Something Wicked Messed With Our Frying Pan

The subtle scares continue in Paranormal Activity 2.

A scene from Paranormal Activity 2.

Last year, Oren Peli’s debut feature Paranormal Activity exemplified an emerging trend that I dubbed “artisanal horror.” Shot on digital video in Peli’s own home, the film was a low-key little slice of demon-possession vérité, which used the same found-footage conceit as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield: A young California couple, Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston * and Micah Sloat), troubled by weird noises in their house, set up a video camera to record their bedroom as they sleep, and the footage reveals that, indeed, some evil force seems to have set its sights on Katie.

The most surprising thing about Paranormal Activity was how many people wanted to see it, despite the lack of gore or spectacular special effects. Peli’s scare tactics were minimalist to the point of austerity: He got enormous mileage out of the image of a dark room with two people asleep in a bed, the timecode in the corner of the screen clicking inexorably toward the next unexplainable event. Most horror movies use everyday banality—the sound of dishes clanking, the breakfast discussion about what happened last night—as a momentary counterpoint, a backdrop against which a monster can pop out. Paranormal Activity, and now its sequel, Paranormal Activity 2 (Paramount), turn everyday banality into the monster—these movies make an empty suburban room as scary as any torture-porn abattoir.

For fans of old-school horror, there was also something heartening about the success of a movie as conceptually simple and quietly creepy as the first Paranormal Activity. Surely the sequel—directed this time not by Peli but by Tod Williams, who wrote and directed the haunting Jeff Bridges vehicle The Door in the Floor—would betray the spirit of the original, eliminating the shuddery longueurs in the name of scream-per-minute efficiency? Not really. Paranormal Activity 2 is similar to its predecessor in pacing and tone—if anything, a little too similar, with events ramping up at a gradual but merciless rate that anyone who’s seen the original will recognize. Still, even knowing what’s likely to come—the doors opening on their own, the skeptical characters scoffing at metaphysical explanations, the unheeded warnings from paranormally gifted guests—doesn’t make it any less nailbiting to watch.

Paranormal Activity 2 is, for its first 90 minutes, at least, a prequel that takes place in the two months preceding the events of the first film (a five-minute coda functions as a bridge connecting the two plotlines). The couple of the first film, Katie and Micah, are marginal (if important) players in this story; the things that go bump in the night are all in the house belonging to Katie’s sister Christine (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), and their two children, a teenage daughter and a newborn son. Soon after the baby comes home from the hospital, the family’s house is broken into and trashed, though not burglarized.

Security experts advise setting up cameras in each room to film the house 24/7 (as with many of these “found-footage” movies, the verisimilitude is iffy here, but what the hell, it’s a genre convention). For many nights in a row, nothing scarier happens than a frying pan falling off its hook or the self-powered swimming-pool cleaner mysteriously ending up outside the pool every morning. But the babysitter Martine (Vivis), who, unlike the family is deeply religious, senses that something evil is afoot. (Some critics have found this character to be a “magical Latina” stereotype, but I wasn’t bothered by Martine; like the white psychic who visits the house in the first movie, she’s presented as someone who’s more attuned to reality than the naïve, complacent protagonists.)

The explicit goals of the malevolent being or beings who stalk the house are almost never made plain, which, as was the case with the first installment, ends up being one of this movie’s strengths. Why would a demon this powerful dick around with frying pans and swimming-pool cleaners for weeks on end, rather than just sweeping in and killing whomever it wanted to kill? For the same reason this movie takes its own sweet silent time: Because it’s less interested in making sense than in scaring the pants off you.

Correction, Oct. 27, 2010:This sentence originally misspelled Featherston’s last name.

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