‘Paranormal Activity 2’ Proves to be as Effective as the Original

Paranormal Activity 2 movie poster

We had every reason to expect the sequel to the surprise hit “Paranormal Activity” would be horrid. Movies like this come out of nowhere and make more money than anyone could have ever expected, so a sequel has to follow, right? God forbid the money train stops at just one movie! Even in the new millennium, greed is still king. Most people were expecting this to be as terrible as “The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows” which itself was a giant insult to its predecessor, hence giving more fuel to the “Blair Witch” haters who somehow felt tricked out of their money. Besides, how can you expect a story like this to remain fresh, let alone terrifying? We weren’t expecting what got hurled at us last time, literally and figuratively speaking, but now we feel more prepared than ever to scan every scene of this sequel in an effort to predict when the scares come.

Well, it is to my astonishment to say “Paranormal Activity 2” is no “Blair Witch 2.” Heck, it’s not even an “Open Water 2” or a “Jaws 2” or even an “Exorcist 2” for that matter. This sequel turns out to be as scary and unnerving as the original, and it respects Oren Peli’s film for what it was and does nothing to detract from it. In fact, this sequel adds additional layers to the original which enhances the experience of watching it all the more.

“Paranormal Activity 2” opens up in Carlsbad, California where we meet Dan and his second wife Kristin as they arrive home with their newborn son, Hunter. Once there, we also get to meet Ali, Dan’s daughter from another marriage, the family housekeeper and nanny Martine, and the loyal family dog Abby. A couple of days later after going out of town, they come back to find the house ransacked, but nothing has been stolen. As a result, Dan has security cameras installed to make his family feel safe, and maybe even catch whoever did this. After that, things get increasingly scary as the ominous hum which haunted Katie’s and Micah’s abode starts to show its presence in the family dwellings, and things begin to go bump in the night. Just like the original, the men never take the women or their fears seriously, and it makes the rest of us guys look like bad boyfriends and husbands.

Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat return from the first movie, but Katie is the one who is more prominently featured. It turns out Kristin is Katie’s sister, and they both shared a scary past as they were terrorized by an evil spirit. Both are hesitant to talk to explain what they went through as children because the thought of it coming back is too terrifying to consider.

The really clever thing about “Paranormal Activity 2” is it turns out to be a prequel as well as a sequel. It takes place several weeks before the events portrayed in the original, and the ending more or less coincides with what Katie and Micah went through. This, I thought, was an inspired decision because it gives more weight to not just this film, but the original as well. This is not just some dumb follow up with the same old story filled with unrelated characters making the same stupid mistakes. The fate of this family is very much interlocked with the fate of Katie and Micah, and their inevitable doom makes this sequel all the more haunting.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity” had just the one camera which Micah put in his and Katie’s bedroom for the most part, this second film has us looking through various security cameras which record the house from different angles, each revealing little things going on around the house. Then there are other scenes where characters are holding the camera and making us see everything as they search through the house late at night. The security cameras by themselves present images freaky enough to gives us goose pimples, but when we get the first-person perspective, things get even more intense than they already are.

You know what really gets to me about these movies? The silence around the house and the lack of a film score. For me, being alone in a room or a house without any noise gets my anxiety up and running as I suspect something bad is about to occur which I won’t be able to prevent from happening. Both “Paranormal Activity” movies understand this anxiety perfectly and play on it without ever relying on blood and gore. Plus, your home is where you and your family are supposed to feel the safest. What happens when the safety of your home is violated? Where can you feel safe after that?

The choice of director for “Paranormal Activity 2” is a surprise and not who I expected. Tod Williams is best known for directing “The Door in The Floor,” a criminally under seen drama with powerful performances by Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. How the producers thought of Williams for this film is beyond me, but he gives this sequel a strong suspenseful tone, and he keeps the tension at a high pitch throughout. Williams also gives us several excellent jump out of your seat moments which will make your hair stand on end, especially the one in the kitchen (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it).

The performances are nothing spectacular, but they are perfect for a film like this. I also have to give special props to Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat who still succeed in acting ever so naturally in front of the camera. After the first film, you’d think they would have a tougher time with this and be even more self-conscious than they were before. But they both act normal as if the first movie never happened which I found very impressive.

