Friday, October 22, 2010

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2: Same as the First, a Little Bit Louder and a Little Bit Worse

Last year’s Paranormal Activity, from writer-director Oren Peli, was scary, but it also got under the skin. It was creepy with its slow building dread and its escalating freak-outs. Its simplicity was its greatest virtue. It was no more than a gimmick, but it was a surprisingly effective gimmick. It was also produced cheaply and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Thus we have the inevitable Paranormal Activity 2, a quickly produced combination prequel and sequel directed by Tod Williams and written by Michael R. Perry.

If you saw the first movie, you will remember that it focused on Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), a young couple that turned on a video camera to capture proof that things were going bump in the night. The new film follows a different and expanded cast of characters in the house that belongs to Katie’s sister (Sprague Grayden), who has a one-year-old son with her husband (Brian Boland). Also in the house are her stepdaughter (Molly Ephraim) and a maid (Vivis Cortez). The movie barely starts before the maid knows that an evil spirit haunts the house. She must be related to the security guard from Devil who knew all about spotting demons from the most innocuous of signs. Or maybe she was just paying attention to the dog, for, as any horror fan knows, it always means trouble when a dog barks at nothing.

The film plays like a dull echo of its predecessor. Once again this is “found footage,” though this time the source is a handful of security cameras placed strategically around the house after a real-world break-in that gets the family spooked. The first film’s single camera provided much better scares by playing with our fixed viewpoint and teasing us with what we couldn’t see and what we could barely hear. In this film, the editing is more pronounced, bouncing between different angles trying to capture the full extent of the flickering lights, the clattering pans and the creaking doors. It’s just not as scary that way, though adding a baby to the mix immediately enhances the dread.

The cast is up to the task of getting gradually more and more freaked out. It’s not boring to watch them go from denial to suspicion to rattled jumpiness. What is boring is the predictability of the scares, which crop up far too infrequently. There’s no sense of building menace. The film goes straight from weird, but mostly explainable, occurrences to the full manifestation of paranormal supernatural horror. By the time of the scariest moment of the film, a moment of genuine chills nearly two-thirds of the way through the runtime, I found myself eager to see how the filmmakers were going to top themselves. They didn’t.

It’s certainly a good effort. The film is true to what made the first film so successful. The characters seem more or less real. The use of silence and stillness is still appealing. It’s unnerving to watch a shadowy image of a dark room waiting, just waiting, for that other shoe to drop. Too often, nothing happens or, even worse, a Very Loud Noise smashes against the soundtrack. This is a horror movie that managed to startle me a handful of times, but it never truly unnerved me the way it should have.

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