PARANORMAL ACTIVITY isn’t really a movie and you have to understand that before you see or evaluate it. It is a roller coaster ride that, for it to produce its desired effect, must be experienced in a movie theater with a huge and energized crowd. It is unique in that regard and there are few films out there that depend as much on audience participation (NOTE: the same can arguably be said of AVATAR, which I cannot imagine seeing for the first time on a small screen by myself). PARANORMAL ACTIVITY scared the absolute living shit out of me when I saw it last year with a sold out college crowd in Santa Cruz at the Del Mar theater. Without a doubt, it was and still remains the scariest movie I have ever seen and I don’t mean scary in the sense that it produced cheap thrills by showing some monster suddenly appearing from the side of your screen. The film frightened me in the truest sense, which is to say that upon returning from my screening that night I, a 35 year old grown man, was afraid to turn my light off before going to bed. When it was announced that a sequel to the hit film would be coming out the following year, I wasn’t surprised in the least bit, but I was disappointed nonetheless and I shrugged it off as being a marketing driven recycled remake aimed to reproduce the financial success of the first one. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT came out and it spawned an awful piece of shit of a sequel a year later. I got burned that time and I had no intention of getting burned again. Well, to my surprise, when PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 came out last week, instead of receiving an expected critical drubbing, the critics actually kinda dug it with some even venturing to proclaim that it surpassed the first one!

Given such praise, how can you NOT be just a little curious? So against my better judgment, I went out to see PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 and suffice it to say that I will never again doubt my hunch for as long as I live. This sequel is a complete rehash of the first film with barely an attempt to differentiate it from its predecessor other than looking a little more polished due to its higher studio budget. However, no matter how much you polish a turd, its still a turd. What’s more, although PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 looks, smells, and feels like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, it completely lacks the masterful pacing and foreboding atmosphere of the original.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has a very simple premise. It is about a young couple (Katie & Micah) whose house is terrorized by a demon. During the course of that movie, we discover that the demon used to haunt Katie when she was young and he/it has now followed her to her new house in San Diego. [SPOILER WARNING] The original film ends with the demon-possessed Katie killing Micah [END OF SPOILER]. Now we have PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, which is not really a sequel but a prequel. The film takes place shortly before the events of the original film and it centers on Katie’s sister, Kristi, and her family, who live just around the corner from Katie’s suburban San Diego home. The film opens to Kristi bringing her newborn son, Hunter, home from the hospital. Through a series of clips, we fast forward through the first few months of Hunter’s life. One day the family returns home to discover their house completely ransacked. They assume they have been burglarized (or have they?) and hire a home security company to install security cameras all over the house (you see where this is going?). As is to be expected, the family soon begins to experience strange activities inside their house. They initially attribute these occurrences to everyday sorts of explanations, but the frequency and nature of the activities makes them eventually realize that what they are experiencing is otherworldly.

The beauty of Oren Peli’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY lies in its intricate and manipulative pacing. The film quietly builds to a crescendo without missing a single beat. It deliberately eases the audience from tiny, barely noticeable touches of paranormal activity to a cacophony of sheer terror. Each time the story enters into night and the camera lays pointed stationary at the couple sleeping in bed, a dread spreads over us because we know something is about to happen. The director does such a great job in creating a foreboding atmosphere that even the smallest hints of ghostly activity manages to set us off and give us goosebumps. I take offense to those who unfairly deride PARANORMAL ACTIVITY as a gimmicky sibling to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Although I also enjoyed THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, that film relied much more on the gimmickry of a hand-held first-person perspective and the marketing of the film as being a true story (which it was not) to create its effect. What’s more, when you get down to it, the majority of that film’s running time consists of little more than a few friends bantering around and trying to figure out how to get back to civilization. The amateurishness of the filmmakers’ skills is clearly evidenced by their lack of pacing and build-up. Its as if they came up with a very cool idea without being able to figure out what the story surrounding that idea would be so they simply created a bunch of filler to while away the time before the shocking ending. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is much more than that. The director judiciously and efficiently utilizes every inch of celluloid to build up his story and to affect his audience.

With PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, director Tod Williams makes a fruitless attempt to give his audience more of the same of what we saw in the original. What Williams completely fails to realize is that the mere use of amateur-style home footage and suggestive horror (i.e. not showing the monster, but instead allowing the audience to use its imagination), without more, is not a recipe for success. Worse, upping the production budget of this film undermines the entire effect of the original film. To his credit, Williams seems to comprehend that the success of the original depended on the right atmosphere and a gradual build-up of tension. The problem, however, lies in his seeming inability to recreate that in his movie. Granted, I did not see PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 in a crowded movie theater, which takes a lot away from the film’s overall effect. Nevertheless, never once was I scared during the entire duration of the movie. For one, Williams wastes an inordinately large amount of time setting up his characters, none of who are likable in any way. The husband and wife lack the humor and chemistry that the couple from the first movie had. In fact, Kristi and Dan, her husband, reminded me very much of my obnoxious neighbors so it was virtually impossible for me to empathize with them in any way. Moreover, including a dog and a baby doesn’t somehow make for a scarier movie. Williams included these characters because he probably thought that putting a baby and a dog in danger ups the tension and by increasing the tension, the film is more frightening. I agree that the inclusion of a pet and a baby connects better emotionally with an audience and thus, it creates stronger tension with the audience. However, tension and fear are two separate concepts and tension does not necessarily beget fear. Overall, by creating unmemorable and unlikeable characters, the movie drags slowly during its first ¼ running time.

Once the paranormal occurrences begin to haunt the family, I looked forward to seeing them because it served as a nice change of pace from the slow start of the movie. That is not a good sign for any film. In contrast, the director did such a good job in building atmosphere and tension in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, that instead of looking forward to the inevitable supernatural scenes, I was actually dreading them. Here, by failing to properly set up the first act with good characters, atmosphere, and pacing, the subsequent supernatural scenes fall flat and whatever scares they may produce out of the audience is in the form of cheap thrills that you see in 99.9% of horror movies.

If there is one overarching criticism of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, it is the justification the characters have for always having their video camera with them. The premise of the movie is set up so that the audience sees only what the characters recorded. Given the filmmaker is obviously trying to tell a story, all the pertinent footage must somehow be recorded by the characters. This narrative device has been used many times in recent films (i.e. BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, CLOVERFIELD) and it’s a constant thorn in a filmmaker’s side to constantly come up with valid excuses for his characters to keep their video cameras on record. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY contained a number of scenes that required the audience to stretch its sense of credulity, especially in those scenes where there is no fucking way any person who is scared shitless would remember to bring their camera along. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 addresses this shortcoming by combining hand-held camera footage with security monitors throughout the house. The film still contains a few scenes that defy plausibility as to when a character uses a camera (i.e. when Dan goes down with his camera to the dark and creepy basement to find his baby), but I felt it better handled this narrative problem than the first movie did.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 may be a movie that should have never been. It’s a studio’s clear attempt to catch lightening in a bottle twice and we all know that rarely, if ever, happens. For all its worth, despite a higher budget, the filmmakers were at least smart enough to recognize that a sequel that hems close to the original is far more preferable than one that completely overhauls every aspect of the original (i.e. BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2). Nevertheless, it falls far short of the ‘event’-like buzz the first movie created. This film reminds me of someone trying to resuscitate a loved one, only to end up creating a Frankenstein version of the original. I’ve seen much worse horror film sequels than PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, but I have also seen much better ones than this dreck.