"Paranormal Activity" was the kind of film that divided audiences pretty cleanly. Either it was a creepy exercise in low-budget suggest-o-horror which built up to a couple of big surprise shocks, or it was a boring slog through someone's unusually noisy home-movies which became more and more risible as it went along. It was a surprise hit last year, though, raking in vast wads of cash disproportionate to its miniscule budget, and so it is simple business sense for Paramount to rush out another cheap chapter in the story in time for this year's halloween.
I enjoyed the first film enough to place it in my best films of last year list, but was a little apprehensive when this sequel was announced. A lot of what made the original work was the intimacy, the self-contained situation, the simple, repetitive set-up, and the inexplicable nature of events. Something was haunting Katie and had been all her life, she didn't know why and neither did we. The rules of the sequel state that events must go bigger, the world must be explored further and there must generally be MORE. For a horror film, this usually fucks things up.
This is what happens with "Paranormal Activity 2". Rather than two people in a house, we have a father, a mother, a teenage daughter, a toddler and an alsation to play with. Rather than a single camera carried around during the day or set in the same spot each night, we have a whole series of security cameras set up within and without the house. And instead of the creepy mystery of the first film ("why is it after her? what's that picture doing there? where's it trying to drag her to?") we have a semi-prequel/sequel that attempts to explain where the demonic presence came from and applies a whole set of rules and a get out clause and then shows us what happened after the first film in an anti-climactic denoument.
The multiple cameras only serve to lessen the suspense and break the verisimilitude and atmosphere of the piece. In the first film, we are locked into a POV: whatever the camera sees, we see. This allows for a greater suspension of disbelief, as we feel we are witnessing events first-hand, raw footage with no edits. This time, the authorial presence of a spectral editor is all too apparent, as we cut to different angles to disguise special effects, or we randomly cut away from a spooky person standing in a doorway, only for them to have disappeared before we cut back. When the family is installing the cameras at the start of the film, the technician tells them that they will be recording ALL THE TIME, meaning that every time some piece of information is held back from us by the editing, we cannot help but call bullshit. When a baby is fucking levitating out of his crib, why cut to another room where NOTHING IS HAPPENING, only to cut back to him walking to his bedroom door?
This feeling of artifice is much more prevelant than in the first film, so if you had issues with the plausibility of that one, this one will not convert you. In the original, Micah was obsessive about the camera, going through each night's footage the morning after, so the characters saw everything we had seen, and we weren't left going "JUST LOOK AT THE TAPES, YOU NUMB-NUTS!". When the teen daughter in this film claims she was locked out of the house after waking with a start and hearing someone call her name, she only plays the part where the door slams shut behind her to her disbelieving dad so that he can put his blinkers on and proclaim it the wind's doing like the stupid Mayor from "Jaws" talking about boating accidents. Meanwhile all the sane people in the audience are shouting "IF YOU REWIND IT THIRTY SECONDS TO THE PART WHERE YOU HEARD A VOICE AND WOKE UP, YOU'LL SEE A SPOOKY SHADOW FALL ACROSS YOUR SLEEPING BODY AND HEAR THE TELLY GO ALL DISTORTED AND WIERD! TRY BLAMING THAT ON THE WIND, YOU FUCKING MUPPET!"
Aside from these alienating problems, the film is basically just a retread of the events of the original, but lacking any of the skilful build and the all-important element of surprise. The film falls into the typical horror-movie sequel trap of presuming that because everyone has seen the original, there's no need to attempt to build suspense, suggest things or build a dynamic. We all know what to expect, so let's get to it! Get that baby floating around! WEEE! This is not scary.
Another horror-sequel aspect that this film embraces is the lame attempts to build mythology with excessive retroactive continuity. I won't spoil it, but it's the same kind of thinking that turned Freddy Krueger from nasty child-killer to bastard son of a nun raped by a thousand maniacs, or revealed that Michael Myers was after Laurie because she was his sister. Pointless exposition for a character (or in this case entity) that becomes less frightening and less plausible the more we know about it.
And one final credulity-stretcher: the family has a mystical Mexican housekeeper who is some sort of spiritual demon-exorcist expert thing. Like a latina version of the creepy dwarf woman from "Poltergeist". So they've managed to get round the "Why would you keep filming and not just run the fuck out of there?" question that goes with first-person found-footage films, but they've ingeniously introduced a whole boatload of other problems to jolt you out of the "reality" of the film.
There are good points, however: The performances are naturalistic and convincing enough, there are a few entertaining twists on routines familiar from the first film, and a lot of mileage is got from the dog and the toddler looking at stuff that's not there. It's just the overall effect is that of somehow spoiling the original whilst not really achieving anything new.