It's been only a year since the first Paranormal Activity film went into wide release, but I realized, sitting down to Paranormal Activity 2, that I retained almost no memory of its narrative content. Certainly there were lumps in the bed, a girl named Katie (Katie Featherstone) and a guy named Micah (Micah Sloat) who ended up dead (which wasn't that bothersome an outcome, because he was such a dope). What I remembered enjoying was the feeling of camaraderie with the rest of the audience, derived from the shared experience of being simultaneously spooked. The fear the movie generated dissipated almost immediately upon exiting the theater, leaving not the stuff nightmares are made of but rather the sense that I had just had some warm, giggly fun with my fellow man. This was noteworthy because customarily I'm the person giving my fellow man dirty looks for talking, peeking at his phone or rattling the plastic bag he's wrapped around a smelly burrito.
So I had my doubts about Paramount's blatant attempt to create a franchise out of a minimalist original (remember the unintentional horror show that was Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), especially since a new director (Tod Williams) was replacing the original writer-director, Oren Peli. But I was looking forward to another shared experience. It didn't matter to me what demon was in which house. Yet it was pleasing and satisfying to discover that Paranormal Activity 2 is not a reboot of the first film but in fact more of a prequel; the two movies are so closely connected that the second provides the backstory for the first, plus a coda.
The movie opens with a charming thank-you to the police of Carlsbad, Calif., and the families of the deceased, then proceeds right to home video. A newborn baby boy is brought home from the hospital by his mother Kristi (the sprightly Sprague Grayden, of 24) and proud papa Daniel (Brian Boland). In short order, baby Hunter is introduced to his nanny, Martine (Vivis), his teenage half sister Ali (Molly Ephraim) and his nice aunt Katie. Wait Katie? If you've seen the first movie (and if you've not, spoiler alert), you'll recall the last time we saw her, she was possessed by a demon and covered with her boyfriend Micah's blood. But that's all in the future here, and much of the fun of the movie comes from anticipating how the new story and the old one will intersect. Sisters do talk, after all.
Peli wrote and directed the original on the kind of budget that might get you a pretty great used car. It's safe to assume Williams (The Door in the Floor) had a bit more than $11,000 to play with. But there aren't any radical shifts stylistically. Once again, we watch a lot of time-coded surveillance footage, looking for ominous shifts in small objects and doors that swing open and shut on their own. The main difference is that disturbing things happen in the night and the daytime at this house. Around the time Hunter reaches an age to be toddling adorably around Kristi and Daniel's home, usually under the watchful eye of the family dog, Abby, there's a break-in. Nothing is taken, but the place is ransacked, and Daniel decides to put hidden security cameras in a few choice spots, including by the pool and in the front entryway, the family room, the kitchen and, wisely, Hunter's room. Beginning with an August day in 2006, we are shown the same series of images from the surveillance cameras. Not much happens at first, except that the dog, possessed of a keen sense for the paranormal, rarely gets a good night's sleep. Nor does the baby, who has a habit of looking off into corners when his mother is with him, as if maybe he sees something she doesn't.
Unlike the original, Paranormal Activity 2's pacing is uneven; it builds slowly and effectively before rushing too quickly, and at one point not particularly coherently, through the climax. But the jolts, when they come, are bigger, causing actual physical thrills and chills, at least for me. There wasn't that same intense shared mood in the audience, though; it was as if the bloom were slightly off the paranormal rose. That might be because some of the answers the film provides are too facile; Ali in particular proves a suspiciously able researcher. The connections between the two films are plausible (as much as can be expected when dealing with the paranormal) but might be bothersome to those who prefer their horror of a more vague and mysterious nature. Or it might just be that, like fickle midterm-election voters, the audience demands a kind of freshness that isn't possible in a follow-up. Sure, they liked the first film last year, but how about some change? For my part, I doubt I'll forget what Katie did this time. And I'd probably sit through whatever she does next as well.