Last year’s “Paranormal Activity,” a down-and-dirty little horror film about a suburban home, a couple and the evil spirit that shared the place with them, was the first and only time I have ever heard anyone actually scream in a theatre. I don’t mean a quiet whimper followed by an embarrassed laugh or a frightened little squeal. No, I mean a full-on, open throated howl of terror. The movie was leave-the-lights-on scary, and like other left-field horror hits “The Blair Witch Project” and “Night of the Living Dead” it was cheap to make and really profitable, so of course there had to be a sequel (or, in this case, a prequel). The question is, will the prequel be as good as “Dawn of the Dead,” (that’s “Night of the Living Dead’s” astonishingly nasty follow-up) or will it mirror the ill-fated “Blair Witch” model and tarnish the movie’s good name?
Director Tod Williams (replacing series originator Oren Peli) doesn’t stray too far from the kind of thrills and chills that turned the first film into a box office juggernaut. Call it Three Demons and a Baby if you like, but the main differences are the addition of a baby and a dog who scraps with a demon. Here’s the rundown. After experiencing what looks like a home invasion—a family’s house is torn apart while they are out—the sister of the woman from part one comes to the conclusion that perhaps a demon is terrorizing her home. Instead of calling Father Karras or Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer, she decides to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. It doesn’t.
Sound familiar? Sure does, it echoes the first film so closely you may experience déjà vu as you watch “Paranormal Activity 2.” Like the first one the story is told through “found footage,” in this case a combo of home movies made by the family and surveillance footage. Imagine a mix of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and a CNN crime report and you get the idea. The look of the movie goes a long way in creating the tension that propels the scares. The setting is so ordinary—it takes place inside a regular looking suburban house—and we’re so used to watching this kind of camerawork that the mix of the supernatural and the ordinary makes for some very tense moments. And there are more tense moments than anything else.
The movie is all build-up. It’s an old-fashioned scare-fest where the tension comes from the expectation that at any moment all hell (literally) could break loose. Nothing much happens for the first half-an-hour and the movie is literally at the hour mark before anything of note happens. Mostly it is low-fi thrills—a loud bang here, a slamming door there—and one of the first signs of demonic possession, a frisky pool cleaner, is almost played for laughs. It is creepy, however. The absence of music lends an eerie feel to the film which makes up for some of the epic silliness of the plot like the mumbo jumbo about a malevolent spirit that haunted the movie’s female characters when they were young. Also this family spends more time behind the camera than Haskell Wexler and it is never explained why these people feel they have to record every moment of their lives.
“Paranormal Activity 2” isn’t as scream-your-guts-out scary as the first one. It couldn’t be, we know what to expect the second time around, but it is good sorta-spine-chilling Halloween fun.