At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Paranormal Activity 2

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Seth Ginsberg, Vivis Cortez/ Runtime: 91 minutes or 98 minutes (Unrated Version)

I feel it should be noted that in regards to films that deal with unseen things creeping around a house, I think that Paranormal Activity would at this point be the undisputed poster child for these movies. Of course, this should come as no surprise to any of you seeing as it is a film where pretty much for 85% minimum of its runtime that is exactly what we are treated to and no more and no less. Yet even though in retrospect, the original doesn’t exactly have as many frights as you may recall seeing through hand-covered eyeballs, the fact remains that it did have high degrees of both novelty and cleverness to help balance things out. Now, due to the original being a giant success for film studio Paramount (a factor most likely because the original probably cost about as much as the camera used in it to make), it should come as no real shock to learn that a sequel was quick to pop up one year later and that is the movie I am reviewing today. So how does it hold up a decade-plus after its initial release? Well surprise, surprise movie goers Paranormal Activity 2 is pretty much the same film in many respects including bringing back the original couple in some capacity. As such we are given a coasting along clone that has only a handful of ingredients to distinguish itself from its predecessor and is about as terrifying as viewing a pool vacuum (probably made by Skynet) rebel against its human overlords and jump out of the pool it’s supposed to clean every night in revolt (or it is a ghost; whichever works). However if you are thinking “oh come on Alan there’s gotta be more to this film than that”……honestly not by much I’m sorry to say. Indeed for a film where the horror you feel pierce your spine is supposed to originate from both implied and shown terrors in equal measure, this film, at the end of the day, really just amounts to a lot of missed opportunities aside from a handful of distinct “gotcha” scares that, unsatisfied with being alone, bring their own date courtesy of loud noises to herald their arrival.

The plot, for there is indeed a narrative to be found, is as follows: Paranormal Activity 2 introduces us to a couple by the name of Kristi and Dan Rey. The Reys we soon learn are a husband and wife team living in California in a beautiful two-story house that even has a pool. Also living in the house, we quickly learn, is Dan’s daughter Ali, a German Shepard, a housekeeper by the name of Martine, and the newest addition to the family: a baby boy by the name of Hunter. We also quickly learn that Kristi has a sister by the name of Katie who, if you’ve seen the first film, you should know quite a bit about already. Thus with all the people at the heart of this story having been set up, we soon find ourselves witnesses to the aftermath of a break-in at the house. Weirdly however, although the home is completely ransacked, only Hunter’s room is not messed with and nothing seems to have been taken save for a single necklace. Convinced he needs to take action, Dan quickly orders the installation of a series of high-tech video cameras to be placed throughout the house should this ever occur again. Yet whilst the family is never the subject of another breaking and entering type-scenario in the physical sense, it seems no one thought to consider the metaphysical as well. Indeed soon strange things have started to occur including pots falling at random, cabinets opening all on their own, and Martine starts detecting the possibility of spirits in the house: some amicable, and some as despicable and nasty as they can possibly get. Yet even though the dog and Hunter also seem to be in-tune with these supernatural occurrences, the rest of the family is just willing to shrug them off in favor of the “rational explanation”. Well at least that seems to be the case until Kristi herself starts being terrorized by the same unseen presence. That is, until, Kristi becomes victimized time and again by some unseen force. Thus the question soon becomes: can Kristi and her brood survive the escalating horror or will they be conquered by a force more sinister than anything they could ever begin to imagine?

