Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's All About Family: A Spoiler-Free Review of Paranormal Activity 2



One of the things that I really enjoy about "found footage" movies such as The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Quarantine is that unlike other horror films, what you see and hear are strictly limited by the non-cinematic audio and video equipment used to make the film. If the characters are walking blind in the dark, you are too; if the characters hear something unusual but can't hear it clearly enough to understand what it is, you're just as clueless as they are. This is also why I think that the first person perspective is usually the best format for horror video games. (Given the high number of security cameras it has in its streets, I'm still surprised that a blockbuster found footage film hasn't arrived from the UK yet.)

Yet to have an effective found footage movie, you have to provide a convincing reason within the movie to explain why a camera or cameras are capturing enough footage to tell a complete story. The found footage films that have disappointed me the most are the ones that unexpectedly break character, so to speak, to include footage that would not qualify as found footage. This is usually done to include some kind of twist ending; The Last Broadcast and The Last Exorcism are noteworthy examples of this jarring, mood-breaking practice.

With these thoughts in mind, I finally got a chance to see Paranormal Activity 2, the sequel to the low-budget found footage fright flick from 2007. Read on for my review of the movie, which was better than I anticipated.

For as much as I liked this movie, Paranormal Activity 2 does have its share of shortcomings, some of which feel like the sequel's crew painted themselves into a figurative corner by making the creative choices that they did. For the most part, Paranormal Activity 2 lacks the narrative tension that was present in the first film. For example:

  • In Paranormal Activity, latent insecurities within the relationship between Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) bubble to the surface as they continue to be haunted with increasing intensity, thus providing an effective dramatic counterweight to the haunting. In the sequel, even though Daniel Rey (Brian Boland) is in his second marriage with Katie's sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and they have a newborn son Hunter (alternately played by William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto), Daniel's teenage daughter from his first marriage Ali (Molly Ephraim) has no lingering ill will toward her stepmom or muted jealously over her new half-brother. With little emotional tension between the sequel's characters, the scares have less of an impact on them and by extension the audience.
  • Likewise, Katie and Micah take the concept of haunting seriously very early in first film, which further adds to the tension. In contrast, the Rey family in the sequel doesn't take the idea of haunting seriously until the second half of the film, which leaves the audience waiting for the Reys to come to the inevitable conclusion that a haunting is taking place. In fact, it appeared to me that the sequel's crew chose to do supernatural scares on a lesser scale than the first film (no self-propelled, spontaneously combusting Ouija boards in this sequel) so that the family's acceptance of the supernatural could be plausibly delayed until later in the film.
I can see why the makers of Paranormal Activity 2 made the choices they did to avoid copying the first film too closely, since the sequel already has to follow a pre-set narrative trajectory similar to Paranormal Activity--a series of increasingly ominous events that lead up to a shocking conclusion. In doing so, Paranormal Activity 2 resorts to other plot threads and shortcuts that are clichés within the horror subgenre of haunted houses: For example, the Reys’ Latina nanny Martine (Vivis Cortez) and their family dog both notice the menacing supernatural presence before the Reys do. Such clichés emphasize the limitations that filmmakers have to accept when they are limited to stationary cameras and home video cameras when telling their story.

That said, while Paranormal Activity 2 may not be as effective a shocker as the first movie, it is nevertheless a worthwhile sequel--especially if you are interested in having a greater understanding of what happened to Katie in the first movie and why. Probably the best idea that this sequel has going for it is that it is mostly a prequel to Paranormal Activity, and it stays within the conventions of the found footage genre to effectively lay out the relationships between the haunting of the Reys and the haunting of Katie and Micah. While the familial relationship between Katie and Kristi is the obvious connection between the two films, there's a second connection revealed towards the end of the sequel. I won't spoil it for you, but it made my jaw drop when I saw it and it added a dimension of tragedy to both movies. For that reason, I would strongly recommend that you watch the Paranormal Activity movies in sequence to get the maximum effect. Also, when the scares kick into high gear towards the end of the sequel, they don't disappoint and are well worth the wait.

If you could care less about the true story behind Katie and her family's past (you know, if you're like this guy), then you probably won't like Paranormal Activity 2. However, if you're still interested in watching found footage of unseen, demonic menaces who stalk mere mortals for generations at a time, then Paranormal Activity 2 is your kind of movie. I don't know where Paranormal Activity 3 could go from this point but if they keep up this level of quality, it should be interesting to see what they do next.





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