Few successful horror movies have been as controversial within the horror community as the first Paranormal Activity. This cheaply produced but conceptually savvy ghost story was mostly received by horror fans in two ways: either as proof that low-budget horror films could still be inventive and accessible or as a second-rate recycling of The Blair Witch Project (Your Humble Reviewer’s stance: The Blair Witch Project is amongst the most wildly overrated horror films of the last two decades and Paranormal Activity improved on it in just about every way). That said, it’s huge cost-to-profit ratio ensured that a sequel would inevitably be brought out.
And that brings us to Paranormal Activity 2. This is a difficult film to synopsize because its effectiveness depends on surprise and allowing the story to unfold organically but the following will do its best to avoid spoilers. As with the first film, people move into a new home and find themselves preyed upon by the dark side of the spirit world. This time it’s a young family who are first tipped off to the bad vibes when someone or something ransacks the house while they are out but doesn’t steal anything aside from a piece of jewelry. From there, things ramp up in a slow-burn fashion until the family is forced to confront their unseen attacker.
The basic beats of the story remain the same but, to their credit, the filmmakers find interesting ways to add variety to Paranormal Activity 2. The expanded cast adds a little more dramatic variety to the storyline, specifically in the ways each characters copes with the spirit world. It’s also a surprisingly plot-intensive film, with the documentary-inspired acting and verite-by-way-of-security-cams visual style allowing it to offer a fresh spin on horror archetypes (a generational curse, making bargains with evil forces, etc.) that would seem old hat otherwise. It’s also worth noting that this sequel ties itself to the events of the previous film in a clever way that creates a kind of shared mythology between the two.
The film’s style is necessarily limited by its visual approach (security cams and hand-held video devices) but director Tod Williams makes it work, manipulating sound design and editing in a way that achieves the necessary scares without overdoing it. Williams comes from a drama background (his last credit was the drama The Door In The Floor) so he’s attentive to the performances and gets unforced, believable work from his actors. The result maintains the found-footage illusion and is truly creepy in spots.
How well you respond to this sequel will depend upon how much you liked the first film but Paranormal Activity 2 deserves credit for tackling its obligatory-sequel task with more ambition than anyone expected. If you liked the first one, it’s definitely worth a look – and try to see it with a big crowd to get the full effect.