With the help of a cheeky publicity campaign intended to make it seem as if ordinary people were clamoring to have this itty-bitty-budget horror phenomenon open in their city, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity became a big hit — and deservedly so. Like The Blair Witch Project, it made a virtue of its radically limited perspective: a single video camera, often fixed, and a manifestly evil entity that functioned, for the most part, at the edges of our perception. Nothing is scarier than (subtly enhanced) nothing: murky lighting, a low rumble, a quick shadow, the suggestion of a draft, a bump in the night. Paranormal Activity wasn’t an imaginative or especially pleasurable piece of filmmaking, but its artlessness actually worked for it. That could have been your video camera, your dark hallway, your homicidal demon.
I wish that studios, when they’re lucky enough to get a freak hit, a one-shot wonder, would have the grace to leave it at that. I also wish the Israelis and Palestinians would live side by side in friendship and that we all drove solar-powered cars. That said, Paranormal Activity 2 is not the dud that was Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. For one thing, the talented documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger tried to do something different in BW 2, whereas PA2’s Tod Williams knows his job is to do exactly the same thing with a larger cast and more expensive (but not too showy) effects. He directs like a man hearing spooky voices: “Oooooo Your career is on the line Careful with that franchise, young ‘un!”
Who knew that Katie (Katie Featherston), the young woman in PA, had a kid sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), who had similar problems with unexplained thumps and moving objects — a few weeks earlier than the events portrayed last year? Yes, PA2 is a prequel. Katie and boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) even turn up to say hi. This is a bigger house than Katie and Micah’s, though, and after an intruder mysteriously trashes the place (without stealing anything of value), Kristi’s husband (Brian Boland) invests in six security video cameras: kitchen, living room, pool, yard, bedroom, baby’s bedroom. Yes, there’s a baby. Most of us have learned to make our peace with grown-ups dying horribly, but babies are serious business. This one figures a lot in the story.
Williams and writer Michael R. Perry provide some good scenes for Kristi’s sassy teenage stepdaughter (Molly Ephraim), who does a lot of Googling on the subject of haunted houses and at one point produces a Ouija board. Good idea! There’s also a Spanish-speaking housekeeper who senses something evil in the house, puts up some crosses, and rushes from room to room while fervently praying and burning incense. She’s fired by the skeptical patriarch — who begs her to come back when the ectoplasm really hits the fan. The audience I saw the movie with erupted in cheers when she entered the kitchen with her holy accessories in tow. See all you racist, xenophobic wingnuts? Illegal immigrants do have vital roles to play in our society.
Otherwise, Paranoramal Activity 2 consists of many long shots in which nothing is going on. Nothing. Nada y nada y pues nada. As in, so bored so bored so bored Zzzzzzz — BANG!!!!!!! ARGHHH FUCK WHAT DID WHO WAS ARRGGGGHHHHH!!! It’s like that for an hour and a half: stupor and then YAHHHHHHH OH HELL OH SHIT and then more stupor and then YAHHHHHH OH HELL OH SHIT
Is it scary? The colleague sitting next to me got whammed a couple of times when my hand shot out for the armrest. Is it fun? Not in the least. Paranormal Activity 2 is so insistently unpleasant that, like many upsetting but witlessly single-minded shockers, it calls the question of why we go to horror films in the first place. For a horror geek like me, that’s the most terrifying question of all.