Paranormal Activity 2 (review)

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Rattle and Ho-hum

I suppose there’s a sort of cleverness in the direction Paranormal Activity 2 decided to take. Sequels are typically about one-upping their progenitor films by being bigger, faster, louder, more-er of everything. But screenwriters Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst and director Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor) went in the other direction: They aped the look and feel of Paranormal Activity but made everything else smaller and lesser. It’s a bold choice, if an odd one. And almost entirely predictably, it utterly fails to pay off.

What amusement value there was in Paranormal Activity came in its novelty: we hadn’t seen a film quite like this before, as the haunting of an ordinary young American couple terrorizing by a demon in their ordinary suburban house played out entirely via the camcorders they set up to document their experience, and to try to figure out what the hell was going on. Their terror felt palpably real because they were so palpably real, even if the scares were of the cheap-carnival-funhouse variety. It was hardly a great film, but it was innovative and clever, if not entirely successful.

Here, though, the palpable reality of another ordinary family starts out in only a mildly interesting way: as new baby Hunter is brought home from the hospital, his father, Dan, and his teenage half-sister, Ali, make a video diary of the event, and an introduction of him to the household, which also includes new mom Kristi and faithful German shepherd Abby. And it gets only less interesting as this portrait of wholly mundane everyday life drags out for much of the film’s short runtime. From the arrival of Hunter we jump to a year later, when the family returns home from an unspecified absence to discover the house almost entirely trashed by, it would appear, vandals who stole nothing and left only the baby’s room untouched. To calm his freaked-out family, Dan installs security cameras around the house, inside and out, which go on to augment the ongoing routine family camcording.

Stuff that is very slightly weird occurs, such as the robot pool vacuum somehow finding its way out of the pool on its own. This is not particularly creepy in any respect, which is precisely how the family treats it: with a shrug. Nonevents like this recur — odd rattling noises, frying pans falling from their perches, and the like — but we continue to be as unscared as the family is, and not even their Magic Hispanic maid and nanny, Martine, who waves incense around and mutters about bad spirits, can up the spookiness. It is, perhaps, a measure of how tedious a downgrade from Paranormal Activity this is — it doesn’t even really rise to the level of retread — that the filmmakers resort to such a tired cliché in their attempts to entertain us.

Worse, though, is how little they capitalized on what did they have here. In the baby’s room, for instance, there’s a wall of mirrors that’s in view of the security camera. I was sure that at least once, we’d see something in the mirror that wasn’t in the room, or vice versa. Never happened. What a waste.

None of the filmmakers had anything to do with that first film, which was a veritable one-man show from Oren Peli, so perhaps they felt they had to refrain from putting their own stamp on it. The whole endeavor, in fact, reeks of a desperate attempt to recapture the surprise success of that first film. Like with this: It’s almost impossible to find the names of the cast anywhere — they’re not listed on the IMDB; they’re not even listed in press materials from Paramount. Someone clearly hopes that the illusion that this is an actual documentary can be maintained. I did find, at a review at The Hollywood Reporter, some of the cast listed: Kristi is played by Sprague Grayden, who was a regular on Jericho and 24; Dan by Brian Boland, who appeared in the recent The Unborn and the fascinating fake documentary Death of a President; an Ali by Molly Ephraim, who has made several TV appearances. They’re none of them exactly world famous, but they’re far more familiar faces than the then-unknown Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat were when they appeared in the first film as Katie and Micah.

Featherston and Sloat, actually, appear briefly here, too: Katie is Kristi’s sister, and everything here is taking place before the events of the first film. It’s all meant to explain why what set in motion the events of the first film. That task is dispatched with in about three minutes at the end of Paranormal Activity 2. Nothing that comes before has built to it, certainly not in any development of the characters, who are all but blank slates. We understood Katie’s fear in the first film, saw it emerge slowly from both her past and her present. But here, by the time the characters get around to be proactively involved in the story at all, it’s far too late to make them thorny enough to do what they think needs to be done. They do it anyway, of course.

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