“Paranormal Activity 2” is inferior to its predecessor—few sequels aren’t. I could rag on it for regurgitating the ideas and scenarios that made the original such a memorable theater experience, but what’s more interesting to me is where it goes right. Very few people awaited this found footage follow-up with any degree of anticipation, and with a conspicuous absence of the advanced screenings that so stoked public interest in the first, “Paranormal Activity 2” was, to all appearances, shaping up to be an unmitigated disaster.
Turns out it was plain bad marketing. “PA2” might actually be the most conceptually creative sequel since J.J. Abram’s “Star Trek” reboot. Like that film, this is chronologically a prequel, with the ill-fated original stars, Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), returning in a supporting role as relatives of the affected family. The handheld camera premise has also been extrapolated on, and after the first paranormal incident (misconstrued as a break-in), the patriarch of the Rey family (Brian Boland) has a series of security cameras installed, by which we monitor his kitchen, living room, patio, bedroom, and nursery.
It’s a clever natural progression of the first film’s conceit, though it never justifies itself as well. Rationality of characters’ actions has always been a stumbling block for horror films, and one way the original “Paranormal Activity” distinguished itself was in creating a character who would believably continue filming the bizarre phenomena in his home. Most of the time, our videographer in the sequel is a stuck-up teenage girl (Molly Ephraim). Her interest in cataloging her family’s day-to-day lives, along with the increasingly surreal occurrences is never explained. The motive for camera involvement in certain scenes is questionable at best, and her inseparability from her camcorder is completely artificial.
That being said, the majority of the film is viewed from the vantage point of the mounted security cameras, which better serve the reality of the story. The sets are designed with the same attention to detail as the first—these are deep, cluttered spaces that keep you scanning the frame for signs of movement. Again, “Paranormal 1” does it better, and the use of multiple locations, though novel, does admittedly kill some of the visual tension.
But despite being significantly less effective (re: scary), “Paranormal Activity 2” is neck and neck with the original in spooky fun factor. What I love about both films is their unapologetic simplicity. Modern horror filmmaking has become oversaturated with textbook mood, and artists presume their work scary because it's lit like a horror film, scored like a horror film, and directed like a horror film. Fear cannot be calculated and manufactured in that way—“Paranormal Activity” and its follow up are refreshing because they are effective without ‘trying’ to be frightening. Naturally, they both are, but it’s so much easier to suspend our disbelief when we aren’t watching a Hollywood starlet meander down a flickering blue corridor with a string orchestra phoning in the emotional experience.
That “Paranormal Activity 2” manages to avoid all that without taking itself overly seriously—in addition to building an interesting dialogue with the first film—is a miracle in itself. It definitely would have been nice had the film been more original, or upped the ante in the suspense department, but color me pleasantly surprised “Paranormal Activity 2” achieves even that much.
Needless to say, this follow-up far exceeded my modest expectations, and though it is inferior to its predecessor in nearly every way, it’s still smarter than your average shameless cash-in. It’s a worthy sequel, and alongside countless other franchises’ many unmitigated disasters, that’s praise enough.