Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On DVD: "Paranormal Activity 2"

Paranormal Activity was one of the best chillers in many a moon, a taut thriller that used its limited resources to create a memorable, scary, genuinely tense moviegoing experience. Paranormal Activity 2 is like a cover version, played by a band that barely knows the chords, much less how to play them with any flair. When the original film came out, most reviewers (including this one) compared it favorably to Blair Witch; the makers of this sequel didn’t make the same mistake as that one’s, which punted the predecessor’s clever construct and made what amounted to a standard, immediately forgettable slice of C-level horror. Paranormal Activity 2 director Tod Williams errs too far in the opposite direction, creating a virtual Xerox of the original, but to no greater effect: both sequels do little more than denigrate our memories of the originals.

Chronologically, it is mostly a prequel to the first film, set in the home of Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden), sister of the original picture’s protagonist, Katie (Katie Featherston). Kristi lives in a large housee in Carlsbad, California, with her husband Daniel (Bryan Boland) and his daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) from his first marriage (his first wife died). Their story begins with the arrival of Kristi and Daniel’s first baby, but not long after he arrives, strange things start happening; their place is thoroughly trashed, and though nothing is stolen, they decide to install security cameras throughout the home. And that’s when the sights and sounds of the first film begin to reappear—rumbling noises, slamming doors, people being moved involuntarily, and so on.

The incorporation of the surveillance footage seems a good device, lowering the reliance—often a problem in these “found footage” films—on cameras just happening to be on at key moments, particularly in the day. But the filmmakers end up leaning too heavily on that device, which severely limits the dynamism of the picture visually—we end up watching a whole lot of stuff happening in a high-angle wide shot, which isn’t exactly the height of cinematic artistry.

More importantly, we never get the sense, so present in the original film, of getting to know the characters and becoming sympathetic to them. This new family is mostly composed of ciphers; top-billed Katie and Micah reappear (the latter quite briefly), and while their presence is welcome, it’s rather superfluous. Williams takes just as long to get his film going (the first good jolts don’t come until about halfway through), but doesn’t do much of anything with the set-up sections—there’s less a sense of establishing characters than just waiting for things to happen. We’re merely biding our time; the film sorely lacks the tension that propelled its predecessor, which reached a point where the viewer was dreading those nighttime scenes, because something bad was surely going to happen. Here, we’re checking our watches.

And the intersections with the first film are more of a distraction than an enhancement; when the mind wanders from the action onscreen (which is frequently), we start puzzling through how they’re going to make this work, how the inevitable bloodbath wouldn’t have been mentioned by “Aunt Katie” sometime in the other film, and then we start trying to remember if she did, if she even mentioned a sister, and so on. What they end up attempting is something like what Halloween II did: using the sequel to graft on an explanation for the events of the original. Once again, it’s a bit of a stretch.

Paranormal Activity 2 does manage to get some scares going at the end, but they’re a long time coming, and the wind-up isn’t worth the wait. There’s nothing wrong with a delayed pay-off in horror; the best scary movies do that very thing. But something compelling has to happen in the interim, or we’re just marking time. Paranormal Activity used its expositional sequences to establish character, build dread, and hook viewers. Paranormal Activity 2 takes all of that out, and thinks we won’t notice because they’ve thrown in a baby and a dog and a nicer house. What a waste.

"Paranormal Activity 2" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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