That's why I termed the first film Blair Witch Project for Dummies, and wasn't overtly scared or impressed by it.
I don't hate the original movie, but the last scenes simply didn't live up to the potential inherent in a found footage-type enterprise: namely that you don't see and understand everything because the movie is supposed to represent messy, chaotic life unfolding. The neatness of the demon close-up spoiled the film, in my opinion; as did a poorly staged scene with a Oujia Board catching fire.
These are the kind of missteps that the landmarks of the form (BWP, [REC]) carefully avoided.
In myriad ways, this sequel adeptly accomplishes many of the difficult tasks that a good sequel should. While watching the film, I had the strong sense that writer Michael Perry (a veteran of Millennium and American Gothic, among other horror TV classics) worked overtime to create a sequel that could stand up to scrutiny and be viewed as an equal to its popular predecessor.
So right off the bat, a strong and inventive element of Paranormal Activity 2 is the film's unique structure. Basically, the movie follows another family -- that of Katie's sister -- as it contends with the same type of demonic activity seen in the first film. Katie drops by her sister's house several times and plays a critical role in the film's climax. The screenplay thus manipulates us and our familiarity with Paranormal Activity in fun and frightening ways. We know what's going to happen to Katie...up to a point, and that's where the unexpected comes into play.
Then the movie settles down by displaying three or four security camera perspectives of the interior of the house and the exterior estate. These closed-circuit cameras were installed after the robbery, and thus they make at least a modicum of sense within the narrative. Occasionally, the family's teenage daughter picks up her family video camera too, and provides us some other angles.
The film's director, Tod Williams, uses this deliberate sense of monotony and routine to generate feelings of expectation and familiarity, and yet you'll find yourself scanning every little corner of the frame for signs of the abnormal, or more aptly, paranormal.
When the paranormal activity does arrive, it still manages to surprise you because you've become familiar and even a little bored with the battle ground's familiar terrain. One jump scare set in broad daylight, in the family kitchen, works so well I practically spasmed when it happened.
I have two thoughts about this development. One: if Paranormal Activity is to be a multi-installment franchise (which it clearly is...) it is likely necessary to layer on specific, historical material like this that can be explored in different ways; to diagram, in effect, the behavior and motivation of the franchise monster: the invisible, human-possessing demon.
But while penning the sequel, Halloween 2 (1981), the writers (including JC) came up with the very specific notion that Laurie Strode was actually Michael Myers' sister and that the Shape kept returning to Haddonfield to finish the job of murdering siblings that he had begun in 1963.
Although interesting, this new idea eliminated much of the deliberate ambiguity about the Bogeyman and even, in a way, made Halloween retroactively a bit less scary. Suddenly, Michael was just offing family members. Sisters, then nieces, apparently. With the nebulous Shape's raison d'etre known, he was no longer a scintillating mystery. He became a known and quantifiable factor instead. We knew his goal; we knew his endgame. He became...predictable.
A multi-film franchise needs some ideas to hang its hat on, and so Paranormal Activity 2 provides us that clear motivation and goal for the demon. It makes absolute sense, but much like the demon close-up at the end of the first film, this layering on of human motives to an inhuman terror drastically reduces the fear factor. This strange, loki-like demon is merely in the scaring business to collect his prize for a past deal with the Devil. It's like Rumpelstiltskin (1996) collecting his baby, or the Leprechaun (1993) catching up with his lost pot of gold.
Another downside to Paranormal Activity 2 is that this sequel relies on horror movie cliches older than the hills. For instance, the family in the film happens to employ a Latino housekeeper named Martine. In the tradition of all non-Caucasian domestics in horror films, Martine is the first to sense evil in the house, and goes about removing "bad spirits" with arcane rituals and dollops of garlic.
Well, of course, the father then wrong-headedly fires Martine for her spiritual "mumbo jumbo" and endangers his family further.
All white patriarchs in horror movies should know by now: trust the non-Caucasian when it comes to matters of the supernatural.
It's a bit old and a bit silly to see this ancient idea played out again in 2011; the non-white ethnic as "keeper" of the real faith while materialistic, grounded white Americans are blind and deaf to all the strange things occurring around them. We're apparently not in touch enough with our spirituality, you see. Not like the help, anyway...
It's a time and place when people are half-asleep and believe -- in the endless shades of darkness -- that anything is possible. There could be ghosts and demons right in your very bedroom! You can work yourself up into a tizzy actually believing this while the rest of the world sleeps. And then, the next morning -- in the daylight -- you can convince yourself of the opposite. That you were just experiencing a night terror, and what you witnessed was not real at all.
Of course in both Paranormal Activity films, cameras are universally present to testify as to the "reality" of the night-time threat, so these films must really walk an interesting tightrope to maintain believability and consistency. In truth, it's pretty admirable that both these films are as good as they are, even with their considerable flaws.
So Paranormal Activity 2 is a respectable, hard-working sequel to Paranormal Activity, but in the final analysis, probably not a better movie than the flawed original. The sequel keeps the flame burning, at least, for the inevitable Paranormal Activity 3.