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I’ll come right out and say it: the first “Paranormal Activity” (2007) didn’t really do it for me. More specifically, I found it so boring that I had a hard time concentrating even when the supposedly climactic scenes of terror were unfolding. Naturally, my hopes for the sequel weren’t high: I expected to be bored, laugh a lot, and possibly doze off.
Not so! I think we may have encountered a rare instance here in which the sequel outshines the original. Whereas the first film felt claustrophobic and irritatingly repetitive, “2” manages to contextualize its things-that-go-bump-in-the-night conceit in a way that turns the story from being all-out silly to actually scary.
“2” focuses on a slightly unconventional family: young mother, baby, older husband and his teenage daughter. We soon find out that the young mother is the sister of the female character from the first film, Katie. Soon the references are flying thick and fast; it’s definitely preferable to have seen the first film before venturing out to see “2,” otherwise much of the dialogue won’t make sense. Oddly, though, this storyline doesn’t feel artificial and forced—perhaps because of the intensely intimate filming techniques (hand-held, indoor surveillance cameras), the family’s interactions feel pretty natural.
And it’s this naturalism—not to say realism—that makes the film scary. Unlike the first film, “2” allows its characters and setting to breathe a little; people come and go, and the viewers occasionally get treated to a scene or two outdoors, which makes the interspersed scenes of indoor nighttime mayhem all the more terrifying. Perhaps a new director (Tod Williams, “The Door in the Floor”) and a bevy of new writers are exactly what this franchise needed—though Oren Peli, the writer/director of the original, is still heavily credited. Adding a larger cast of characters to the story along with extra creepy elements, like the scenes of the family dog being terrorized and the baby looking intently at something invisible, give the film enough structure and depth for its “gotcha” moments to be really effective.
There is an interesting analysis to be done on both “Paranormal Activity” films in regards to gender; in both instances, the primary target of said activity is a young woman, and the films’ focus on the domestic sphere as the locus of horror points to a long line of haunted house/haunted woman films. Though “Paranormal Activity 2” may not be the rich fountain of allegorical material that makes up films like “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” or “The Others,” it’s a surprisingly effective little film that might be just the ticket for your Halloween movie pre-gaming this weekend. Then you’ll be primed for something truly scary.
“Paranormal Activity 2” is currently in wide release.