Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 2


Reviewed by: David Graham

Exactly a decade on from the revolutionary but widely derided The Blair Witch Project, last Halloween saw another unassuming low-budget chiller take cinemas by storm with its ingenious marketing and back-to-basics approach. Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity could easily have slipped into DVD oblivion, but a few rapturous festival screenings and Spielberg-approved tweaks later, the film found its way into cinemas via an audience-empowering online petition.

Trailers featured more shots of punters recoiling in fright than actual film footage; like Blair Witch's innovative viral leakage, stoking the flames of its own mystique, a clever campaign ensured the hype for Paranormal Activity was through the roof. It went on to string up the latest Saw film at the box office, becoming one of the most profitable movies ever, but not without splitting viewers down the middle, many horror fans feeling particularly short-changed by its necessarily low-key nature.

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Paranormal Activity 2 arrives somewhat unheralded: mum has been the word in its rapid genesis and journey to cinemas. Would it follow on from the first film or deal with a new haunting? It turns out that 'mum' is indeed the word: the new film begins with new mother Christie bringing baby Hunter home for the first time, the occasion filmed with joyful enthusiasm by her husband. This scene establishes everything we need to know without having the characters condescendingly spout unrealistic dialogue; this was a big problem in the first film, partly due to the fact that it primarily only dealt with two characters in domestic situations which seldom called for a camera.

The family here are easy to relate to and empathise with, their history alluded to in revealing moments which really draw the viewer in. It makes sense that they would want to film every experience with their new child, and so the film jumps a year forward, to a visit from Christie's sister, who just so happens to be Katie from the first film...

One of the things that distinguished the original was the location: this wasn't some spooky forest or even an imposing mansion, this was a flatpack Ikea home, without the slightest hint of inherent menace. The sequel takes this further by making the family's house bigger, more open plan, more inviting and lived-in. The use of security cameras is a masterstroke, building a repetitive rhythm in early scenes where we cycle through the various perspectives, the tension mounting inexorably with each night. The reason for their installation is also an example of the sequel's admirable ambiguity, as opposed to the original's limited and clearly defined situation.

Having Katie and Micah return in a prequel setting could have been a gimmicky no-brainer, but the focus is bravely kept squarely on the new family; the audience's recollection of the previous couple's experiences is not essential to their enjoyment, but it does help to highlight how layered the new film is. Everything is somehow more subtle but still more effective, mercilessly keeping the heart in the mouth for pretty much the whole of the perfectly paced duration. The first film excelled in the creeping unease of its early scenes; this film stays true to that spirit, but takes the pay-offs a hell of a lot further, with several sequences that are guaranteed to have an ejector-seat effect.

Tod Williams previously directed 2004's underrated The Door In The Floor, and this experience obviously helped him sharpen his dramatic faculties. The relationships in the house are drawn with care, each of the family members having clear individual qualities and strong bonds with the others, which come to be tested in various ways. Humour is employed believably in early scenes to really convey how close they are to one another, and the audience can't help but buy into their idiosyncracies.

The acting is naturalistic and convincing. Where the first film felt forced, its improvisation seems to have been avoided in favour of a tighter script, and it shows. There is a depth to the situations beyond the surface tension; the family's relationship with their Latino cleaner is a pivotal plot point, and the teenage daughter's positive attitude towards both her father and step-mother is a refreshing change from that of usual stereotypical movie brats.

The most important and impressive aspect of the new story, however, is how it expertly exploits our natural sympathies towards children and animals. They are both given several unsettling moments where it is obvious that they are aware of some presence apparent only to them, their inability to communicate what they feel making their anxiety all the more affecting. This is a far more subtle and disturbing device than anything the original managed, really playing on the audience's fear of the unknown, even in broad daylight. Baby Hunter is effortlessly adorable and is allowed many off-hand moments that really make the audience care about what happens to him. The dog is also a fully fleshed-out character, its protective instincts and loyalty to the family making it a key player in the escalating events. Gender even plays an intriguing part in proceedings, but to say more would be to spoil some of the film's expanded mythos.

As with most 'found footage' films, there are illusion-shattering moments where the characters' reasons for filming are questionable, and the climax becomes increasingly derivative as it becomes ever sillier. There is also a frequent and distracting temptation to pick holes in the plot through its relationship to its predecessor, exacerbated by the often unnecessary appearances of the better-than-before but still wooden Katie Featherston.

However, the fear factor is maintained all the way to the delightfully provocative ending, which cheekily acknowledges all the criticisms usually levelled at the genre's abrupt cliffhangers just as it leaves us with its own, setting us up for the inevitable possibility of another sequel. If producer Peli and writer Michael R Perry can continue with the ethos of bringing in new blood but staying true to the spirit of their franchise, they will hopefully continue to find fresh ways to make the familiar terrifying. You might just be sleeping with the lights on after this one.

Reviewed on: 22 Oct 2010
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A couple with a new baby begin to expect a strange presence in their home.
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Director: Tod Williams

Writer: Oren Peli, Michael R. Perry

Starring: Katie Featherston

Year: 2010

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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