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Anatomy of an Imperfect Sequel: 'Paranormal Activity 2'

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Monday, Oct 25, 2010
On the outside, Paranormal Activity 2 may seem like one of those atypical instances where the second helping is as satisfying as the first. In actuality, it's like having the same meal twice, only the next time around, the lack of real flavor is painfully palpable.
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Paranormal Activity 2

Director: Tod Williams
Cast: Sprague Grayden, Molly Ephraim, Brian Boland, Katie Featherston, Vivis, Gabriel Johnson

(Paramount; US theatrical: 22 Oct 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 Oct 2011 (General release); 2010)

A sequel should never be a mere regurgitation of the previous film. Of course, Hollywood hardly understands this concept, deciding (for the most part) that repetition is the sincerest form of financial flattery - or the foundation of a potential franchise. Same actors - or if one plays monetary hardball, a simple rewrite or politically correct recasting - same names behind the scenes (or jolly journeymen substitutes), same attempt to capture blockbuster bravado in a gilded gold bottle. As a rule, the results will typically underlie the inherent problems with the property, highlighting why, in most cases, once was more than enough. But there are the odd instances - The Godfather Part 2, Aliens, REC2 - where a follow-up actually succeeds on its own terrific terms.


Many would argue that Paranormal Activity 2 (the big hit over the horror-starved 22 October 2010 weekend with near $42 million haul) is indeed the exception which raspberries the rulebook. True, it does take everything that Oren Peli’s no-frills thriller from 2009 offered and expands on it, including a bigger family to freak out, a larger area within to horrify (a mansion-lite house with series of surveillance cameras), and perhaps most importantly, an increase in the mythology - explanations on how things work, how certain situations occurred, and answers to lingering questions posed by the first film. With more shocks and more scope, the sequel should be yet another flawless example of the flawless revisit, right?
  
Well, not so fast. There is no denying that, given the Herculean task of besting a certified cinematic phenomenon, writer Michael R. Perry and director Tod Williams came up trumps. They found a way to interlace the original film with the new one, reminding audiences of why they screamed in the first place. They also expand on Peli’s paltry point-and-shoot mentality, using the four stationary lenses and the traveling newborn camcorder element to full effect. There is also more plotting here, a greater attempt at highlighting the horror in the everyday. By making the baby the source of all the scary stuff, they are a tad shameless, but at least we don’t have to put up with Micah and Katie whining incessantly for 85 minutes.


But by relying on the same old set-up and stun mentality, by failing to do much except tease the viewer with terror only to pony up predictable jolts, Paranormal Activity 2 fails. Instead of creating a pure post-modern Poltergeist with a harried family looking for answers in the new technology of the 21st century, we get idiots running around darkened basements waiting for something to go “BOO!”  The massive logical flaw here arrives the moment the security salesman gets Dad to spring for the all around package. By providing your loved ones with PROOF of what is going on, you turn the terror from a ‘he said/she said’ to a stone cold fact. The DVR picks everything up. The spirit activity is obvious and visible to anyone watching - and yet what do these morons do? They stay in the house and determine to stick it out. Huh?


Let’s us an example from above as part of the refutation. When James Cameron crafted Aliens, he wanted to make a futuristic war movie where a bunch of arrogant grunts meet their deadly xenomorph match. Now imagine the film with the Marines constantly going into the alien nest den and giving up their lives in a futile bit of fatalistic stupidity. As the last one blasts their way into the area, adult creatures combating as dormant eggs come alive, you’d question the sanity of everyone involved. It’s the same in Paranormal Activity 2. The rest of the clan witnesses Mom dragged down the stairs by an unseen entity and locked in the basement for hours. When she finally emerges, she gives possessed zombies a run for their catatonic money. 


So what do they do? What amazing act of personal protection do they partake in? Why, they get their former Hispanic housekeeper to return (the one who argued that they should all leave the haunted abode in the first place) and work up their own ersatz exorcism. No calling of the authorities. No asking or demanding help. Just a few words in Spanish, an olive oiled cross, and a demonic confrontation. Apparently, when you are pestered by evil spirits, you lose dozens of IQ points as well. Sure, the argument can be made that everything is happening so fast that the family has no way to react outside of panic. But you have the cameras set up and the recorder. Why isn’t it being checked every day? After all, you could swear something sinister is going on…


Imagine seeing your infant son floating above his crib, or the family dog facing off with an invisible presence - and paying the price. Either of these events should be sending you toward the California companion to TAPS, or at the very least, fame whore Zak Bagans and his goofy Ghost Adventures pals. Instead, such evidence is shuttered aside for the same old crap that fright fans have been complaining about for years - the incompetent victim pool and their own consistently dumb decisions. Even worse, the only smart decisions are made after the fact, long removed from their ability to help. Before you know it, people are in peril and the purpose of the security system is moot. This group invited evil in and did nothing to defend themselves.


And let’s not get started on the fleshing out of the basic mythos. Originally, Katie argued that she and her sister were terrorized as kids, and that the photo she found in the attic was from a devastating house fire that almost cost them their lives. Paranormal Activity 2 retrofits this all into some surreal Santeria bullshit where Mexican maid Martine “imposes” the supernatural scourge on Katie herself. We are then supposed to assume that Dad went over to Micah’s, found some excuse to head up in the attic, and planted the picture there. Then, thanks to a nonspecific Google search result, the teenager daughter determines that we are dealing with one of Satan’s minions, looking for payback to a blood contract gone void. Of course, none of that was every established before, but it does make the baby that much more important to the last act shivers, right?


It’s all just so ridiculous, rife with errors that become glaring obvious once the shrill screaming stops. Many have likened Paranormal Activity and its follow-up to a theme park attraction: built to deliver a minimal narrative experience while ladling on the precisely pre-calculated hooks - in this case, shocks. Whenever the camera settles in on a scene for longer than a second or two, we know something is about to occur - either a passive set-up or a gratuitous moment of “gotcha!” There is nothing new, nothing novel or inventive in the drab dark ride approach. On the outside, Paranormal Activity 2 may seem like one of those atypical instances where the second helping is as satisfying as the first. In actuality, it’s like having the same meal twice, only the next time around, the lack of real flavor is painfully palpable. 


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