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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Paranormal Activity 2

Fans of surprise horror hit Paranormal Activity will find much to like in Paranormal Activity 2. This second round of things-that-go-bump-in-the-night-vision-cameras retains the slow-building, repetitive pace of the first film, while still delivering (for the most part) plenty of scares to keep you on the edge of your seat.

It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to say that PA2 is a prequel … or rather, that it both precedes and coincides with the “found footage” incidents in Paranormal Activity and peripherally involves the two main characters from that film, Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who, presumably, were paid well to reprise their roles in this better-funded sequel).

I was surprised it took so long for Paranormal Activity to get into theaters; I caught it on a Slamdance screener during Sundance that year with a pack of film journo friends, and slept with the lights on that night (admittedly, I am probably more of a wimp than you are about horror films, but still). When it did finally get its day in theaters, Paranormal Activity became a surprise smash success at the box office, raking in so much dough you just knew there was going to be a sequel.

Question was, would it be good?

This time around the writer/director/producter/cinematographer/water boy of the original, Oren Peli, is around only as a producer (along with, interestingly enough, Akiva Goldsman), and the script was penned by TV vet Michael R. Perry, with helming by Tod Williams (who, according to IMdB anyways, is also set to direct the remake of the Icelandic thriller Jar City — what?! Cool!).

The ante is also upped here by the addition of cinematographer Michael Simmonds, who’s shot all of Ramin Bahrani‘s films in addition to a slew of others. I have to imagine that shooting a film in which everything is supposed to be “found footage” from video cameras and hidden security cams is very different from the type of work Simmonds has done on other projects, but here the “found footage” look of the first film has been retained, albeit with some more interesting camera angles.

If you saw the first film, the premise will feel familiar — things go bump in the night, the family thinks they’ve been the victims of a break-in and installs a hidden camera security system throughout their large home to keep an eye on things. As with the first film, the pacing and editing are built around a “lather, rinse, repeat” rhythm; each new “timestamp” sequence, as it were, following a certain pattern that lulls the viewer in the comforting feel of familiarity … until BOOM! the big moment that makes you jump out of your skin happens

To up the “ohmigosh” factor, there’s a cute little baby, a teen-aged girl and a loyal German Shepherd involved, along with (as in the first film) the slightly hysterical woman who’s convinced there are supernatural elements involved, and her stalwart, rational male partner who keeps looking for logical explanations to explain the increasingly bizarre things that happen. (And as an aside, why is it always the woman who’s hysterical and the guy who’s logical?)

This film centers mostly around Kristi (Sprague Grayden), Katie’s sister, who lives with her hubby Daniel (Brian Boland) and teen Ali (Molly Ephraim), Daniel’s daughter from his deceased first wife. As the film opens, Daniel and Kristie are bringing home newborn bundle of joy, baby Hunter. They introduce Hunter to his new home, his sister, his dog/protector/companion, and his nanny — who, because she is a person of ethnicity, is of course more attuned to all the bad spiritual mojo in the house.

And of course, Daniel, who is very logical and probably has a study with a bookcase replete with the works of Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, thinks the nanny is superstitious — so dangerously superstitious that he fires her for trying to protect his son from the evil presence by smudging the house with burning herbs to ward bad spirits away.

Now, I was kind of with Daniel on him taking issue with her burning herbs practically right in the baby’s face, but apparently Daniel hasn’t watched a lot of horror movies (or heck, even a lot of Scooby Doo episodes), because if he had he would have known — as the audience I saw the film with obviously did — that the superstitious ethnic person no one believes in is almost always right.

When looking at a film like Paranormal Activity 2, the first question to ask is whether it’s “as good as” the first film, and in this case I would have to say yes, PA2 delivers as many effective scares as the first one, and if you are a fan of the first you most likely will not be disappointed by the sequel. The decision to tie the second film to the first, but to make it a prequel of sorts, was a clever one, largely because the first film was so ambiguous as to what exactly was happening and why. Once Micah set up the camera to record what was happening at night, we — and Micah — knew that something freaky was up; the ending (changed for the theatrical release from the cut seen at Slamdance, btw) also left it open to your best guess as to what happened after that.

The sequel delivers on that, and also gives us a bit more to chew on to explain why Katie and Kristi have been targeted by this evil presence, but doesn’t delve so deeply as to bore us to tears or leave a lot of room for arguing about the premise being stupid. Rather, the filmmakers expect the audience to go along with the game here: it doesn’t matter, really, why they’ve been targeted. What matters is that we believe they HAVE been targeted, that we believe everyone involved, especially innocent little Hunter, is in grave danger, and that the pacing of the film and delivery of the scary moments be delivered effectively. And for the most part, the sequel does all those things very well.

If the movie’s guilty of falling into some cliche traps, well, it doesn’t do so more than any other horror movie. Richard Pryor had a classic routine on stupid shit white people do in horror movies, and these white people do most of them, but in ways that are generally effective at upping the suspense-level.


What’s so effective about the premise here, though, is that if you saw the first film you already know that, even though you might be thinking (or yelling at the screen, even) that Kristi should take her baby and her herb-smudging nanny and get the hell out of that house, it wouldn’t do any good because … it’s not the house that’s haunted.


Then there’s the meta-argument, of course, which is more of interest to those who follow the business side of Hollywood than to your average moviegoer just looking for a good time. That meta-argument will center around whether the investment of a higher budget for the sequel pays off in terms of the filmmaking and final product, and the all-important box office return.

Paranormal Activity was made on a shoestring budget of around $11,000, sold to Paramount for around $350,000 and then went onto make over $100 million at the box office off a ballsy online-only marketing campaign that asked fans to vote on to demand that the movie play in their town, effectively putting butts into seats before the movie even screened.

The sequel presumably cost more than $11,000 to make, but a solid opening weekend has to feel promising. What remains to be see is whether word-of-mouth stirs the same pot that kept bringing folks to theaters over the next couple weeks to get the final numbers up there.

I can’t say, from a purely critical standpoint, though, that an investment of a presumed higher budget this time around made a substantial difference in either quality or scare factor for me. What they did very well here was to not muck about too much with a formula that obviously worked, and to tie the second film to the first in a fairly creative way.

I would expect that most of the audience for PA2 will be folks who saw and liked the first film, and for that crowd the film pretty much delivers; it’s just that it doesn’t deliver any differently, or really even any better, for having a bigger budget.

Still, you might want to sleep with the lights on.

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One Response to “Review: Paranormal Activity 2”

  1. jb says:

    Your point about it not mattering if they leave the house is spot on. A lot of reviewers (Roger Ebert, for example) forget this part of the story, saying that people would leave if it really happened. But, would they? All you have to do is look at Hurricane Katrina to know that people don’t always leave their homes when it makes the most sense. It was clearly explained in the first movie that the spirit follows the individual. Both the sisters have experienced this as children already. Some also attacked the fact that the dog could see the spirit and this was absurd that dogs can’t even see color. Well dogs can smell and hear better. Why do you think there are drug dogs? I thought the movie was very well done for a sequel that Hollywood could have cranked out for cheap cash, but they tied it in nicely and I was very scared.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon