A deceptively-marketed, intermittently tense disappointment.
‘Paranormal Activity’ shook up our cinema screens last Halloween when it presented some decidedly creepy minimalist thrills, relying on the universality of the fear about things that go bump in the night. Though the original, intended ending was a far superior conclusion to the story – where Micah met the same fate as in the theatrical version, but the police arrive and are frightened by a door that the demon slams, causing them to instinctively shoot their guns, killing Katie – the ammended “Hollywood ending” (reportedly recommended by Steven Spielberg), in which Katie goes on the run, could not derail the deeply unsettling feelings the previous 90 minutes evoked.
‘Paranormal Activity 2‘ is a sequel that invites low expectations by the sheer nature of its repeating the first film’s formula, and though there are several scenes of marked tension, it is largely a disappointingly unnecessary expansion of the first film’s mythology. The very reason people will be going to see this film is to find out what Katie got up to after she fled the scene of Micah’s murder, and the trailers heavily suggested that this would be the sequel’s focal point. The fact that it isn’t – and saying much more than that is veering into spoiler territory – reeks of bad business, delivering an unexpected twist in the first five minutes (hinted at by the latest trailer) which changes everything, and relegates the film’s meaty mystery to a tacked-on epilogue in the final two minutes.
Much like the first ‘Paranormal Activity’, things begin with an extended introduction, as we meet the poor saps to be terrified; this time it’s Katie’s sister, her husband, their teen daughter, infant son and dog. After having their home vandalised, they set up surveillance cameras all over the house to hopefully catch the perpetrators should they return, but they instead capture something a lot more disturbing, as the demonic activity from the first film unleashes a wave of terror upon them as they try to come to terms with what is happening.
Tracing the lines of the first film to a fault, ‘Paranormal Activity 2′ is a slow burn like its predecessor, in fact, even slower; there are too many needless scenes of the surveillance cameras capturing absolutely nothing, as well as repetitively see-sawing us between this footage and clips of the family socialising during the day. It is a full forty minutes before this sequel even begins to match the original’s eeriness, and even then, a lot of the best beats – doors slamming violently, and characters being dragged around – are virtually carbon copied from the first film, or in the case of the film’s night-vision scene, from other superior horrors (chiefly the [REC] films). The only improvement of note is the well-integrated CGI allowed by the heightened budget; it is sparingly employed and creates a few unexpectedly hair-raising moments that are otherwise unachievable.
That palpable sense of fear that gripped audiences last year, however, is sorely missed; the heart-pounding suspense of the creaking stairs in the first film bests anything put to us here, and for all that simple yet efficient device is used here, the couple may as well be living in a bungalow or a single-floor apartment. Those brief flashes in which ‘Paranormal Activity 2′ does grip us – chiefly an admittedly quite chilling segment in which the infant is accidentally locked inside the house by himself – are regrettably sparse, with the overly compartmentalised format – cutting too often between the handyheld day scenes and static night ones – forgetting to linger on that which is truly scary.
Only in the last few minutes does the film even begin to deliver on unravelling the mystery posed at the close of the first film, but it is an unsatisfactorily simplistic, even rushed climax, with a title card ending the film on another ominous ellipsis, ominous primarily because it guarantees the need for a third film, most likely to be released in 3D, it is assumed.
The idea of a 90-minute standoff between Katie and her terrified family implied by the advertising excited me enough to invest some thought that Paranormal Activity 2 might actually deliver. That the screenplay categorically skirts around what we all paid to see (yes, paid; the film was not screened privately for critics) in favour of the path already travelled suggests a lazy cynicism on the part of the writers and director, none of whom are Oren Peli, the original film’s brainchild whose only involvement with the sequel is collecting a surely sizeable cheque for his producer/creator credit.
Utterly unambitious despite the odd thrill, ‘Paranormal Activity 2′ lacks the visceral thrills of the original film, and on the basis of its ending, suggests that this may, with the impending demise of the Saw series, become the new churned out, seasonal horror fixture.
‘Paranormal Activity 2′ is released in U.K. and U.S. cinema’s from tomorrow.