Despite spawning two sequels and several patchy imitators 1999’s dizzy nano-budget hit The Blair Witch Project – which infamously wooed audiences with close up-shots of a snotty nosed woman mumbling panicked gibberish – was widely regarded as a creative and financial once-off. That proved true, at least for ten years, because it took more than a decade for a film of comparable content to achieve comparable commercial success.
That film was Paranormal Activity (2009). Its story, if a film that consisted of paranoid characters following themselves around with camcorders can be considered such, captured a couple who got the bejesus scared out of them in a haunted house and – as you do, perhaps motivated by posterity or a desire to eventually encounter footage worthy of Funniest Home Videos – decided to film every moment of their locked-in-hell predicament.
Buoyed by an effective viral campaign and a cleverly staggered American distribution strategy, in which the film trickled into cinemas and audiences felt privileged simply to see it, Paranormal Activity scored big at the box office.
In director Todd Williams’s sequel, a nuclear family of the white picket middle/upper class variety also grapple with a cranky spirit that stomps up and down stairs, slams doors and when so inclined hurls the characters around like scraps of meat.
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At the beginning of the film the family – which includes a young teenager and a toddler – return home to find their swanky house trashed. Nothing is stolen except a family heirloom. They fit the house with security cameras. The ghost is undeterred by their technical improvements.
There is something undeniably effective about the premise underlining both Paranormal Activity films. The concept relies on supernatural forces interacting with household objects – a mixture of the physical and the intangible, of the prosaic and the perplexing, of fear that manifests itself in simple ways: a door opening and slamming, a pan falling from its hook, a cold chill on the couch.
Paranormal Activity 2 should have been applauded for its minimalistic approach were it not crassly employed and devoid of psychological edge. The relationship between fear and suspense and physical objects can be traced endlessly throughout cinema history, commonplace items seen or unseen representing far more than their literal qualities in enigmatic or profound ways in films such as Citizen Kane (1941) and The Bicycle Thief (1948) right through to The Box (2009) and Inception (2010). The Paranormal Activity films grab onto household items like leeches to flesh, but they get the balance confused, emphasising the item and not the effect, the symbol and not the psychology.
The special effects are increased a little this time around but are still very modest by Hollywood standards. Williams’s grasp of verisimilitude tends to break down whenever the characters respond to the scariest moments of their lives by grabbing the camera and zooming in on nothing in particular; why they would lunge for the camera and not run for the door is of course a matter of disbelief suspension, but it feels particularly silly given Paranormal Activity 2 expends considerable energy establishing the characters’ home security cameras, which represent a good chunk of the audience’s POV.
A bolder and more impressive achievement would have been to have had the entire film comprised of home security footage, and there are a gazillion ways Williams could have twisted this to his advantage. Instead he opts for spitting distance handheld shots and tries to have his cake and eat it too. Without the foundations of a good story or interesting characters, the film goes ass up and the ending descends in a bad, silly funk, in which the characters become token objects and the ghost annoys a great deal more than it scares.
Paranormal Activity 2’s Australian theatrical release date: October 22, 2010.