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Ravings Of A Film Fanatic: Paranormal Activity 2

Words by Chris Elms

I actually rather enjoyed 2007 / 08’s Paranormal Activity. Sure it was a bit hokey at times, but I thought it was a great, creepy, low-fi horror flick that was a real joy to experience in a cinema full of people. That was the first time I felt like I was in one of those American theatres you see where the crowd really reacts to the film. I didn’t see this inevitable sequel upon its theatrical release, for the simple reason that I didn’t think it looked worth spending £6.50 on. The first one was a solid film, a triumph in low-budget film making and proves you don’t need millions of dollars and CGI to frighten people, it needed a sequel about as much as Schindler’s List (and while I’d like to think of Taken as that film, it isn’t officially regarded as such). Take a look at the Saw franchise: The first film was (as far as I understand) made independently from the studios, by budding film-makers who had a genuinely good idea that they believed in and made a tense and highly entertaining movie the likes of which we hadn’t seen a lot of before, it was a film that stood on its own. It went on to make the studio that bought it a shit-ton of money and so they called for a sequel. Whether the original film-makers wanted to be involved or not, another film was on the way, because the basic principle of Hollywood is sadly, to make as much money as possible. It’s not a coincidence that the writers and directors of both Saw and Paranormal Activity wanted nothing to do with the sequels. With every Saw flick that comes out, that first one loses more and more integrity. That series has become a joke, a cash-cow and as long as people keep paying money to see them, they’ll keep getting made, regardless of quality.

This is exactly what is going to happen to Paranormal Activity. The plots of the Saw films have become so convoluted and excessively complicated I lost all interest after number four. The writers have to keep tacking extra stuff on to the stories to eek every last ounce of life out of what was once a truly good and fairly straight-forward idea. This is probably my biggest problem with Paranormal Activity 2. The story of the first one is pretty simple: a couple (Micah and Katie, who return here) become the targets of some kind of evil spirit. That is pretty much it. Just a man and a woman, who have their lives disrupted by an evil spirit. There’s a brief scene that mentions Katie (played by Katie Featherston) also had similar things happen when she was younger, but that just serves as a little bit of extra intrigue, nothing more. The three new writers behind this sequel (that’s right, THREE different writers, Paramount Pictures take a bow) have basically taken that tiny scene and adapted a huge, grand story arc out of it, and it comes off as stupid, unnecessary and abundantly clear this was never on the agenda when original director Oren Peli penned the first one.

Paranormal Activity 2 is actually a prequel to the first film. The people being terrorised this time turn out to be Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), his sixteen-year-old daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim) and their new-born son Hunter (Some Baby). Similar odd things start happening around the house, and when they return to find the place completely torn apart one day, Daniel installs a number of high-tech CCTV cameras. It’s the footage from these we get to watch every night. And as you can imagine, the occurrences gradually get worse and worse.

Revealing exactly what the writers have done would be spoiling it, but it totally negates the minimalist, less-is-more style of the original. In exactly the same way as Saw (and another example I can think of is the TV show Lost), they add a bunch of extra crap to expand upon what we already have and it just feels fake and silly. As Lost kept going, season after season, everyone knew that all the complicated sub-plots and character twists we were having to keep track of each week were never supposed to exist when it was originally conceived, it’s whatever the writers could come up with to keep the damn thing going, and this film feels exactly the same. It really took me out of the movie.

In the first film, Micah just leaves his camera filming them in their room each night, because he only has the one camera. And that one shot, always in the same position, was really creepy and unnerving. Here we get to see every single room, and it totally looses the suspense and curiosity that that one static shot created before. You’d hear things being moved and thrown around downstairs, but we’d only see the couple sleeping, and when something did finally happen in that room, however miniscule, it was suspenseful and extraordinarily creepy. All of that suspense is now gone, because the cameras cycle from room to room, and as soon as it stays on a particular camera for longer than the rest you know something is about to happen. And in doing so, when it does, it has significantly less impact.

This leads me to the characters in the film. In Paranormal Activity, the couple start noticing strange things, Katie thinks it’s something supernatural while Micah is more sceptical, but being a technology-geek he sets up the camera to record everything anyway. He reviews the previous nights footage almost straight away, and when he sees their sheets move, and the door open and close on its own he’s pretty quickly convinced something serious is going on. Now in Paranormal Activity 2, we have a whole house full of people with strange things going on and 24 hour security cameras recording practically every inch of their home. When a pot drops off a hook in the kitchen on its own, and does so again right after Kristi replaces it (with her still in the room) you’d think they’d have a look at the CCTV footage right? Wrong. This really pissed me off as a viewer. I don’t care how sceptical you are about the existence of ghosts, if your wife says she put the pot on the hook and there was no way it could have fallen off on its own, you would look at the fucking cameras. What the hell have you got to lose? I can even buy into believing that a character like Daniel is so narrow-minded that he wouldn’t check the footage, but the other two chicks don’t either, and they’re pretty sure they’re being haunted from almost the start. If I thought a kitchen utensil moved on its own - and I knew it was on tape - I would be on that computer reviewing the footage faster than you could say ‘Poltergeist’. The footage is right there, fucking look at it already. They just don’t bother, and I found that unacceptable. Sure they do eventually, but that ain’t the point. If I’m to believe that these are real people they need to act like real people.

This film also suffers from the typical sequel trappings of everything being amped up this time around. Where we once had one camera in one room, we now have a whole mess of cameras in every single room. Where we had a man and a woman, we now have a man, woman, teenage daughter, baby and a dog. As you can imagine, the titular paranormal activity of the ghost is amplified too. Where the first flick succeeded was with its wonderful use of restraint. A faint shadow appearing in the bedroom or the door moving an inch was horribly unnerving. Now the ghost is locking them out of the house and picking the baby up out his crib. I will say a couple of the sequences are still pretty cool (a scene where every cupboard in the kitchen opens all at once was great), but they’re few and far between.

Aint it Cool NewsMassawrym said “The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series is nothing more than a cinematic supernatural WHERE’S WALDO.” (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/47160) And that is certainly true of number one. Thing is, I quite enjoyed searching around the screen for the tiniest of movements. This time I just sat there and waited because I knew something was coming, and it’d be abundantly clear when it did. The effect isn’t the same anymore. In upping the ante, they’ve lost what made the first flick really good.

And that’s about it really. The films best moment comes when we see Katie Featherston’s amazing jugs in a bikini, and I’m not kidding. The characters are so moronic in not looking at the footage that when they begin getting hurt I couldn’t have cared less. The whole ‘expanded story’ thing (that of course we’re supposed to believe was always present in the first one) builds to a climax in the third act that didn’t feel remotely authentic and left me disheartened that another original indie flick has now become another soul-less, dull franchise, appealing to stupid people and studio executive’s bank accounts alike.

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