I’m not sure I can go on describing “Paranormal Activity 2” for fear of giving away too much. I was pleasantly surprised at how effective this sequel was because I expected it to be nothing more than a scam designed to produce a bigger profit than the original. The surprise of the first “Paranormal Activity” is gone, and there’s not much which is new brought to the material here. This sequel also has end credits which the original did not, although there is an elongated pause for those who want to escape the theater before they come up. But the premise is still very scary for those who were infinitely terrified by the first film. I left the theater with my nerves jangling, feeling very much like I did after I saw the original. A good deal of care was put into making this sequel work because everyone was prepared to tear it apart even before they saw it.

If you liked the first “Paranormal Activity,” I think you’ll like the sequel. For those of you who didn’t like it and can’t understand what the fuss was all about, don’t even bother.

I am also proud to say I didn’t make the same mistake of watching it before I went to bed like I did with the original. I saw it in the early afternoon when the sun was still out. It still freaked me out though. Getting to sleep that evening was not any easier.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Paranormal Activity,’ a Movie Not to Be Watched Before you Go to Bed

Paranormal Activity movie poster

“I know something about opening windows and doors

I know how to move quietly to creep across creaky wooden floors

I know where to find precious things in all your cupboards and drawers

Slipping the clippers

Slipping the clippers through the telephone wires

The sense of isolation inspires

Inspires me

I like to feel the suspense when I’m certain you know I am there

I like you lying awake, your baited breath charging the air

I like the touch and the smell of all the pretty dresses you wear

Intruder’s happy in the dark

Intruder come

Intruder come and leave his mark, leave his mark

I am the intruder…”

                                                                                                       -from “Intruder” by Peter Gabriel

                                                                         (sounds even scarier when he sings it in German!)

I finally got around to watching “Paranormal Activity” on Blu-Ray, and I truly regret not seeing this movie while it was on the big screen. How great it must have been to take in the audience’s reaction; watching all the ladies shriek and recoil into their lovers’ arms, and seeing guys who think they are so fearless jump out of their seats during some of this movie’s scariest scenes. I imagine the experience would have been like when I first saw “The Blair Witch Project” back in Irvine at a crowded art house movie theater. The last scene of that indie horror film had the audience completely freaked out, wondering if what we saw was real or fiction.

“Paranormal Activity” is an ingenious little horror movie which cost only $15,000 (excluding marketing costs of course) to make and made over $140 million dollars worldwide. It has joined the likes of “The Blair Witch Project” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as one of the most profitable independent films ever made and was released through Paramount Pictures which employed a unique strategy where audiences had to “demand” for it to be shown in their area via the internet. This strategy is probably what kept me from seeing the movie initially because prints of it had already been sent out to theaters all over the country, so the whole idea of participation was just an illusion to get people excited as they are led to believe they have the power. But getting past the overblown promotion which threatened to upstage it completely, “Paranormal Activity” is one of the most unnerving horror movies I have ever seen.

The word paranormal is a term used to describe unusual experiences that are outside of science’s ability to explain or measure (I think Dan Aykroyd has a PHD in this). This is exactly what’s going on in the home of Micah and Katie, a normal looking couple when we first meet them. Micah has recently purchased a video camera to capture what happens while they sleep at night. Katie has confessed to Micah and a psychic that a ghost has been haunting her since she was little, and she now believes it has followed here to their house in San Diego. They are both told by the psychic this ghost is a demon which feeds off of negative energy, and it will pursue poor Katie everywhere she goes. From the start, you know this is not going to end well for anybody.

Micah Sloat, like Katie Featherston, uses his first name for the character he plays. With him parading around the house with the camera, he could have easily been a character in George Romero’s “Diary of The Dead.” Like those college students studying film, Micah seems more interested in catching paranormal activity happening more than in helping Katie until later on, and he complete annoys Katie in the process. But he soon discovers there is a mysterious force intruding on their well-being as they sleep, and it puts them in the most vulnerable position possible.

Don’t worry, I’m not going into a scene for scene breakdown where I give away the best moments of “Paranormal Activity” as it is full of many hair-raising, jump out of your seat moments which deserve to be discovered with your own eyes if you dare. With a budget similar to the cost of hiring a celebrity bodyguard, director Oren Peli utilizes special effects very simple in their construction, yet incredibly effective when used. By filming in a typical suburban house, it feels no different from homes we grew up in. There’s nothing extravagant shown here, and that’s exactly the point. The more this home reminds you of your own, the scarier this movie becomes.

