The secret of the Paranormal Activity films, visually, is their dead-eyed perspective. In the first film, much of the spooky stuff unfolded in front of a static camcorder. In Paranormal Activity 2, we spend a lot of time looking at surveillance-camera footage. This is the opposite of shaky-cam; it’s from-beyond-the-grave-cam. The unmoving camera just stares, blankly and without editorializing, and waits for something to happen. The point of view is chillingly remote, indifferent to the characters’ fear and suffering; everything is merely recorded. In a way, this blanched footage harks back to the beginnings of American horror cinema, from the silents to the early ‘30s, when directors like Tod Browning just let scenes play out in stoic set-ups and gather quiet dread.
Put the two films together and you have a pretty good fit; they proceed from and amplify each other. Paranormal Activity 2 isn’t much as its own movie; it essentially pulls out the same bag of tricks — the thumps in the night, the invisible forces pulling people out of the room. When the movie is feeling particularly boisterous, a bunch of kitchen-cabinet doors open at once. The filmmakers go a long, long way solely on the audience’s queasy anticipation of what’s to come. Some will say the way is too long; at the Saturday-night screening I attended, there was a bit of is-something-going-to-happen-sometime-soon grumbling, and a little kid sitting near me — an Ebert in training — commented loudly, “When is the movie going to start?”
To avoid spoilers, some of the following will read as inaccurate, or at least incomplete, to those who’ve seen the film. Paranormal Activity 2 follows a different couple in a different house; they have a baby son, and the father has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Things start happening, slowly at first, and in small doses. The automatic pool cleaner keeps ending up outside the pool overnight. The family dog senses something. So does the Mexican housekeeper, who performs smudging rituals to evict “bad spirits” until the skeptical father fires her. The father, who owns a Burger King franchise, has a lot of money; the house is spacious and impersonal. Both films, actually, pack a “When Bad Paranormal Things Happen to Well-Off People” subtext; any family that can afford a pool that size must have done something to deserve the visitations of a demon.
The teenage girl thinks it’s cool that the house apparently has a ghost, until things get uncool and it’s clear that the entity is a good deal more malicious. The movie is a bit front-loaded with ominous mood — perhaps the first 45 minutes or so — and then, when there finally is paranormal activity, things feel rushed. A desperate decision is made, tying the sequel in with the original, and finishing off with a triple sting. Right now, the two films operate as a smooth unit — someday the whole thing might play well viewed in one big gulp via seamless branching on a Blu-ray. But viewing Paranormal Activity 2 a year apart feels unavoidably like more of the same. I sincerely hope Paramount doesn’t milk this thing for more sequels, but since this film made back twice its cost solely on the Thursday-night midnight showing, get ready for another few years of nocturnal bumps, closing doors, low-frequency rumbles, and night-vision commercials of audiences shitting their pants at the latest sequel.