Sequels are rough waters to navigate. Ideally they need to accomplish two things: enhance, expand, and support the world of the original and still stand on its own as an individual film. If you’ve ever seen a sequel that does too much of the former without any attempt at the latter, you get a pandering sequel that feels completely unnecessary; a la The Ring 2. If the movie missteps in the opposite direction, the sequel will seem so severed from the original and you will be left wondering why it bears the same name; the woe bore by the likes of 30 Days of Night: Dark Days. Whether you loved, loathed, or were indifferent towards the first Paranormal Activity, it’s hard to deny that its follow-up succeeds in both criteria.
The universe of the first Paranormal Activity is expanded by the sequel in ways far more significant than just making the protagonist Katie’s sister. The playful chronology actually weaves the events of the sequel in with those of the first brilliantly and effectively makes Paranormal Activity 2 simultaneously a sequel and a prequel. It also enhances the first one by adding an interesting subtext to the paranormal events of both films so that the original no longer appears as a random haunting, but instead hints at the tale of a cursed family whose misfortune dates back generations. The ending, just before the violent epilogue, beautifully bridges the two films and there are even foreshadowing clues delicately placed throughout the sequel that make the connection feel organic and not at all forced.
But given all these methods by which Paranormal Activity 2 strengthens, explains, and expands the first film, on its own it is a solid haunted house flick. It establishes its own voice in a number of interesting ways. The first is that the ghostly-besieged young couple is replaced with an entire family unit. While a seemingly easy plot alteration, it provides for a truly impressive augmentation of the stakes. In the original, Micah and Katie are likable enough that we would rather not see a malevolent demon rend them limb from limb, and therefore the stakes are established. But when you add in an innocent baby and a loyal dog, a basic component of human empathy is triggered and it makes any scene wherein there is even the suggestion of peril for these two all the more effective.
Another way in which it establishes a unique voice is the way in which it plays with expectations. As with the first, an unnerving, low frequency rumble heralds the arrival of the demon presence. But in Paranormal Activity 2, that presence can manifest in the day time as well as the night. So no longer is are the frights relegated to the distinctive blue/gray night photography, but can appear at any given instant; the audience’s safety net torn away. I know my friend and colleague Peter Hall must have been pleased with this addition as he is an ardent supporter of daylight horror. After the way in which it’s used in this film, I am inclined to share his idiosyncratic passion.
Paranormal Activity 2 carried in tow a host of trepidations. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the original for its strong concept and low budget, I was wary of the idea of having that concept either a) lost in aggressive sequel one-upsmanship or b) spread too thin and losing its intensity. But in fact, the concept is only slightly improved upon (closed-circuit cameras installed throughout the house after a break-in replacing the single hand-held) and not spread thin at all (the scare ratio is fairly equivalent in both frequency and effectiveness). The last shot of the film wraps up both entries nicely and adds a definite note of concrete story-telling to what could have very easily just been another gimmick horror film. Judging by the original ending of Paranormal Activity that was binned before it hit theaters, I can’t believe that the writers had the second chapter in mind when scribing the first, but there is nevertheless a terrifying uniformity to the pair. In summation, Paranormal Activity 2 is scary as hell, just as was the first.
The Upside: Well paced, frightening, stand-alone haunted house film that strengthens the original so well that it may be argued to improve upon it
The Downside: Still not going to be your bag if you didn’t like the first film.