Film Review: Paranormal Activity 2

In classic fashion, 'Paranormal Activity 2' repeats its predecessor on a slightly bigger scale to considerably lesser effect.

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, a little DIY picture called Paranormal Activity rode a wave of advanced online hype into theaters and became the first viral horror hit since The Blair Witch Project a decade earlier. Of course, the film’s overnight success wasn’t as effortless as it initially seemed. After premiering at a 2007 horror movie festival, the $15,000 production was later acquired for a song by Paramount and lingered on the shelf until 2009, when the studio began a long-term plan to build Internet buzz that culminated with the ingenious “Demand It!” campaign where moviegoers could go online and request that the movie play in their neck of the woods. But all the carefully orchestrated hype in the world wouldn’t have helped the film to blockbuster status if it didn’t deliver what it promised: scares. While Paranormal Activity may not be the most frightening movie ever made, it is a supremely creepy picture that hearkens back to classic cinematic ghost stories like The Haunting, in which the terror emerges from what the audience doesn’t see.

The kind of horror that Paranormal Activity traffics in makes the idea of a second installment seem impossible. After all, sequels are generally designed to be bigger, louder, faster than their predecessors. But, as with Blair Witch, the box office was too big to ignore. So we have Paranormal Activity 2, which does indeed expand on the first installment in several key ways. The sequel stars a family of five (as opposed to a couple), takes place in a bigger house (a multi-room palace complete with a basement and swimming pool, as opposed to a split-level, two-bedroom homestead) and records the paranormal activity on a number of different cameras, from hand-held videorecorders to security cameras mounted on the ceiling (as opposed to a single camera perched in the corner of the master bedroom). Despite the enlarged canvas, the filmmakers (Tod Williams and a trio of screenwriters take over from writer-director Oren Peli, who remains onboard as a producer) admirably attempt to keep the scares low-key. Once again, characters jump at strange bumps in the night, doors open and close of their own volition, lights flicker on and off and objects move about as if guided by an unseen hand.

All of these small moments yielded big results in the first movie, so why aren’t they as scary the second time around? Part of the disappointment can be attributed to the larger scale of the sequel; the multiple-camera approach cuts down on the anticipatory tension created by the single point-of-view in the original. There, you had to wait for the characters to grab their camera and plunge into the dark house chasing after some strange phenomenon. In contrast, the use of security cameras allows the audience to peer into any room at any time, putting us one step ahead of the characters and cutting down on the fear factor that comes with the unknown. But even the static shots of the haunting aren’t as effective this time; Williams is unable to conjure an image that’s as frightening as the moment in the original when a character rises from bed in the dead of night and stands there swaying while the onscreen clock ticks down the hours until morning.

It doesn’t help that, like most sequels, Paranormal Activity 2’s story is largely a rehash of its predecessor, even bringing back the stars of the original for an unnecessary encore appearance. As you may recall, Paranormal Activity centered around day trader Micah (Micah Sloat) and his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston), whose comfortable lives were destroyed over a three-week span by a pesky poltergeist. The sequel follows Katie’s sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her family—which includes her husband, Daniel (Brian Boland), his teen daughter, Ali (Molly Ephraim), and their infant son, Hunter—and takes place roughly two months before the events of the first movie, making it, in fact, a prequel.

Events proceed largely as they did in Paranormal Activity, with the same progression from small scares (oh my god, that door moved!) to big ones (Oh my god, Kristi got dragged down the stairs!); the same character dynamics (Kristi’s the believer, Daniel’s the skeptic); and many of the same key scenes (an Ouija board makes an appearance and Ali researches demonology on the Internet). The movie’s most notable new scares are simply dull variations on hoary horror tropes, like putting a young child in danger and a finale involving an ill-advised trip to the basement. The filmmakers also take steps down the same road that ruined the Saw franchise, attempting to expand on the established mythology—here it’s implied that Katie and Kristi’s mother is to blame for attracting the attention of the demon that bedevils them—to the point where it stops making sense. Paranormal Activity succeeded because it offered audiences something a little different from the customary horror fare. Paranormal Activity 2, on the other hand, is just like any other unexceptional sequel.