Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 / *** (R)

Kristi: Sprague Grayden
Daniel: Brian Boland
Ali: Molly Ephraim
Hunter: William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto
Katie: Katie Featherston
Micah: Micah Sloat

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Tod Williams. Written by Michael R. Perry. Based on the motion picture “Paranormal Activity” by Oren Peli. Running time: 91 min. Rated R (for some language and brief violent material).

The first “Paranormal Activity” was one of the best movies of last year. It was also one of the scariest films I’ve seen, playing on our fears of the unknown and unexplained, and the childhood notion that there’s something evil lurking about your house in the dark. The fact that you can’t see it makes it more frightening, more real. Now, along comes “Paranormal Activity 2” only a year later, made with the thinking that there’s nothing like replicating success cheaply and quickly, before your audience loses interest.

The first film proposed to tell its story through a video camcorder purchased by a newly wed couple who suspect strange things are happening in their suburban condo. The entire story is told with the single camera, usually with one of the two characters doing the filming. Comparisons to the hand-held horror phenomenon that ushered in the era of digital camera filmmaking, “The Blair Witch Project”, were abundant. The difference between that movie and “Paranormal Activity” was that the newer movie provided a palpable threat to its characters that had a definitive physical impact to go along with the psychological terror they felt. Another difference was that PA left me lying awake all night wondering at every creak I heard.

PA2 is a unique sequel in that it acts as both a prequel and a sequel to the events depicted in the first film. It retains the digital camera perspective technique from the first film but widens its scope. This time we meet a family—mother, father, teenage daughter and newborn son.  After what appears to be a break-in the family installs a security system that takes the camera out of the handheld realm and allows multiple shots of goings on throughout the entire house.

After a while, it becomes clear that what is happening in the house is more than mere break-ins. I liked how much time director Tod Williams (“The Door in the Floor”) commits to establishing the family life here. This works in two ways. It allows the audience to get to know the characters well before we see them in an extraordinary situation. It also lulls us into the same sense of security the family feels in their own home.

Each night depicted in the film begins with the same security camera shots of the front door, the swimming pool, the living room and the foyer. What is different each time? Is anything? Will anything ever be different? These establishing shots get under your skin because you know something will eventually be different. Something is bound to change. Williams resists giving up too much. He does use the pool shot to work in a fairly humorous incident with the automatic pool vacuum cleaner.

Once it is established that what is going on in the house is quite sinister, the shocks start coming in quick succession. I wouldn’t think of spoiling any of the scares found here, but I will say they are less mysterious than the ones presented in the original film. They do surprise and they made me jump on more than one occasion, but they are also more specifically focused on what we already know has happened in the first film. There’re fewer questions concerning what exactly is happening, which lessens the effect of the fear created. There’s less attempt by the characters to try and understand what is going on with more assumption on the parts of the filmmakers that everyone in the movie and watching the movie knows what’s going on.

All this dilutes the impact of the horror to some degree, but it all still has the desired effect of making you grip your armrest more than you might be conscious of. The main difference between this movie and the original is that this one tries to scare you while spending an equal amount of time building the mythology of the paranormal universe that it inhabits. The first one just tried to scare you. This one wont’ disappoint people who want to relive those scares of the first, but since it tries to add a little more, it yields just a little bit less.

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