The UK press screening of Paranormal Activity 2 was taking place this evening. However, I knew that I could go and see it with the public earlier in the day, right here in Oxford and without a phalanx of notepad scribblers scrit-scritching around me. Obviously, I was going to opt for the latter option.
And I don't regret it. Watching a big room stuffed full of hooded teenagers and 20-something couples all on the verge of complete incontinence bordered on the hilarious.
But how about the film itself? Here are Five Things I want to tell you about Paranormal Activity 2.
1. The Trailer Lies To You
On seeing the first trailer for this follow-up, I was immediately impressed and definitely intrigued. I ran a round up of several easter eggs that could be found within it – though, to be fair to myself, I did say a number of them could be red herrings. Now… I don't want to spoil it for you, but there are things in that trailer which aren't in the film.
And – and this is the interesting thing, if you think about it – there are things not in the trailer which are in the film.
2. It's A Family Affair
Without going back and watching the first film again (beyond the call of duty, maybe?) I can't really confirm if all of the cross-overs between the two movies actually make full and proper sense, but the general idea is a good one. The main characters this time are the sister, brother in law, nephew and, as they have it, step-niece of Katie Featherston from part one. These guys have got their own house, and their own haunting.
But it's not just a coincidence. Here's a basic spoiler for you, in inviso-text:
This is, in essence, a prequel. Not only do we get some fluffy back story (eg. when Micah fell in love with the idea of getting a video camera) we also get a pretty solid new reading of just how and why Katie became possessed in the first place. One little detail in this matter is almost thrown away, but could have implications to sustain another episode. I can't wait to see how the Japanese side-story fits in with all of this.
Now, all of that is quite fun but it actually cuts a little deeper. There's some attempt made to engage with notions of family, family loyalties and their working mechanics. Dare I say it, this film has a few mouthfuls of thematic meat on its bones between all of the I'm Gonna Frit Ya business.
3. Real People
When the first film came along, one of its marketing tricks was that the lead actor and actress had allowed the use of their own names for the characters. Not so with the new characters. For example, Katie's fictional sister Kristy is played by Sprague Grayden, who has had a number of TV roles and is moderately recognisable.
Was there ever any illusion that the first film was in someway "real"? I'd imagine not, so I don't think there could really be too much harm in casting experienced performers with tip-of-my-tongue names and seen-you-somewhere faces. Audiences get caught up in Tom Cruise films (well, sometimes) so I can't see Ms. Grayden causing them too many issues.
Having said that, I did appreciate how normal Micah and Katie were allowed to look. They were fresh and alive and, frankly, refreshing. I'd also say that Katie was far more attractive than the typical scrubbed-down and spray-painted actress we see in horror movies, not to mention infinitely more relatable. Thankfully, the cast this time seem pretty authentic too.
Also feeling unexpectedly authentic were some of the more important scenes, those in which big revelations occur. It would have been the kiss of death for any of this to be overplayed, but it most certainly is not. When Kristy's husband is presented with some pretty shocking evidence of, if you'll excuse me, paranormal activity, his reaction is both written and played in a way that has the ring of truth.
4. Old Dog, New Tricks
There was one particularly sweet little conceit in the first film whereby we would regularly be introduced to "bedroom camera" footage only to see it play in rapid fast forward. Then, it would return to normal speed and we were given our cue that something spooky was about to happen. For the first half, or so, this sequel eschews this conceit, and instead, we simply cut between the cameras in the house in a series of real-time episodes, never quite sure when the next big Boo! will happen.
Later on, there's a couple of moments in which the fast forward is employed, but it's never used unless beneficial and it's certainly no longer the default. Instead, the slow but steady cutting between the various different cameras helps keep the audience on their toes. The bigger, better Boo! moments are all the more fun because they can happen when they haven't been too clearly signposted.
There's a far greater amount of hand-held camera work in this film too, and the big climax hinges on it. Thankfully, the camera is operated with a high degree of plausibility, and that's not always the way in these handicam movies.
5. Some Things Are Just Creepy
There are a good number more tropes of the traditional ghost story at play in this sequel. We go way beyond the simple, narrow set of spooky set-ups in the first film to include a far greater range of creepy conventions:
Kids that see things adults can't see. Animals disturbed by something that we can't see. Something in the mirror that catches a baby's eye and holds its attention. Faustian deals. Parallels between real life upsets and tensions and their possible paranormal manifestations. Creepy nursery music. Dark basements. Curses passed down the family line.
The creaking floorboards, ouija board and slamming doors of the original are back too, but often played in a slightly different fashion.
Ultimately, Paranormal Activity 2 is a richer, more multi-layered film than the last time around, with a more involving plot and less internal repetition. Nonetheless, the novelty has worn off and for many, I think one visit from the Featherston demon will have been enough.