When Paranormal Activity hit theaters in its gradually growing release last year, I reviewed it as one of the best horror movies I’d ever seen. It played all the right cards to scare the crap out of me, and I loved it as the awesome indie film that it was. It was with some trepidation that I heard a sequel was being made and without creator Oren Peli in the writing or directing chairs. Still, I tried to keep an open mind and hoped for the best when I saw Paranormal Activity 2 this week. While the sequel does deliver some scary moments and a few clever turns, it mostly fails as a followup to the first movie. Even worse, it robs the original Paranormal Activity of some of its terrifying mystique. Let’s take a non-spoilery look at what the sequel gets wrong and how it could have been a better movie.
1. Too Many Hauntees
The original Paranormal Activity is a terrifying movie, partly because it pits two relatable young people against an entirely alien and malevolent entity. Katie and Micah are characters we care about because they live average (okay, above-average, given the house they live in) and understandable lives, and we get to know them as people throughout the nights and days we observe them dealing with their haunting. Their attitudes and personalities change during the film as Katie becomes increasingly scared and Micah becomes angrier and more of a believer. Their ultimate fates are important to us because they are the only two people we see for the vast majority of the film.
Paranormal Activity 2 goes bigger by increasing the size of the family in the haunted house. Rather than focusing intimately on two people, we’re now dealing with a woman, her husband, his teenage daughter from a previous marriage, the couple’s newborn baby, a live-in housekeeper, and the family’s dog. Throwing so many people into this sort of situation dilutes the terror inflicted on each person. We have so many characters to watch that the scares fail to drill home for any one person. Certainly, some of the family members get a worse deal with the haunting than others, but it’s hard to really care about this new group as much as we would have cared if, say, the only people in the movie were the man, the woman, and their baby.
Adding more characters also cripples the movie in the same way many superhero movies fail by tossing too many heroes and villains into the mix. With a limited runtime for the movie, it’s impossible to adequately develop all the characters to the point where we genuinely care about their fates. By the end of Paranormal Activity 2, we don’t really know much about any one family member, aside from clichéd scenes that show them interacting with even more characters who don’t even live in the house.
2. Too Recognizable Actors
The found film genre requires more of a suspension of disbelief than most other movie genres. Films like The Blair Witch Project and the original Paranormal Activity work because the audience is able to believe for a little while that what they’re watching is an actual, true situation. Casting previously unknown actors is a big part of maintaining that illusion, and Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat are entirely believable actors and characters for the first film, largely due to their prior lack of big name roles.
Paranormal Activity 2 eschews the importance of casting unknowns by dropping Sprague Grayden into the lead role as mom and wife Kristi. All the other characters are played by potentially recognizable actors, but Grayden is the one who really sticks out for me. She does an admirable job of emoting terror, but it was impossible for me to buy into the believability of her situation. Instead of worrying about Kristi and fearing for her like I did for Katie in the original, this time I spent half the movie wondering, “Isn’t that President Taylor’s daughter from 24 and the girl from Sons of Anarchy?”
3. Too Many Cameras
The first Paranormal Activity relies solely on a single HD camcorder to tell its story. The camera sometimes is set up on a tripod for capturing nocturnal spookiness, and sometimes it’s carried around the house by the two main characters. Regardless of where it’s positioned, though, we have one window into the haunting and see it as Micah and Katie see it. There are plenty of off-screen sounds and occurrences that we hear but don’t see, and the lack of the visual punch allows our imaginations to fill in what’s really going on. It’s a generally accepted truth that nothing you can show on a movie screen can top our most horrid imaginings, and Paranormal Activity gives its viewers the opportunity to exercise their imaginations to fill in these missing story bits.
Again subscribing to the “bigger is better” philosophy, Paranormal Activity 2 drastically ups the number of cameras in the house. There is still a handheld camera that travels around the house with the characters, but this time we also have a slew of security cams distributed generously through most of the rooms and even outside on the front driveway. If something weird goes down, you can be sure you’re going to see it happen. And see it, you do. Nearly every mysterious thud, thump, and clang in the sequel is explainable since so much of the house is under constant surveillance. This omnipresence robs the movie of a lot of its potential scariness.
Having the movie rely on so many stationary cameras also takes away a lot of the personal fear the first movie evokes so well. When we see the scary stuff happening through Micah or Katie’s eyes as they’re experiencing it, the terror is palpable and convincing. The Paranormal Activity 2 family doesn’t even know about half the crazy stuff that happens in their house until they go back during the movie and watch their security camera footage. At that point we see them reacting to a video of haunted happenings, not to them reacting to the haunting itself. It’s a little like watching videos on YouTube of people reacting to other videos. It’s not as engaging, and it’s not as personal as seeing the people as they actually experience whatever is going on.
4. Too Many Jumps, Too Little Dread
To be sure, the first Paranormal Activity has a few “jump” scares and loud bangs to keep you on your toes. The real horror in the movie, though, comes from the building sense of dread that eventually pays off with a horrifying denouement. The first movie is the tightly-crafted and well-orchestrated progression of a normal couple tumbling from their ordinary life into a paranoid chaos, taking the audience along with them on their journey of mounting fear.
The lack of personal investment caused by the larger cast and a more omnipresent viewpoint in Paranormal Activity 2 dramatically shifts the focus away from the first movie’s deliciously refined dread to more conventional shocks. Cheap scares are aplenty here, from banging doors to sudden jumps. The sequel definitely delivers some fun scares, but nothing in it is substantially scary. The terror of the first movie is about a gradual invasion of ordinary life by something extraordinary, and it lasts long after the film ends. Paranormal Activity 2‘s scares stop as soon as the final scene ends, and it leaves no lingering fear or dread to make you think about the movie for nearly as long as the original did.
5. Too Much Explanation
Another contributing factor to the success of Paranormal Activity‘s sense of fear and dread is the lack of rational explanation for what happens in the haunted house. Micah and Katie attempt to investigate the haunting they’re experiencing, but they (and we) ultimately know very little about the force that has invaded their home or why it does the things it does to them. The opening to the video game Alan Wake quotes one of Stephen King’s Entertainment Weekly articles with, “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” Not knowing how or why something happens is much scarier than knowing, and that is one of the areas where the first movie shines.
Paranormal Activity 2 throws the blanket of secrecy into the wind and actually gives a rationalization and context to the true nature of both movies’ lurking terror. Not only does it describe what’s causing the mischief, but it also reveals definitively why the entity singles out Katie and Kristi for its hauntings in both movies. Being able to attach rational motives and reason to the unseen demonic force steals most of its thunder and turns it into little more than an average horror movie monster. In this way, the sequel not only fails to deliver its own scares but also ruins much of the seemingly random happenings of the first film.
Too Much Money?
Paranormal Activity was a groundbreaking movie, not just for its mastery of the horror and found footage genre, but also for its performance at the box office. Costing a little under $15,000 to produce, it to date has earned nearly $200 million, making it the most profitable movie of all time by percentage. By all rights, it should have been a one-shot movie, but that kind of money is impossible for Hollywood to ignore. A sequel was inevitable, and without creator Oren Peli at the helm it’s clear that Paranormal Activity 2 is nothing more than a visit back to the well to dip another bucket of cash.
Paranormal Activity 2 ignores and openly contradicts most of the techniques that made the first movie such an effective work of horror. It feels shinier and more produced, sporting a recognizable cast and a distinct lack of the subtlety that permeated the original. With the Saw franchise supposedly ending its annual Halloween movie releases after this year, Paranormal Activity is poised to be the next big horror franchise to launch from an amazing indie film into a done-to-death Mad Lib of scary situations.