Sunday, February 20, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

I was not the world's biggest fan of the first Paranormal Activity (2009), even though most critics and audiences were quite taken with it.  You can read my arguments against the film in my review, here

Long story short: I felt  Paranormal Activity was but a more  overtly commercial and compromised version of The Blair Witch Project (1999);  one where -- in the capitulating final moment -- the demon stepped square in front of a video camera for an extreme close-up. 

In other words, all those folks who endlessly complained (and even yet complain...) that they never got to see the witch in the Blair Witch Project were rewarded  here by indisputable CGI evidence of a demon.  Paranormal Activity thus sacrificed its considerable tension and sense of ambiguity --- the real stuff of creating nightmares -- for special effects and unnecessary narrative certainty. 

That's why I termed the first film Blair Witch Project for Dummies, and wasn't overtly scared  or impressed by it.

Those feelings established, I'd still rate the 2009 film at least two-and-a-half stars on a four star scale.  Some moments were genuinely inventive and the performances, particularly by Katie Featherston, were very strong. 

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.

Well, the inevitable sequel, Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) has now arrived on Blu-ray and DVD, and the franchise gets a second bite at the apple. 

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.

In particular, Perry has crafted a tale that occurs before, simultaneously, and after the terrifying events of Paranormal Activity.  Off the top of my head, I cannot remember another genre film that interacts so meaningfully, so meticulously and so fully with the events of a previous franchise film, except perhaps Back to the Future 2 (1990), which saw Marty McFly going back to the 1950s a second time and being forced to avoid his earlier time-traveling self.  

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.

A second strong point to consider is that the film ingeniously utilizes multiple "found footage" options to dramatize this second haunting. 

The movie commences with a family home video of a baby's homecoming, then transitions to a sort of homeowners insurance video detailing damage to the family premises after what is presumably a robbery (but really supernatural activity...). 

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 early moments of the film -- switching from homecoming to robbery video -- work very well establishing the film's characters and settings.  And once the security camera footage has begun in earnest, I admired how the film develops a seemingly monotonous routine, cutting  repetitiously between three or four sequential views of the house and grounds (the pool, the front walk, the kitchen, the staircase, and the baby's bedroom.)  

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.

Viewed in a certain light, Paranormal Activity 2 might also be praised as a good sequel because it adds significantly to the franchise's growing mythology.  In particular, the sequel sets up the notion of a family curse: a historical deal with a demon that is the motivator for all the present-day strife. 

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.

And two: this facet of the sequel is also a clear demonstration of what I call "the Michael Myers Principle."  Let me explain.  In John Carpenter's first Halloween movie, nobody knew why Michael Myers was murdering babysitters.  He was a mystery behind that impenetrable white mask...and that fact made him absolutely terrifying. 

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.

Paranormal Activity 2 essentially operates by the same Michael Myers Principle. 

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.  

Honestly, I can see both sides of the issue.  I'm impressed that Paranormal Activity 2 interacts so meaningfully with its predecessor and adds on details that are remarkably consistent with the first film.  But on the other hand, I think a high degree of horror is sacrificed by these details.  We're scared of ghosts and demons precisely because we don't understand them.  Once we do, their power to scare us on any deep or meaningful level is lost.

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...

Also, it seems that nobody in this affluent family ever goes to work...except on the one occasion when doing so can provide maximum advantage for the demon.

In the final analysis, what this movie accomplishes well is the same thing that Paranormal Activity accomplished, I assess.  And that is that the narrative and characters frequently dwell in this mysterious, twilight world of 3:00 am.

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.

8 comments:

  1. "Off the top of my head, I cannot remember another genre film that interacts so meaningfully, so meticulously and so fully with the events of a previous franchise film, except perhaps Back to the Future 2 (1990)"

    TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME also acts as a prequel and a sequel to the television series.

    Excellent review! I quite enjoyed this sequel and liked the first film also. I agree with you that they're nothing all that special but they certainly do their job as far as providing an entertaining 90 minutes. I will admit that I'm curious to see where they take the film's mythology in the next film.

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  2. Hi J.D.:

    Good call on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. That movie also interacts with the previous TV series in a meticulous and absorbing fashion. Indeed...

    I also can't disagree with you that the Paranormal Activity films are entertaining. After watched it, my wife said she had "fun" watching the movie, even if it wasn't particularly good. I think that's a pretty apt way of describing the films.

    I wonder what direction Paranormal Activity 3 will take...

    Thank you for the comment, my friend.

    All the best,
    JKM

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  3. I think they should stop while they're ahead with this series. When I saw this movie in the theater, people were laughing during the scenes when the baby was being dragged out of his crib, and when Katie's sister was being pulled down the steps by the demon. If the things that scared people in the first movie are causing laughs by the second, the third is on track to fail completely.

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  4. Hi Howard,

    Ha! I definitely get your point.

    I wasn't scared by the first or second movie, but in the second there is at least that jolt in the kitchen to knock you out of your complacency.

    I think the movie is fun to watch...and entertaining...but not scary.

    Thanks for the comment, old friend,

    John

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  5. Fine review of this sequel, John. I'll eventually rent PA 1 & 2, but I'm not in a hurry. BWP (motion sickness aside) and [REC] are the real deal chillers when it comes to this sub-genre and touching upon lesser type films isn't that much of a motivation. Still, something to check out.

    BTW, having introduced my daughter to the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy recently, I really appreciated your reference to its first sequel. BttF 2 is a darkly and woefully underrated film. Thanks for this.

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  6. SteveW6:50 PM

    Interesting perspective--it does make me want to check out PA2. We often agree, but in this case I'm afraid enjoyed the original PA much more than BWP. Partly for a mundane reason: the relentless shaky cam of the latter drove me to distraction, whereas the former cleverly (and skillfully, I think) mixed it up with the fixed camera perspective. Plus--OK, I'm shallow--I thought the brief "demon reveal" at the end was well done and more satisfying than the ambiguity of BWP.

    Thinking in terms of which filmmaker I was interested in following after their first "stunt" film, I had little interest in the BWP directors but am curious about Oren Peli. I just saw more film-making chops in the varying editing rhythms, camera setups, and mise en scene on display in PA.

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  7. Le0pard13: I've always loved Back to the Future 2. I think it's a great film, and I wish it would get more love from genre fans. Nice to know you're an admirer as well....

    SteveW: I always say "to each his own." I know a lot of folks really didn't care for BWP, but I'm the polar opposite: I'm obsessed by it. I actually think it's one of the great horror films of all time (which I know would make some people throw up...) :)

    But I don't begrudge you your love of Paranormal Activity, either. I can totally understand why you dig it, even if I find the PA series less than satisfying. I've seen some of the later films of the BWP directors (namely "Altered" and "Seventh Moon") and I really thought they were good. I have not seen anything else from Oren Peli, but I would definitely give him a chance.

    All my best to you both!

    JKM

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  8. Good catch on the firing of the non-white ethnic as the "keeper of the faith". Though I liked the film & the franchise considerably more than you do, I could not help but think of 'The Believers' with Martin Sheen, who does exactly the same thing with his Puerto Rican housekeeper when the inexplicable happens.

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