(2010) director Tod Williams
viewed: 10/22/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA
I had a flash of deja vu as I walked into the Metreon theater to watch Paranormal Activity 2. It was about a year ago, almost exactly, that I walked into (I think) the very same theater to see Paranormal Activity (2007), the low-budget horror film that became quite a popular sensation. And like most sensations, a sequel was soon to be an almost assured thing. In fact, interestingly, the digital sign above the door even read “Sequel to Paranormal Activity” for some reason.
What made Paranormal Activity successful was that it was a sort of “out of nowhere” hit. Shot on the cheap with video cameras and in the style of a “found footage” “real event”, probably a lot of people took the film to be either really real or more real and scary than so much special effects and spurting blood. It’s almost impossible not to compare it to The Blair Witch Project (1999) which 10 years earlier did essentially the same thing, coming out of nowhere and pretending that the footage that you see onscreen is footage that was shot by the now missing or dead. And you’re supposed to surmise for yourself about it.
With Blair Witch, this also included a great deal of shaky, hard to comprehend hand-held camera-work, so much so that half the time you weren’t even sure what was happening. And to it’s credit, Blair Witch worked pretty well for what it was. Paranormal Activity had the more banal setting of a suburban home, but in the end, maybe this is what was so successful about it. Everyone is afraid of the things that go “bump” in the night. Especially when they turn out to be demons.
Paranormal Activitiy 2 isn’t so much a sequel as it is a prequel or even just an expansion of the story of the original. The story is set among a small family with a new baby, a teenage daughter from an prior marriage, a Spanish-speaking nanny, and a German Shepherd. Oh, and the mom is the sister of Katie, the girl from the original film. And both actors show up in this one as most of it is supposed to take place just prior to the events of the original.
This time, there’s the baby. And that is perhaps where any added tension arises. Children, babies in particular, are so vulnerable, one’s sympathy and angst is amped up in fear of what will happen to the little tyke.
But like the original, Paranormal Activity 2 takes a long time to get itself going. Initially we are given a good deal of family footage, introducing the characters, shots of the baby, the layout of the house. And then, after a break-in in which the house is trashed though nothing is stolen, the family installs a series of video cameras to keep an eye on the whole house. This gives director Tod Williams more leeway in constructing his film. It’s not just what people have gone through the trouble to record but rather what is recorded by the steady eyes of the surveillance cameras too.
For my money, the film was a little less fresh and surprising that the first, especially as this film had to fit together narratively with the first one, nothing really happens that is new or different. And we are given more of a backstory to the demon. I tend to find that in stories in which there is some ambiguity around the events, or things are simply not explained, that sometimes they have a bit more evocative power. In this case, we don’t get a whole story, but it’s less vague and mysterious.
Things go bump and bang and crash and eventually all hell breaks loose. And a baby is endangered.
Where as the sequel to The Blair Witch Project, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 took a more standard narrative approach, detaching from the style of the first film (and sucking horribly incidentally), Paranormal Activity 2 stays close the the elements of the first film and doesnt’ suck nearly so horribly, but neither does it manage the effects of either its predecessor nor its progenitor.