Silver Screen: Paranormal Activity II ***1/2
Our second installment in Improbable Sequels Week brings us to Paranormal Activity II, a followup to a movie that would seem to be mostly impossible to follow up. But where there's a bill-- or tens of millions of them-- there's a way.
A trio of screenwriters, including TV-horror veteran Michael Perry, working with director Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor), do a surprisingly good job of intertwining the story with that of the original, not to mention aping (and amping up) the formula. The biggest shock in the whole movie is not that Paranormal Activity II can't match the scares of the original, but that it ups the ante on the story. If the movies had anything like a theme, you could say it's even more thematically relevant-- but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
The original Paranormal Activity was a Blair Witch Project-inspired haunted house creep-fest that milked maximum suspense out of minimum effects as it charted the terrorizing of a young couple, Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) at the hands of an invisible demon spirit. The movie built suspense slowly but surely, upping the tension with subtle sound cues and shadowplay. The last half hour was white-knuckle intense, ending with a possessed Katie murdering Micah and slinking off into the darkness.
The sequel opens several months before the events of the original, which becomes apparent when a smiling, unpossessed Katie graces the screen. She's at the swanky suburban home of her sister, Christy (Sprague Grayden), who has just given birth to a baby boy, Hunter. Christy lives with her fast-food franchise owner husband (Brian Boland) and his teenaged daughter from another marriage (Molly Ephraim).
The family's home is ransacked, and although nothing is taken, they're deeply unsettled. They install a series of internal and external security cameras to keep watch over the house, but of course what the camera finds is a series of inexplicable events that suggests a supernatural influence.
In the first movie, Katie tells Micah that both she and her sister were menaced by a malicious specter as children. Paranormal Activity II picks up that thread and explicates Christy's role in the haunting, which ultimately leads to an explanation of the events in the first film-- perhaps a too-tidy explanation.
The sequel follows the first movie's pattern: chatty handheld camera scenes during the day, spooky tripod shots at night featuring ominous music cues and horrors that become more audacious throughout. Problem is, nobody is going to want to sit through the slow buildup of the original a second time-- when you already know what's going on, squeaking doors and swinging chandeliers just don't cut it, so Williams is forced to move into more blatant spectral action more quickly, which robs the movie of the surprising verisimilitude that give the original its bite. As the effects get (relatively) more extreme, the scares weaken. The climax in particular is notably worse and, at times, borderline incomprehensible.
That's not to say there aren't some incredibly scary moments in Paranormal Activity II. It contains one of the best startle-scenes of any movie ever, a fact to which I can attest, having leapt out of my seat and, embarrassingly, shouted, "Oh my God!" when it occurred. The sequel is still impressively low-fi and vastly scarier than the average horror movie, but the effect is diminished a second time around.