Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
The jig, as they say, is up. After selling nearly US$200 million worth of tickets for Paranormal Activity, a horror sleeper hit that became a social phenomenon last year, the folks behind this follow-up film, without the element of surprise, had quite a task ahead of them.
How exactly would they – a new creative team with original writer-director Oren Peli aboard as producer – create more scares without seeming to be old hat, and in which direction would they take the story of the doomed couple, Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat), from the first film?
To the credit of the film-makers, they’ve crafted a film that doesn’t feel like a blatant re-tread and one that, in the end, pays off handsomely. The big question is if fans will stick around long enough or find it worth the wait through what is a mostly ponderous affair leading up to a frenzied finale.
To put things in perspective, the wait for something meaningful to happen here far exceeds the time it takes for me to get my favourite must-queue plate of char kuay teow in Ghim Moh.
That there would be a second film was a forgone conclusion as soon as the momentum for the original gathered steam; critics were calling it the scariest film since 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, a pioneer of the ‘found footage’ horror subgenre.
Not only was the original a huge financial success – divide US$200 million over the reported US$15,000 budget to derive an incredible percentage – it captured the cultural zietgeist. Fans were going to see the film in droves, and hooting and hollering at the suspense, playful horror tricks and genuinely frightening scenes.
Paranormal Activity was ingenious in how it relied on your mind’s eye to imagine untold horrors and really reinvigorated its genre: films like the locally made Haunted Changi and US box-office hit The Last Exorcism have employed similar premises of pseudo-reality: these films could be real *wink wink* given the widespread advent of video-recording devices, but they’re obviously not.
In Paranormal 2, the rather well-woven story unfolds perhaps months prior to the events of the earlier film – a newborn child brought home to a loving family becomes a toddler before our eyes, just before the events of the original film.
Events are seen through a handheld videocam and security cameras that Katie’s sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden – yes, actors, and the director, are quietly acknowledged in this one), and husband have installed after the household experiences strange goings-on, initially presumed to be a break-in, soon after the birth of her son Hunter.
The conventions of ghost stories have long dictated that animals and young innocents have that special ability to perceive supernatural entities. The long and winding build-up in this film centres around what the boy and family’s German Shepherd can see, and react to, that the rest of the clan – the father, mother, teen daughter and the hispanic nanny with a flair for superstition – cannot.
An increasing number of strange clues alert the women that something isn’t quite right, though they don’t take any decisive action until things start to boil over. Along the way, red herrings and the disbelieving flippant stance of the obtuse father are predictable and none too entertaining.
Just as Katie, who makes a few appearances here before her own hauntings, and Micah were not particularly likeable in the original film, the hammy jokes that Kristi’s family make and their thorough ordinariness make them seem, if not distasteful, rather goofy and dull.
Going back to the question of how this film could differentiate itself, the truth is that there are some similar effects. But they are used sparingly, or strategically, such that they don’t feel repetitive. And the film largely dispenses with the speeded-up replay of recordings prevalent in its predecessor – a wise decision.
There are also some cleverly suspenseful scenarios, each involving a member of the family being left alone. When all hell breaks loose, like you suspect it will, the effects are chilling and spectacular.
Despite all this, the film’s most glaring problems lie in its first two-thirds, and how it negotiates the calm before the storm, so to speak. It is understandable why the film-makers, including director Tod Williams, exercised patience and restraint in this regard: it makes the denouement that much more effective.
It is a significant gamble but it makes this, in some ways, the superior film in this series. Paranormal Activity 2 may suffer from its status as a follow-up, just as Paranormal Activity was lauded for its innovation, but the former surely will not be a forgotten second film like Blair Witch 2 was.
Now, one wonders if there will be a third film and how a story could be written to support that. It would be an even more impressive achievement than this film if it could be done with likewise artistic integrity, critical acclaim and box-office success.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.