious stereotype housemaid, who sensed bad juju before it all went down. You know, everyone's favourite character from Devil. On the writing and directing side of things, there's a little more flair, and they set things up nicely for the inevitable Paranormal Activity 3.

In a more enjoyable way than Saw IV was to Saw III, Paranormal Activity 2 moves nimbly alongside its predecessor to the point where Katie and Hunter disappear off the map. There are loose threads that can be picked up again next year- the now-orphaned Ali, the potentially dead dog and perhaps even the housemaid who screams "Diablo" and waves incense around. These films are more good-natured than Saw, at least in their lack of gratuitous gore, and could feasibly form a Halloween movie tradition to supplant that series after next week's (supposedly) final chapter

Personally, I doubt I would have enjoyed Paranormal Activity 2 as much without the stellar reactions of my fellow cinema viewers. My experience with Buried proves that it's difficult to find an audience who want to see the film as much as these people did, but they lapped it up. They gave it full-on screams, nervous laughter and most rewardingly, their full attention. The reaction is as much a part of the experience as the film, and for a somewhat breathless redo of Paranormal Activity, it's certainly not bad. Not as good as 2010's other found footage movies, The Last Exorcism and [REC] 2, but good enough. 

Paranormal Activity 2 is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Paranormal Activity 2, why not share your comments below? If you're having sleepless nights this week, I empathise entirely. I couldn't believe that people in the UK would go and see Vampires Suck either.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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