The suspense and tension which continually escalates throughout “Paranormal Activity” is accomplished through the power of suggestion. It does not contain the gallons of blood and gore most horror films employ. Not that I have any issues with gory movies, but what makes a horror movie all the more effective is when the filmmakers don’t you show everything. It’s what you think you see that really messes with your head as it forces your own fears and superstitions onto these characters throughout the film’s 90-minute running time.

Watching “Paranormal Activity” reminded me of a story my dad said he heard as a kid which scared him half to death. It involved some guy on TV talking directly to the camera about how that sound you heard behind you was probably nothing, or so you would think. But what if it was something sinister? What if that feeling of someone coming up from behind you was not just a feeling? Anyway, the more my dad talked about, the scarier it seemed.

Anyway, I bring this up because “Paranormal Activity” gets at a fear so universal and primal as we try to get a good night’s sleep, something which seems impossible these days without Ambien. Those little noises you hear right around you… What if they’re not just noises? What if someone is in the room with you? What if you didn’t lock all the doors and bolt all the windows? Peli plays will all the sounds which keep us awake at night, and the shocks these characters end up enduring easily resemble ones we have all experienced. It was a huge mistake to watch this film at night before I went to bed. I figured it would not be so scary as it was said to be while in theaters, but then again, I made the same mistake with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Movies often benefit from a music score which can really escalate the powerful emotions the director has already captured. But as “The China Syndrome” and Michael Haneke’s “Cache” demonstrated, sometimes they benefit by not having one. I honestly think “Paranormal Activity” would have suffered if it had a score as one would have made several moments seem anticlimactic and premature as a result. The sound of loud footsteps from someone you’re not sure you know is scary enough as it is.

What Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston do act as much as they inhabit their characters here. They are not called upon to be Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis. If we were to actually catch them acting, the illusion of the movie would have been completely destroyed. What both succeed in doing is acting naturally, and they make us recognize ourselves in them. We quickly come to recognize their fear and relate to it in a way we would rather not experience on a daily basis. These two were complete unknowns when this movie was released, and this elevates the sheer terror we feel for them as casting known actors would have taken away from the proceedings.

I also have to give credit to Mark Fredrichs who plays the psychic who visits Micah and Katie’s home. This role could have been an absolute cliché, one guy who comes across as a madman no one ever fully believes until it is too late. Seriously, this guy could have been just like that crazy old man from the first and second “Friday the 13th” movies who kept warning all those camp counselors, “You’re doomed! YOU’RE ALL DOOMED!!!!” But Fredrichs makes this character into a down to earth guy whose fear is quite palpable once he enters the peaceful looking home. Mark never overdoes anything here, and he more natural he is, the scarier this movie becomes. While the psychic is only on screen for a brief time, it is long enough to where he makes a forceful impression of impending doom.

They say “silence is golden,” but what is truly golden about “Paranormal Activity” is how silence is used so effectively. We’ve all had nights where we lie in bed and hear something fall in another part of the house, but maybe that something didn’t fall on its own. Maybe someone pushed it off to get our attention, to lure us out of our safety zone. Most movies are jam packed today with noise, but Peli recognizes how powerful the lack of sound can be, and he uses it to brilliant effect. I don’t know about you, but I need to be listening to something like soft music as I fall asleep. The quietness of the night has my mind racing when it should be resting.

Some will despise “Paranormal Activity” as nothing more than a gimmick while lacking the blood, gore, and occasional impalements and decapitations they feel are mandatory in a horror film. Others will hail it as a new horror masterpiece which will leave audiences extremely unsettled after leaving the theater. For me, this movie is definitely on the same level with “The Blair Witch Project,” a movie this one owes a huge debt to. It doesn’t try to blow us away with an overabundance of special effects, but with simplicity as the ordinary things are far more terrifying than monsters who wear hockey masks. Seeing a chandelier swaying back and forth definitely throws off my balance and makes me feel wide awake because I get so used to seeing it staying so still. Seeing a chandelier move from side to side in this movie gives the events an especially unsettling feeling.

Okay, I’m going to stop writing about this movie now. The thought of it is freaking me out, and I’m going to end up ripping down my shower curtain if I’m not careful.

* * * * out of * * * *