Anyone who walks into "Paranormal Activity 2" skeptical would be well within their rights.
Think about it. The original, released theatrically last year, was a sort of lightning strike of indie inspiration, a shot-on-video film that used one house as a set and that managed to wring some real scares out of something as simple as two characters and some sound effects. It was actually made two years earlier, and it took that entire time for people… specifically Paramount… to figure out how to sell this $11,000 film. They pulled off an aggressive campaign and opened the film to impressive business, even managing to dent the previously undentable "Saw" franchise.
Releasing a sequel a year later would seem to be a sign that the studio is cashing in, and that this is something for them to squeeze as quickly as they can. It's no stretch to imagine that whatever Paramount was rushing onto screens this year was going to be a pale imitation of the first, which was already a fairly lean little trick of a movie.
So how is the second one genuinely scary, and why do I feel like this is a near-perfect example of how to learn from a first film when building a second film?
One thing that made tonight's viewing so fun was the way Paramount has kept pretty much all story details under wraps, including the time-frame for this film. When they started showing a few snippets (because it's not fair to call them clips based on how short they were) from the film in the last few weeks, it was surprising to see Katie Featherston show up again. Considering the end of the first film, that isn't what I expected. I thought we'd be seeing a brand-new family and just more of the same.
Instead, writer Michael R. Perry and director Tod Williams, working with Oren Peli who made the first film, have reverse-engineered a sequel that directly ties into the first film and which actually fills out the first film in hindsight. It's a very canny piece of writing, and as the film reveals its surprises and you realize the way it works with the first film, those pay-offs are a real pleasure. The entire film takes place in one house again, although a different house, and the film starts with the family bringing home a newborn baby, a new son named Hunter. Frank and Catherine are the parents, and there's a teenaged daughter in the house as well, Frank's from his first marriage. As soon as they bring that baby into the house, though, things begin to change, and soon, security cameras are added to every room, and we're off and running with a brand-new haunting. It's true that Katie is back, and that's all I'll say about her connection to the film.
What impresses me about these movies is how stripped down they are. Most bad horror directors rely on over-editing and over-scoring. I've seen movies where they've really ladled on on the mood music, even in scenes that don't deserve it, and it seems like every horror film I see these days relies on all sorts of crazy editing tricks like speed-ramping and hyper-quick-cutting. With this film, even more than the original, there's a wonderful, quiet rhythm that settles in very quickly, and it's the slow burn that makes it work. Each time night falls, the same pattern of shots is used to establish the space we're dealing with, and what happens to disrupt that rhythm is what becomes terrifying. Since there's no score at all and the entire movie just uses ambient noise, there's no easy way to crank up the mood. It's all dependent on the situation and the way these people react to the situation, and Williams proves himself to be an able orchestrator of mood, and the fact that he's got all these typical tools taken away from him only makes his accomplishment more impressive.
It's interesting that this is going to be head-to-head with "Saw" for the second year in a row, and I think the way they've handled the sequels in the two series says a lot about the difference between them. The "Saw" films have become more and more dependent on an elaborate backstory and this overbearing seriousness about the purpose of Jigsaw and his traps, and while I am impressed by the sheer persistence of the films, I can't say I really care for them. With this sequel, it seems like "Paranormal Activity" is building a very simple mythology that is all about attacking the most primal of our fears without adornment. When I moved my family into our first house, a rental, I had terrible nightmares for the first few weeks, pure unfiltered anxiety about people invading the home. I was terrified of having something happen to my family, and something very basic kicked in. I found myself checking and double-checking the doors and the windows and the perimeter, and until I settled in and learned the sounds of the house and the neighborhood, I didn't rest easy. Yes, there is a supernatural element to "Paranormal Activity," but these films work because they tap into basic fears of powerlessness. In this film, adding an infant to the mix sent my personal anxiety into overdrive, and there were scenes in this that bothered me deeply. One sequence in particular caused an actual physical reaction, chills on my arms and up the back of my neck, one wave after another, because I sat there in the theater feeling helpless, wishing there was some way to make what I was seeing stop. It's not an explicit film, but it's a film with striking imagery and with strong moments, and it lingers in a way that many more explicit films can't.
Oren Peli, Jason Blum and Steven Schneider were producers on the first film and the new film, and they're all also producers on James Wan's "Insidious," one of the highlights of this year's Toronto Film Festival, and between these three films, I'd argue that they have brought the haunted house film back to life in a major way. All three films tap the same basic fears in different ways, and all three are strong reminders that the basic fears are the most powerful ones precisely because they are hard-wired into us. The reason horror films are important is because we need a safe way to explore these things, and the best ones make us forget that we are safe, make us feel like we're right there, hanging out over oblivion, alone in the dark with only hungry sounds all around us. "Paranormal Activity 2" is as stark, as bleak, and as skilled as any horror film I've seen this year, and suggests this is a series we're going to be watching for a while.
"Paranormal Activity 2" opens everywhere tonight at midnight.