Friday, October 22, 2010

My Fears Relieved -- Reflections on "Paranormal Activity 2" (2010)

Someone get this kid some Xanax...STAT!

After Paranormal Activity 2 had ended, I sat through the short credit sequence and heard a baby's cry.

In front of me, a woman was standing beside her boyfriend. As soon as the baby's cry sounded, she quickly jumped behind him for protection.

Yeah, it was that kind of movie.

The first Paranormal Activity (2009) was a cultural phenomenon, costing about $11,000 to produce and grossing over $100 million. The advertising campaign focused on reactions like the one in my lead, and people flocked to the theaters to see what everyone was screaming about. The critical response was remarkably positive, including my own, and while there was definitely some loud criticism against it, the overall consensus was that Paranormal Activity was a well-made indie horror flick.

I was reluctant to see the sequel, my head swimming with visions of new couples like Katie and Micah being haunted by demons in the wee hours of the night in front of a shaky-cam. Even worse, I imagined the producers looking for a way to use a significantly bigger budget to create CGI haunting effects, like images of a demon, etc.

What I didn't expect was a film that takes the best parts of the first movie and expands on them in effective, often chilling, ways. What made the original film work was the charisma of the lead actors, the use of sound and subtle background movement, and patience to allow many shots the opportunity to do nothing more than create tension by doing nothing. Tod Williams, replacing Oren Peli as director, must have taken copious notes, because Paranormal Activity 2 is, in many ways, an improvement.

Without spoiling, the story is fairly simple. A Carlsbad-based family brings home a newborn baby, and about a year after he is born, demonic stuff starts happening all over the house. It begins with what appears to be a burglary, so the family has security cameras installed everywhere -- in the living room, kitchen, baby's room, foyer, front porch, and swimming pool area. From there, we follow the same formula as the first film, watching the camera footage night-by-night until the creep factor increases to a fever pitch.

The biggest improvement in this sequel is the expansion of characters. By giving us a family to follow, there are more opportunities to relate to them as they relate to each other. Most notable is the teenage daughter, Aly, whose progression from giggly and enthusiastic to freaked-out-of-her-mind is terrific drama. Some of the movie's best moments involve her. Also, putting a baby at the center of the conflict was a stroke of genius. At first it seemed like an exploitative move, but the filmmakers wisely used the child as an opportunity to expand the mythology established in the first film. The result is a conflict that is deeper, darker, and scarier than we originally saw.

No doubt, anyone who saw and liked the original film will like this one, too. If you didn't like the original, I imagine there's not much I can say to sway you. Stories like this affect people differently, depending on their sensitivity to things like demon possession, Ouija boards, and spiritual presence. I'm a sucker for a good ghost/demon story, and the Paranormal Activity franchise has yet to disappoint.

I imagine many will feel the same. I'm sure there are a lot more people out there, like the woman I saw hiding behind her boyfriend all because of a sound effect.

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