Paranormal Activity was one of the best chillers in many a moon, a taut thriller that used its limited resources to create a memorable, scary, genuinely tense moviegoing experience. Paranormal Activity 2 is like a cover version, performed by a band that barely knows the chords, much less how to play them with any flair. When the original film came out, most reviewers (including this one) compared it favorably to Blair Witch; the makers of this sequel didn't make the same mistake as that one's, which punted the predecessor's clever construct and made what amounted to a standard, immediately forgettable slice of C-level horror. Paranormal Activity 2 director Tod Williams errs too far in the opposite direction, creating a virtual Xerox of the original, but to no greater effect: both sequels do little more than denigrate our memories of the originals.
Chronologically, it is mostly a prequel to the first film, set in the home of Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden), sister of the original picture's protagonist, Katie (Katie Featherston). Kristi lives in a large housee in Carlsbad, California, with her husband Daniel (Bryan Boland) and his daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) from his first marriage (his first wife died). Their story begins with the arrival of Kristi and Daniel's first baby, but not long after he arrives, strange things start happening; their place is thoroughly trashed, and though nothing is stolen, they decide to install security cameras throughout the home. And that's when the sights and sounds of the first film begin to reappear--rumbling noises, slamming doors, people being moved involuntarily, and so on.
The incorporation of the surveillance footage seems a good device, lowering the reliance--often a problem in these "found footage" films--on cameras just happening to be on at key moments, particularly in the day. But the filmmakers end up leaning too heavily on that device, which severely limits the dynamism of the picture visually--we end up watching a whole lot of stuff happening in a high-angle wide shot, which isn't exactly the height of cinematic artistry.
More importantly, we never get the sense, so present in the original film, of getting to know the characters and becoming sympathetic to them. This new family is mostly composed of ciphers; top-billed Katie and Micah reappear (the latter quite briefly), and while their presence is welcome, it's rather superfluous. Williams takes just as long to get his film going (the first good jolts don't come until about halfway through), but doesn't do much of anything with the set-up sections--there's less a sense of establishing characters than just waiting for things to happen. We're merely biding our time; the film sorely lacks the tension that propelled its predecessor, which reached a point where the viewer was dreading those nighttime scenes, because something bad was surely going to happen. Here, we're checking our watches.
And the intersections with the first film are more of a distraction than an enhancement; when the mind wanders from the action onscreen (which is frequently), we start puzzling through how they're going to make this work, how the inevitable bloodbath wouldn't have been mentioned by "Aunt Katie" sometime in the other film, and then we start trying to remember if she did, if she even mentioned a sister, and so on. What they end up attempting is something like what Halloween II did: using the sequel to graft on an explanation for the events of the original. Once again, it's a bit of a stretch.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Paramount's Blu-ray release comes in a two-disc package--one Blu-ray disc, one regular DVD featuring a standard-def presentation and digital copy. The Blu-ray disc offers the option of viewing the film in its original 91-minute theatrical version, or in the 98-minute "unrated director's cut"; I watched the later, but can't comment on its deviations for the shorter version (which I hadn't seen, and certainly have no interest in viewing now). The standard-def disc offers only the extended cut, and none of the meager bonus features.
The low-budget look (this time presumably more simulated than last) means that Paranormal Activity 2 doesn't benefit much from its HD presentation; the MPEG-4 AVC transfer is presumably faithful to the source while certainly not a mind-blower. The home movie footage has a nice, crisp HD video look, nicely saturated, with occasional but fleeing compression artifacts. However, most of the real action--particularly in the suspense sequences--is from the security cameras, which are expectedly grainy and uneven.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation is much stronger, though it is a bit of cheat, since presumably the cameras involved would have recorded limited, 2.0 audio from condenser mics. That's a nitpick, though; with these films, where much is left to the imagination, sound is key. This track uses a kind of shock sound design, which forces the viewer to crank up the volume for the quiet dialogue scenes, rendering the scare effects (door slams, pot clangs, loud thumbs) extra loud. Those lend some atmosphere, as do the otherworldly rumblings of the LFE channel. Rear surrounds don't get much play; they're only utilized for night effects in the outdoor surveillance footage. Overall, the soundscape is somewhat limited, but well-utilized.
French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also offered, as well as an English Audio Description track; English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are also available.
Not much to speak of. The Found Footage (3:49) consists of a deleted scene, which is actually pretty good; its exclusion from the finished film is fairly inexplicable, since so much less interesting footage made the cut. There's also a Teaser Trailer (1:07), and that's all you get.
Paranormal Activity 2 does manage to get some scares going at the end, but they're a long time coming, and the wind-up isn't worth the wait. There's nothing wrong with a delayed pay-off in horror; the best scary movies do that very thing. But something compelling has to happen in the interim, or we're just marking time. Paranormal Activity used its expositional sequences to establish character, build dread, and hook viewers. Paranormal Activity 2 takes all of that out, and thinks we won't notice because they've thrown in a baby and a dog and a nicer house. What a waste.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.