Now there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that moments like what we are shown in this film could potentially be quite terrifying in reality. Indeed this because the horror genre, at its heart and soul or lack thereof, is one which is quite escapist in nature. Indeed it truly is better for audiences to see all the scary things that this genre manages to conjure up on the silver screen rather than in their own homes and/or neighborhoods. Yet with that being said, it is just plain difficult for me to see just what is so frightening about a film where, aside from the last 10 minutes or so, one of the most terrifying moments is where a group of cabinets in the kitchen all open unaided. Indeed it may make for a decent entry in the jump scare 2010 catalog, but sadly it seems that Paranormal Activity 2 just isn’t capable of either conjuring up any serious degree of unease and suspense or, more crucially, putting the audience in the house with the cast and letting them feel like they are experiencing these events from a firsthand perspective. Rather there is quite the disheartening sense of disconnect and never once is the film able to maintain any degree of pacing, snaring any type of intensity, or playing off the fear and dread of its target audience. Indeed it was this same dilemma which plagued the founding father of the found footage subsection of horror that was 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. By that I mean both this film and Blair Witch are the kind of movies which trade away what is seen rather in exchange for what is not and depend on the audience’s own equally as terrifying when done right capacity to fill in the blanks for themselves for their scares. Indeed it is quite simple to be terrified out of your skull of a hockey-mask wearing serial killer or an extraterrestrial running amok through your ship in the middle of outer space, but it is another thing altogether to find the underlying current of fear found in being suddenly plunged into darkness or in the simple act of a dog barking at a door. For that it takes the special ability to engage with your audience despite having next to nothing to utilize and it is this ability which is clearly missing throughout this film.

Making this dilemma even worse however is the fact that, by and large, the characters in this aren’t really that likable. Indeed you can chalk it up to the voyeuristic nature of the film if you would like, but to me it just feels like the characters in this are people who, although wholly undeserving of what they are going through, are still individuals who you might find difficulty in caring that much about. Indeed for me I think that it’s not only that there is no organic vibe to any of the performances, but also that because this movie so badly wants these people to be representatives for everyday people that it completely forgets about those real-life everyday people who are sitting there watching the movie thus giving us that distant and separated vibe that is at the heart of the main dilemma with the film itself. Now in all fairness I guess I should point out that this film does have a few ingenuous ties to its predecessor that extend beyond just merely sharing the title courtesy of the film being, for the majority of its runtime, a kinda-sorta prequel that introduces new people and also features the return of the first film’s dynamic duo mere months before the events of the first film. Also this film does somewhat intelligently bring into the fold a set of security cameras across the property thus giving us a more logical reason for why there is so much footage of these incidents. Beyond that however, this film does unfortunately become quite dull in having us sit through the same distinct angles in the same rooms over and over again. Finally, and again in all fairness, this film, without spoiling how, does set things up for yet another installment which for lack of anything else should insert in the viewer a degree of watching this all the way through if not for no more and no less than genuine intrigue and to see just how they would do such a follow-up and have it fit within the confines of this particular overarching narrative. Plus as the series was set up following this one, a more typical film would have been an option, but that I feel would have tossed aside the uniqueness and cleverness that made at the very least the original film such a breath of fresh air.

All in all for someone like me who felt that one time around the merry-go-round seemed to be more than enough for this particular film series, I hate to say it, but Paranormal Activity 2 just felt a repeat of what had come before even if it does manage to actually work decently well alongside both the narrative and the cast of main characters, all two of them, from the first film. Be that as it may, what was in the first one a unique little concept now just seems rehashed and almost tiring to sit through now, but that is honestly because there is almost entirely nothing new that is brought to the table by this follow-up. Indeed it’s the same plot, the same way of doing things, the same two old characters with a cast of, although new, characters that fit a lot of same old horror movie stereotypes, and only a prequel/sequel to what came before is all that truly remains. Remarkably, the movie, in all fairness, does manage to get slightly better in the final 15 minutes or so, at least when it comes to the, at the time, potential set-up for where the third film could have gone, and stoking the fire of curiosity within the audience. Yet as we will see this is nevertheless one series that, despite having over six films with a 7th as of this writing somehow on the way, should honestly have stuck to one couple in one house with one camera being haunted by one demon and when it was done maybe we could’ve walked away spooked instead of feeling like we were simply at the beginning of one of the more complicated rabbit holes in the horror film pantheon. Oh the horror indeed…..On a scale of 1-5 I give Paranormal Activity 2 a solid 2.5 out of 5.