Last year’s “Paranormal Activity” was a tremendous sleeper hit because of its simplicity and its refusal to condescend to audiences. “Paranormal Activity 2” takes everything that worked in the first one and runs with it – a wise choice by director Tod Williams (taking over for Oren Peli) and screenwriter Michael Perry. Many sequels fail to do this and end up convoluting the original appeal. Here, things are kept relatively simple, and the film works all the better for it.
The movie opens with a woman and her family recording their return home from the hospital following the birth of their son, Hunter. We meet Hunter’s mother and father, Dan and Christi (Brian Bolden and Sprague Grayden), and their teenaged daughter, Ali (Molly Ephraim). There is also Abbey, the family’s German shepherd, and Martine the housekeeper, a very religious woman who later on senses something in the house.
Roughly two years pass, and one afternoon the family comes home to find their house trashed. They decide to have security cameras installed in six different areas of the house just to be on the safe side, and to catch on video any vandals that might return. This is the set up for the terror and suspense that unfolds over the next hour and a half.
This time around, there are more cameras and more characters. There are a lot more things that go bump in the night. The story also weaves in and out of the original film, yet another brave but fruitful creative choice. These elements would typically lead to excess in a sequel, but somehow the simplicity of the original movie remains.
There are of course many new mechanisms used to freak out the audience: A black bird, a pool cleaner, pots and pans, slamming doors and the titles which tell us how many nights have gone by. Those who have seen the first film are now conditioned to tense up in their seats and hold their breath whenever night falls.
However, the most important device the sequel uses is silence. Often times there are two-to-three minute blocks of complete quiet that allow us to scan the screen for something to move. We listen closely for a ghostly sound or the baby’s cry. This allows for a remarkable amount of anticipation, perhaps even more than in the original because there are multiple cameras.
The way the film deals with the baby and the dog is very manipulative – there’s nothing touchier in this particular situation than pets and kids, and the unseen demonic force that terrorizes the family spends much of its time with both. Aside from this, which leads to a more upsetting film then the first, it works terrifically in building suspense, and then releasing with some comic relief, and then building again, and so on.
The performances are very absorbing and provide a lot of laughs as well as anxiety. Some have said that they are mere stick figures that only serve to stand around and get scared now and then. It’s hard to agree with that – what really drives a film like this is the daytime scenes when the actors have to behave as if it is just another day. When the haunting is absent, there has to be a reason to want to watch these characters. The seven or eight cameras, like flies on walls, capture the kinds of performances have us soundly invested by the end.
The first film was the victor over my sleep – that night just one year ago I wasn’t physically able to close my eyes and forget the images that it showed me. Audiences may not lose as much sleep over “Paranormal Activity 2,” but I did, and as I tried to close my eyes later that night, I realized that once again these guys got me, and they should once again be damn proud of the simple, terrifying film that they have crafted. Grade: B+