Perhaps it is impossible to capture lightning in a bottle, but do not tell Paramount Pictures that because they damn near did it. Paranormal Activity 2 may not relish in the “Demand It!” campaign that made its forebear such a hit, but in many ways, the film is equal to the task of giving you the midnight willies and providing a handful of scares that will make the entire theater gasp. This feels less like something born of the success of the first film and slapped together, but as if they took notes and cues from audiences, and gave them an extra helping of what they wanted. More scares spaced throughout that begin early, a better and larger cast of characters, and a storyline that builds onto the existing premise. The only fumble is the abrupt end, which feels more like a whimper than the bang at the end of the first. For those that enjoyed the first film, this is an absolute must see, and a worthy experience for those that did not see the original with one caveat: see it first. Simply buying a ticket to the sequel will get you a copy of the first film, so you have no excuse. Hit the jump for details on seeing both films and why Paranormal Activity 2 is such a success.
Instead of beginning where the first film left off, we start several months prior. We are introduced to a well-off family that is bringing home an infant named Hunter into the home of Daniel (Brian Boland) and Christie (Sprague Grayden), that also holds the nanny Vivis, teenage stepdaughter Ali from Daniel’s previous marriage, and a loyal german shepherd. When their home is ransacked a few days later but nothing valuable is missing, security cameras are installed throughout the house to keep an eye on events. However, Christie can’t help but feel this is something personal, and when a dark secret is revealed about her past, things start going a bit crazy. The family tries to keep it together, but when the logical explanations for the increasingly absurd happenings start to fall apart as we watch from the security footage or handheld camera, they make some difficult decisions with horrifying results.
The genius of the first film, written and directed by Oren Peli, was the eye-spy nature of the scares. As the main couple slept, a single, stationary camera showed the strange events in time-lapsed form. The scares built slowly in the first film, but the audience reaction was key. An eerie calm would come over the crowd as the movie would get quiet, and the audience had to separate the creaks and shadows from normal or paranormal. A slow murmur would build as someone would spot the unnatural happening and soon enough everyone would be intent on the noise or suspicious shadow. Sometimes there was a payoff, and sometimes it was a tease. However, the audience never knew which to expect and throughout the runtime, the payoffs got bigger and bigger. The film clearly worked, as it gave me some genuine scares and left many in various states of shock. The returns also tells of the success, as it was originally micro-budgeted with a sub-$15,000 cost and sold with a smirk that this was real, gaining over $100 million in the domestic box office for distributor Paramount.
However, when they announced a sequel soon after the first became a hit, many were skeptical, including me. Was this a quick cash grab to build off the success of the 2009 hit? That was certainly the feeling, as even Peli did not return to the helm. However, praise has to be given to Paramount for not turning this into a by the numbers addition, as director Tod Williams and writer Michael R. Perry take what was great about the first film and turn things up a notch. While the first film was more subtle and had a slow build, this one is much blunter and the scares start coming early and never relent. Yet it still works. The same payoff and tease approach is at play, but with a larger cast of characters, we get to see how different they react. In fact, that same, low rumble that precluded strange events in the first is back, and acts as a cue for audiences to start honing their sense on what is amiss in the image on screen.
Where Perry and Williams really succeed is in the cast of characters. The original film utilized and small cast of unknowns, but for Paranormal Activity 2, leeway is given and they went for actors with a little background that does not affect the effectiveness of the film at all. We care for the characters in the film, and root for them to win. When the tension and stakes elevate, we cringe and hope for everyone’s safety. The fact that all of the events occur within the domicile of an ordinary family in the suburbs hits the home run that can leave people weary of their own habitation, much like the first.
We were all kids once, and likely listened to odd creaks and shifts of homes or other dwellings. Was that shadow just a tree rustling in the wind or is it something more? Those same questions occur during the film but with a little juice to them. You go in with distrust of the surroundings, because you know this is a scary movie, but you don’t know when or where something will occur, and then BOOM. Tension is palpable within a crowded theater as the audience waits for the next jump or eerie event to occur, but the film keeps you off balance. Sometimes we get laughs during the day, but when the safety of daylight is shattered that’s when you know things are getting bad. Christie believes in the evil happenings, while Daniel is reluctant to give in. He keeps thinking practically, and Ali is the middle ground that balances out the trio. Even Hunter gets involved with the scares, and everyone knows that when things happen to a toddler, it is scarier.
The chills occur off screen for the most part, as the dog alertly growls at something out of sight, or the toddler seems to look around and focus on something no one else can see. Mundane happenings become riveting, with pots falling off hooks and pool sweeps constantly ending up out of the pool in the morning. The special effects are the hallmark of the series so far. Whether it is wirework or some other sleight of hand, because they are never clearly false, the effects ground us in the film. Our imagination gets to run wild because a demon or spiritual entity is never given an image or face; steps are heard, doors slam shut or slowly open, but the sense of mystery is always there.
The ultimate success of the film is that things are ratcheted up a bit. Which means if you didn’t dig the first film, there won’t be a lot at play here to win you over. However, for those looking for more of the same, Paranormal Activity 2 represents the rare addition that builds onto the original in exciting ways that will put the doubters (including me) in their place. More bumps—OK, booms—in the night and better acting result in an exciting time that simply must be experienced with a packed audience of willing participants. I can break down why the film works for me until I die, but it works for you or it does not. For those that have not seen the first, Paramount has a unique promotion on their site that allows gives you an iTunes download of the original for free when you buy a ticket to the sequel. Just don’t blame me if you watch them back to back and don’t sleep at night.