So, the “phenomenon” is back, as you knew it would be. After Paramount raked in a bundle thanks largely to a phony, studio-orchestrated “grassroots” campaign that “demanded” widespread release of writer-director Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity, a sequel was inevitable — and just about exactly one year later, Paranormal Activity 2 is here. Boasting a budget of nearly three million bucks as opposed to the original’s $15,000, there’s no way this is going to make as exponential a profit as the first one, but it’s still going to earn the studio a very tidy sum, even if audiences are only 50% of what they were the last time around, which, based on how many people were in the theater when I saw it this afternoon, seems pretty likely.
Paramount even rolled out another phony-ass “viral” marketing campaign for this sequel — they couldn’t do the old “we’ll release this movie in every market that we get 1,000 requests for it in” again, but it’s more or less the same thing — if they get “enough” requests in a particular market (the exact amount isn’t specified), then it will open in that market “before” it goes nationwide.
Needless to say, every single major market supplied the requisite number of requests and the flick rolled out “early” — as in one night early, in a series on midnight shows on October 21st.
So, anyway, it’s out there in every megaplex now, and it’s on the whole a little less claustrophobic-feeling than the first ,a little less tense, a little more polished, a little more by-the-book — and, surprisingly, a little bit better, as well, in this critic’s view.
I wasn’t nearly as enamored with Peli’s original as most of the horror “community” — it wasn’t bad, by any means, but I really didn’t find it at all scary, and I honestly failed to see what all the buzz was about. It was okay, sure, but that’s about it.
The sequel, on the other hand, is — a little better than okay. Not a masterpiece by any means, but not a bad way to spend 90 minutes of your time and seven or eight bucks of your cash.
Our setting is sunny San Diego once again, but this time, instead of an unlikable, self-absorbed yuppie couple moving into a townhouse, we’ve got a slightly-less-self-absorbed, slightly-more-likable yuppie family living in the house they’ve always lived in. The mom, the dad, and the teenage daughter (all portrayed by no-named actors) have just welcomed a new addition to the fold, a baby boy named Hunter. Within a year of little Hunter’s birth, though, shit starts going a little crazy around the house, and after what they believe to be a violent break-in, they go ahead and install a video surveillance system all over the house. Rather than being presented (supposedly) through the point of view of the same exact camera throughout the flick, then, what we’ve got here is a hodgepodge assemblage of “footage” from the various security cameras, as well as the family’s home camcorders.
And while only the absolute dimmest bulb in the world would still be wondering “Holy shit, is this for real?” at this point, I’ll give the suits at Paramount credit for opening the movie with a great exploitation-style tag line — “Paramount Pictures would like to thank the surviving relatives of the persons involved for their agreement to participate in this film,” or somesuch. The cow’s long since left the barn, but they’re still trying to mikl it, bless ‘em.
Notable by his absence here is the “creator” of Paranormal Activity himself, Oren Peli. He’s still listed as an air-quote co-producer, but the director’s chair this time around is seated under The Door in the Floor‘s Tod Williams, and the screenwriting duties are handled by veteran TV scribe Michael R. Perry. On the whole, injecting a bit of (admittedly uninspired) professionalism into this amateur-birthed franchise (as it now surely is) works, and there’s a definite sense that the adults have stepped in to take this thing in a more finished and sensible direction than the kids were capable of. This is most notable in how they’ve chosen to portray the lead characters — last time around you wanted both to be killed, this time you’d just as well see them survive. They’re not all that interesting or anything, to be sure, but they’re no less nauseous than the average family of corporate scumbags. Plus, there are little touches added in to give them a more “human” feel — this is the old man’s second marriage, his first wife died, the teenage daughter is his kid with said first wife, the new bundle of joy is his first with his much-younger second wife, things like that.
Plus, they’ve hit on a concept that, while by no means original, certainly works — this time around, the ghost/spirit/demon/whatever-the-fuck is after the baby.
Now, what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with the previous film? Well, that’s where the next effective plot twist comes in, and I’m not gonna give it away. Suffice to say that the couple from the original Paranormal Activity is known to this bunch, it’s the same spook haunting them, and a seriously asshole move made by the dad in this flick is what sics the invisible monster onto the other folks from the other movie in the first place.
If you’re dying to find out what this rather simple, but ingenious, plot device is that ties the two pictures together, I’m sure there are plenty of “spoiler”-filled reviews out there on this great big internet of ours, but I’m not going to add this one to those ranks since seeing this particular plot twist unfold for yourself is one of the best things about this movie and, while there are fewer jump-in- (or out of) -your-seat moments in Paranormal Activity 2 than there were in the first, this major-league “damn, that’s a cool idea” moment more than makes up for it — and the ending has the dad not only pay for what he’s done, but ties the two films together even more tightly and leaves open the possibility for yet another sequel.
All that being said, and even though I freely admit I liked this flick better than the first one, I find myself hoping this is the end of the road for not only Paranormal Activity, but for the whole digital handheld/camcorder/POV/fake DIY horror craze in general. Really, this idea’s been not just mined for all it’s worth thanks to movies like Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Rec (and it’s Americanized remake, Quarantine) , Rec 2, and of course the original Paranormal Activity itself, the fact is that it’s been flat-out strip-mined down to nothingness. It was a novel enough idea to start with, I suppose, and serves as a useful plot gimmick for getting around one of the great dilemmas every horror screenwriter faces, namely “how do I explain all this shit?” (since with this particular genre you never really have to), but it’s beyond played-out at this point — and while Paranormal Activity 2 might do a little better job of it than some of the other films mentioned here, it by no means adds anything new to the proceedings. Simply put, the whole idea is beyond it’s sell-by date and went from feeling fresh and interesting to old and stale in no time flat — which is really rather fitting, I suppose, given that the modern, instantaneous “information age” culture that gave birth to this new spin on horror has an attention span of about fifteen seconds and demands something new all the time. In a way, then, the “camcorder horror” subgenre is a victim of its own success, and has been done in by the very same culture of instant “information” (and instant gratification) that gave rise to it.
Whether that’s poetic, prophetic, or just plain the way things are today, I leave up to you to decide. But if the whole craze has gotta end, this wouldn’t be a bad note to end it on.