[22 October 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“He’s kind of smooshy looking.” Admiring her newborn infant, Kristi (Sprague Grayden) is at once thrilled and already exhausted, impressed by little Hunter’s perfection and a little awed by his utter strangeness. Her husband Daniel (Brian Boland) immediately takes a longer view: he means to document each moment of the child’s new life, with the idea that in future, the grown-up Hunter will appreciate seeing not only his crib, his sister’s room, and the 50-inch TV where he’ll be watching Chargers games with dad, but also the fireplace “where mommy seduced daddy.”
Daniel’s recording sets in motion the home-video premise of Paranormal Activity 2. Like Orin Peli’s first film, this second one (a prequel directed by Tod Williams and produced by Peli) considers how recording shapes experience. This time, the conceit is less convincing as plot but more compelling as theme. The plot problem has to do with who shoots what: Daniel and his teenaged daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) take turns with the handheld camera, their motivations variously unexplained. He apparently loses interest early in the film, partly because he’s gone at work or somewhere, and partly because he doesn’t see the recording as the means to understand the spooky goings-on (in fact, he tends to dismiss his wife’s fears of same). Ali is more explicitly interested in capturing the “phenomenon,” but she’s also prone to use the camera for her video diary, fretting about the chaos in ways that are alternately stereotypically adolescent and too expository.
The bulk of the action is rendered via security cameras that Daniel installs throughout his home, following an ostensible “break-in,” a year after Hunter’s birth (furniture is overturned, books and papers tossed, drawers emptied, but “nothing’s taken”). These cameras provide a multi-angle version of the single-camera, single room effort undertaken by Micah (Micah Stote) in Paranormal Activity (which was famously made for a reported $15,000). And the cutting from one night-visioned image to another invites viewers to anticipate noise or movement in six locations rather than one. That these are all set in ceiling corners also makes for some precipitous views of shadows and doors, rather inherently creepy.
Such creepiness is provided a context right off the bat, as the new movie is set “60 days before the death of Micah Stote.” So, when he shows up here, visiting with his wife and Kristi’s sister Katie (Katie Featherston), he’s already something like a ghost in your mind. This raises the specter (so to speak) of PA2‘s thematic interests in recording and memory and time. On one level, these are intertwined much as in the first film: you watch a lot of footage (or so it begins to feel), where rooms are still, individuals are sleeping, or, in this case, the German shepherd Abby is looking as worried and alert as the huskies in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
On another level, as the second film is set before the first, it includes allusions to what you know will happen in three months: because you know pretty exactly how Micah and Katie’s story goes (at les as far as their limited camera views allow), you experience extra vexations over the similar disruptions and noisy incursions suffered by Kristi and Ali, especially, again, since Daniel tends to tune out or otherwise not attend to his wife and daughter. Unlike Micah, Daniel resists sorting through the footage his own high tech and expensive surveillance system accumulates (and yes, his willful ignorance produces the expected bad end, and he’s easily the film’s weakest, least convincing character). When Ali or Kristi try to show him something they’ve seen on the tape, he dismisses their interpretations, implacably claiming rational explanations (“the wind,” an electrical glitch, a malfunctioning swimming pool vacuum).
Daniel also resists help from Martine (Vivis), Hunter’s nanny, whose attempts to protect the house from the malvado, with candles and smoke and incantations, leads to her firing. Both a stereotypically mysterious Latina and the only individual in the film to identify the trouble immediately, Martine also embodies most vividly the impossibility of dealing with it. Her remedies are traditional (and predictably dismissed by Daniel as well as perceived as comedy by the film’s viewers), but her understanding is transcendent, or at least, correct. She knows it’s a spirit and not a ghost. And she doesn’t need to Google “demons” to appreciate the danger.
Martine also helps PA2 to lay out the insufficiencies of recording, the ways that documenting does not provide order or control. Rather, as she relies on what she cannot see—the surveillance cameras catch her performing her smoky ritual into the air that otherwise shows no disturbance—but can only intuit, Martine becomes the hero the white folks can neither acknowledge nor exploit.
When she first meets Hunter, Martine calls him “especial.” Kristi imagines what she will, that the boy is special because he’s hers or because he’s adorable or smooshy looking. She can’t foresee that he’s also special because of his place in her family’s story. Like Katy before her (or after her, depending on how you’re reading the films’ order), Kristi misses cues until it’s too late, but also has a lurking memory of a haunted childhood. When Katy tells her she needs not to talk about it, to repress the past, and Kristi takes the advice to heart, the sisters unwittingly seal their fates. You recognize this immediately, because you know the slightly more elaborate story that Katy uncovers in Paranormal Activity.
In this and other instances, the two films are working together in ways that are far more interesting than most originals-and-sequels’ repetitions or bigger-and-louder sequences. PA2 actually isn’t that frightening—it relies on hectic framing and loud noises to bother you in the end—but it complicates the questions of documentation, memory, and history in ways that make any possible answers at least a little unnerving.