Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Reviews, Part I — Paranormal Activity 2

In honor of Halloween, I'm going to review two "found footage" horror movies I've seen lately. First on the docket is Paranormal Activity 2. But before I review the sequel we should briefly discuss the original.

I wasn't part of the Paranormal Activity cult. Part of this can be attributed to external factors — I saw it at the height of its popularity in a theater with three hundred squalling, screeching teenagers who absolutely would not shut up, which, combined with the fact that I was forced to sit a few rows from the screen and got a huge headache, admittedly soured my viewing experience — but although I admired its indie spirit I also thought it was entirely reliant on jump scares. Mix with the unintentional comedy of the ouija board scene and the "scary face!" final shot, and I was left apathetic to the notion of ever watching it again.

But, one way or another, it snared the imagination of the masses, and Paramount swiftly threw its weight behind a sequel. And they didn't do a bad job, considering what they had to build upon. Paranormal Activity 2 inevitably lacks the freshness of its predecessor (and also contains a painful ouija board scene), but it's more professional and better-paced, with more major characters. I had no problems with the actors playing Katie and Micah in the first film, but it got a little old watching two people interact for an hour and a half. This time we got a mom (played by Sprague Grayden, who you will almost certainly recognize if you watched TV in the last decade), a dad, a teenage daughter, a housekeeper, a dog, and a baby, and while none of them are rich characters who will be remembered for years or even weeks to come, there's enough pairings that none of their interactions get stale.

Katie and Micah show up too in small supporting roles. If you've only seen original you may be thinking "wait, how—", and the answer is that Paranormal Activity 2 is not a sequel, or a prequel, or even an interquel, but a parallelquel, taking place alongside the original (something which absolutely blew the minds of the people sitting behind me; I don't think they had ever experienced nonlinear storytelling before in their lives). Grayden plays Katie's sister and the two briefly commiserate on their haunted past, and while I cannot for the life of me remember if the original mentioned a sister or if this a retcon, I don't particularly care, because Katie Featherston is crazy pretty and it was nice to see her again.

My real problem is that once again this Paranormal experience leans mostly on jump scares for its major set pieces. It can't be denied that jump scares work in the moment — when there's a loud noise, I jump, you jump, everybody jumps; it's basic physiology — but they don't really impress me. Yes, like the original, this film is more patient with its jump scares than your average horror flick, drawing out the tension until you're almost relieved when the big scare finally comes, but they're still in service of a story that's as anemic as ever.

Now, for millions of viewers, the jump scares, demonic mythology, and unique aesthetic of the original trumped its thin plot and bland characters. And if you're one of those viewers, by all means, see Paranormal Activity 2. It's very much more of the same. If you loved the original, you'll love this one. If you liked the original, you'll like this one. If you hated the original, you'll hate this one. And if, like me, you were fairly lukewarm on the original, you'll be fairly lukewarm on this one. (With the strange exception of Roger Ebert, who gave the original three and a half stars and this one one and a half, which makes no sense seeing as they're practically the same movie. I can only assume this is Ebert's paternal instinct flaring up, the same one that filled him with revulsion at Kick-Ass, and he couldn't stand seeing a baby in peril.) But I'll absolutely grant that it's better than the next movie I'll be reviewing tonight.

2 Stars out of 5

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