Opening Friday, October 22
Directed by Tod Williams
Story: Same scenario, new victims. Kristy, her husband, their newborn son Hunter, the husband’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and Abby the dog are living happily in their gorgeous suburban home. Their idyllic existence is rattled, at times violently, when a demonic spirit moves in and stirs up some trouble.
Analysis: Thanks to its unique shooting style and plot, one of last year’s biggest surprise hits, Paranormal Activity, should have been a one-and-done deal. Luckily Paramount decided to give the concept another go-around and found director Tod Williams and writer Michael R. Perry, two guys who really knew not only how to keep the story alive, but expand it in a manner that introduced new elements while keeping the old firmly intact. Think this will be just a studio fast track effort to make bank on a stellar concept? Think again. Not only is Paranormal Activity 2 a well-made sequel, it’s just as good as the first.
Character development is powerful right from the start. After a text disclaimer thanking the family of the deceased and local police department, we meet baby Hunter just as he arrives home from the hospital. Thanks to the father’s multiple marriages, the gang has a unique dynamic. He and Kristy are clearly mom and dad to Hunter, but when it comes to his daughter, he is the primary parental figure, Kristy filling in more as a friend. They’re upbeat, loving and all-around likeable, making the sequence of events to follow even more powerful.
In terms of the scares, much of Paranormal Activity 2 is more of the same, but with a little bit of an upgrade. Rather than having just one point of view as in the first film, this family’s got a handheld camera as well as six in-house security cameras. Not only can we watch Kristy while she’s making tea in the kitchen, but we can follow her out of the room and up the stairs in a continuous series of shots. The nightly scanning of each security camera can get the slightest bit monotonous, but more importantly, it opens up the door to more complicated and active scares, which is key to keeping the film fresh.
The evil force does resort to a lot of old tricks like inexplicably turning on lights, slamming doors and making audible bumps in the night, but the new characters, specifically Hunter, introduce a whole new collection of mysterious happenings. There’s a fantastic scenario with the pool cleaner and an eerie moment with one of Hunter’s toys among many others.
As clever as the horrifically ominous events may be, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it weren’t for the actors. The key to making a film like this believable is putting on a natural performance and every cast member goes above and beyond in that respect down to Abby and Hunter. Perry’s lovable characters grab hold of your heart firmly from the moment they appear on screen. Even with the unusual structure, this family is ideal. We’ve got two loving parents, a particularly well behaved teenager, a beautiful baby boy and watchful guard dog. Even better? Perry manages to include supporting characters that fit in far more naturally than the first film’s psychic. The only element Perry didn’t manage to incorporate seamlessly is the handheld camera. At first, it’s quite sensible to assume they’d record Hunter’s first day home, but the devices transition from baby cam to digital diary is a little weak. Still, it’s easy to overlook thanks to the all around honest performances and the characters’ amiable nature, which makes their inescapable breakdown even more heart wrenching.
On the other hand, as terrifying as it is to watch the torment of these characters you feel as though you know personally, Paranormal Activity 2 is still a downright blast. In fact, you’ll catch yourself laughing quite a bit. Some of the earlier scares are actually playful and even when things get violent, the realization of how terrifying the scene is can oddly make you giddy. After a horrifying scare, you won’t feel the need to cower in your seat, rather laugh out loud and clap with joy. It’s an odd reaction, but that’s what makes the film so notable and so much fun.
Williams and Perry really deserve a significant amount of credit, for the odds were certainly against them. Not only is Paranormal Activity 2 arriving barely a year after the first film hit theaters, but they’re working with a concept easy to overuse and prone to a been-there-done-that tone. This film shouldn’t be scary. We’ve seen this happen before. We know that rumbling sounds mean evil is nearby, yet almost every night brings a new terror that’ll have you jumping out of your seat. Paranormal Activity 2 is precisely what a horror sequel should be, a quality film that takes the terrifying concept of the original and raises the stakes â€“ big time.
The Bottom Line: Like the original, Paranormal Activity 2 can be easily spoiled by a this-can’t-scare-me attitude. Not only won’t that approach impress your friends, but it’ll destroy a wildly terrifying experience. As Williams said himself, this movie is all about the moviegoer’s imagination. If you walk into Paranormal Activity 2 with an open mind, ready for a scare, the payoff is massive, perhaps even more so than the original.