28 October 2010

THE HORROR OF DIMINISHING RETURNS

Paranormal Activity 2 is just a lil' bundle of problems. I'd be inclined to say that it is a perfectly fine film in and of itself, considered in a vacuum, whilst being a completely unacceptable prequel to Paranormal Activity; and this is exactly how I took to describing the film when I first stepped foot out of the theater. But it's not at all true, you see, for PA2 could not exist at all as a functional thing if it didn't have PA1 sitting in the shadows, propping it up, explaining what would otherwise be some profoundly stupid narrative gaps. So PA2, despite being almost entirely fine in every possible way, doesn't work at all as a standalone movie and doesn't work at all as a sequel. QED, it doesn't work at all, which seems altogether too harsh a judgment.

The first Paranormal Activity, you perhaps recall, was a independent film produced for pocket change in 2006 and 2007 by writer/director Oren Peli, captured entirely on the camera owned by Michah (Micah Sloat), who had decided that the best thing to do in the whole world was to film the apparent demonic possession afflicting the costly suburban sprawl home he shared with his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston). Micah and Katie return for the new film, but only in glorified cameos; the main story this time centers on Katie's sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), and Daniel's teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim), whose mother is dead. Otherwise, everything is much the same as before: the film is depicted as being a found footage document, which briefly shows the 2005 birth of baby Hunter, before cutting ahead, jarringly, to August 2006, with Daniel grousing about grabbing the first tape he could find to record the damage done to the home in a break-in where the criminal took nothing but a necklace and destroyed just about everything he or she (...or it! we fill in for the film, given that we know as the characters do not that the title of their story is Paranormal Activity 2) could manage. One assumes that if (SPOILER, but not really) Daniel and Kristi didn't end up dead, he'd be in quite a spot of trouble for recording over the baby tapes.

The break-in leads the family to install security cameras all over the house, in the overreactive way of wealthy suburbanites everywhere, and the film thereafter is divided about half-and-half between this security camera footage and camcorder video produced mostly by Ali. What happens is not going to come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Paranormal Activity: inexplicable things start happening at a slow rate, then they start to happen a bit faster, then shit goes absolutely crazy, and nobody in the film can figure out how to stop it. "Inexplicable things" consists largely of bangs and things falling and the German Shepherd Abby staring and growling at something that isn't there. Whatever the hell is going on, it's clear that something evil wants to gets its paws on Hunter - we know it is evil because the family's nanny and maid, Martine (Vivis) says so in Spanish; for Martine is Hispanic and Catholic, and as a result of those two things has an intuitive understanding of the spiritual world that the rest of the characters lack. Yes, it's that kind of film.

The film, as written by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst, and directed by Tod Williams, does as little as possible to mess with the formula provided by the original: lots of still shots at night of the inside of the house that become repetitive enough that a well-placed THUNK is all by itself enough to make half the audience wet themselves. Though, it must be said, the THUNKS aren't quite as well-placed here; and by expanding the primary speaking cast from two people to four plus a dog and a baby, PA2 dilutes itself rather badly. One of the chief pleasures of the original film was in watching a generally normal couple coming undone in the face of inordinate stress; with a cast this large (and a house this comically sprawling), the sequel has a hard time focusing.

I'm also not a particular fan of the security camera conceit; though I suppose the point was to ameliorate the problem so many had with the original (and with the whole "first-person camera" subgenre), that the characters wouldn't really carry around a prosumer camcorder throughout everything that happens to them, and to provide a bit more flexibility in how many rooms the filmmakers could show, if anything it just calls attention to how fake everything is. There are things we see onscreen that, given the family's propensity for reviewing their security footage, couldn't possibly have gone unnoticed; and while the first film could plausibly claim "found footage", this one cannot - it has to have been edited. So who did the editing? (Gregory Plotkin, but that's not really here nor there).

This, coupled with the fact that Williams and his small army of writers can't come up with anything to match the low-fi thrills and merciless slow boil of the original, and you have a film that is basically the same, except that it's not as good in every degree. Though I have to give Williams, or his AD, credit for getting tremendously natural performances out of the dog and the babies playing Hunter - no, seriously. Most of the best moments in the film rely on them reacting to something we can't see; meaning something that wasn't there on set at all, and it must have been hell to choreograph. So congratulations to the filmmakers on that count.

Still, PA2 works, basically, as as less-so version of something that I, for one, thought was absolutely great the first time around. It clatters and goes "Boo!" quite convincingly. And yet it sucks, and the reason it sucks I can sum up in one word:

Mythology.

PA2, in addition to unambiguously setting up an eventual PA3, wants to expand the narrative universe of the first film in a way that doesn't work - and I suspect, could not under any circumstances. Paranormal Activity was brilliant in no small part because it was inexplicable: these two characters are under attack from something with no apparent motivation other than to be evil. The most successful horror films are always about something evil that lashes out without reason; explanations are invariably less scary than random happenings. And PA2 is all about the explanations. Oh, not all about them; a sufficiently inattentive viewer could probably miss both of the two scenes that very briefly suggest - but do not explain for certain - what's going on. And the same viewer could probably miss the scene which retroactively explains the first film, and in the process makes it a hell of a lot less effective. Absolutely no viewer who is still in the room can miss the asinine final scene, which is the only part of the movie to take place after the original (the rest is about two months before), and not only ruins the impact of that film (the worst thing any sequel can ever do), it leaves a giant hole in the sequel for anyone who didn't see the first part. Pragmatically, if the last eight minutes of Paranormal Activity 2 didn't exist, I'd feel several times better about it; but they do, so I don't.

5/10

1 comment:

Brian said...

I'm responding to a several year old review, so this is pointless, but...

As much as I hate the "ethnic character that KNOWS what's going on" trope, this movie did something the first one didn't for me (and I watched them on back to back nights, followed by the third one(ugh) the next night.) It actually had a visceral effect on me. It's one of only three horror films I have seen in my adult life that I can honestly say scared me (the other two being The Descent and Halloween.)

The first film never scared me. The Shining never scared me. The Exorcist never scared me. Paranormal Activity 2, somehow, did.