“What do you want?”
Ouija board: “H… U… N… T…”
Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 together form a master class in why skill, experience and technical aptitude actually matters when it comes to making movies. An excellent follow-up to the 2007 original, PA2 uses the budgetary increase from $15,000 (!) to $3,000,000 to hire professional actors, take advantage of a larger set, and rent some additional cameras. Even better, it sees what Paranormal Activity was going for and raises the stakes with some really strong directorial choices. This movie is, if anything, even scarier and more effective than the original, and I don’t feel nearly as bad about that.
As I’ve said before, the second entry in any franchise is when the filmmakers (particularly the producers) tell you what they believe the series is meant to be. The similarities to PA1 are remarkable; the temptation must have been there to mess with the formula, for example by leaving the house in order to open the film up. (In fact, the movie even plays with those expectations by giving us a Hollywood happy ending before the twist pulls the rug out from under us.) But the movie rightly decides instead to perfect what was already there. There’s no better word for the way the film doubles down on almost every aspect of the original but “smart.” (Well, okay, the other word for it is “sexist,” but we’ll get to that.) When I suggested in my Paranormal Activity review that that film was a great idea but not fully realized, well, now it is.
Let’s start with the story. What was almost nonexistent in the original film now has some actual give and take to it. The found footage begins with the Rey family bringing home their newborn son, Hunter. Along with the baby, there’s Kristi (Sprague Grayden), Daniel (Brian Boland), and Daniel’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Ali (Molly Ephraim). A dog and the nanny/housekeeper Martine (Vivis Cortez) round out the cast. In typical horror movie fashion, the opening scenes are generically idyllic, with the family joking around, cooing over the baby, and enjoying their home. After an apparent break-in, however, Daniel installs a series of security cameras in the house, and the movie really kicks in.
Paranormal Activity largely worked because of the story’s day/night cycle, and then because the night scenes are shot from the same angle–which included lots of eerie negative space–conditioning us to anticipate something scary happening. As with just about everything else, PA 2 ups the ante with the security camera footage. Now instead of one creepy fixed angle shot, there are six, covering the front door, the pool, the kitchen, the living room, the stairs, and the baby’s room. Each one is a high, wide angle used for both day and night shots (with the family camcorder mixed in during the day), and with the ability to cut between them, the film can play the audience like an instrument. It trains us quickly to understand that any supernatural event will be small and even tricky to spot within the frame; this has us scanning each shot, looking for a chair to move or a door to creak open. Unlike the original, this film’s house actually has good production design, and the frame is filled with distinctive objects, each of which might come alive at any moment. It’s like a Where’s Waldo? page, or the popular mobile game Five Nights at Freddy’s. Just as humor at its most basic is set-up and punchline, horror at its most basic is tension and release, a formula that PA 2 knows and executes with precision. In fact, like rats in a Skinner box, we soon learn that not all of the night shots will feature an event; sometimes the film just shows us nothing happening before cutting away to a different camera. As the rats will tell you, a randomized payoff is much more intense than when you know something will happen for certain.
Paranormal Activity 2 is a prequel of sorts, beginning about two months before the events of the original film and continuing past them. That’s technically a side story (or “sidequel,” a word that makes me vomit a little), but I like it as a prequel because that’s also what it’s doing in each of its scary shots. Just as we know something bad is going to happen to Katie and Micah, we know something bad will happen in each of these shots; we just don’t know what. The first film was really heavy handed in its dramatic irony, with the characters clearly making the worst possible choices at any given moment, but PA 2 accomplishes this with much greater interest and elegance. The security camera footage continually shows supernatural events happening without any family member noticing their cause–as when, in one creepy scene, the baby’s mobile spins by itself but stops cold when Kristi walks into the room–and the worst part is that nobody’s watching the footage. We’re the only ones who get to see the full story, and are helpless to prevent it. All we can do is hope that the family gradually realizes what’s happening and can find a way to stop it before it’s too late.
I respect the decision here to go with a strict continuity series, as opposed to a loose collection of movies where random people deal with random ghosts. It says, “The Paranormal Activity movies are about this extended family dealing with this entity,” and that’s pretty neat. But it does come with two downsides. The first is simply that this is a series whose first entry cost $15,000 and hired some not-very-great actors to do it. Micah and Katie show up in this movie and are simply outclassed by the professionals around them. It doesn’t help that I dislike Micah so much that when he arrived I just started barking at the screen. Or that Katie’s main role in the movie is to force Kristi to stop talking about the series’ cryptic backstory, which has something to do with the girls having seances as children and possibly their grandmother making some kind of deal with the devil. I should be thinking, “Aw, isn’t it tragic how they’re going to be destroyed soon,” but mostly I’m just frustrated with their presence.
The other problem is one that I really, really hope the series doesn’t continue going forward, and that’s the sexist worldview the story inhabits. PA 2 doubles down on everything PA 1 had to offer, and unfortunately that includes a fairly rotten, if traditional, occult dynamic. In the first film, Micah’s toxic masculinity leads him to belittle and ignore Katie’s fears about the entity; in this film, the problem is the patriarch, Daniel. The film fits into a very old conceit that sees women as empathic, spiritual people who understand the supernatural and men as foolish, blind, logical people who refuse to believe until it’s too late. To this the PA films both add that the men are interested in technology (it’s Micah who films the first movie, and Daniel who insists on the security cameras here), and that they’re the breadwinners–at one crucial point in the story, Daniel leaves his family vulnerable to go take care of a problem at work. Daniel is a much less obnoxious character than Micah, because it’s clear he really does care about his family, but he still spends much of the film telling his wife and daughter that the various goings-on are just the wind. At one point, Kristi is scared when the entity drops one of the various pots and pans hanging on hooks above the kitchen island, and Daniel’s reaction is to mansplain to her that she probably just doesn’t know how to use a hook. At another point, he blames her belief that the house is haunted on her post-pregnancy hormones. His daughter doesn’t share his pessimism: “Why do you think it necessarily has to be bad, though?” “How would it be good?” he responds. “Like, what if it’s Mom?” Even if Ali’s wrong, it’s a sweet moment suggesting that Daniel’s worldview is simply too small to encompass a spiritual world.
Daniel’s most egregious on-screen decision is when he fires the housekeeper, Martine, after he catches her burning incense in the house to try and evict the bad spirits. (His most egregious off-screen decision is not at least warning Katie about what he knows is going to happen to her.) As a woman and a ESL minority, Martine is like getting “empathic” on a triple word score; she knows more about how to deal with evil spirits than anybody, and her perception is only second to the dog and the baby, who can both clearly see something in the infant’s room. Whatever it is, it seems to delight the child and scare the shit out of the dog. Part of the story’s progression is the entity gradually growing bolder and using its attacks to get family members out of the house, from Martine to the dog to teen Ali, and this naturally leads to bigger and better scares. If the scariest part of the first film was Katie standing creepily over a sleeping Micah, PA 2 blows that out of the water with an incredible sequence where Kristi is literally yanked out of the baby’s room, pulled down the stairs and dragged screaming through the basement door, which slams shut behind her. I don’t care who you are, that’s horrifying.
I came into this whatever-quel not knowing what to expect, but I feel pleasantly surprised by how smart and just plain fun this movie turned out to be. It’s a lot like those haunted houses that spring up around Halloween every year. You know it’s fake, but you respect how well it’s been deliberately constructed to scare you. You delight in the details and you jump when it goes “Boo!” And afterwards everybody agrees that this was fun and scary and what was your favorite part and mine was when, and then they say, let’s do this again next year.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because women know a malevolent entity when they see one. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.