Reeling It In: Dabbling in the paranormal

Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Paranormal Activity 2"

Ap Photo/Paramount Pictures
Ap Photo/Paramount Pictures
In this film publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, a scene is shown from "Paranormal Activity 2."

Paramount Pictures

1 hour, 31 minutes

There's something a little nerve-wracking about going to see a sequel when you haven't seen the original. With this week's "Paranormal Activity 2," I've done it twice in as many months, the first time being the Swedish thriller, "The Girl Who Played with Fire." Knowing what movie I was going to see this weekend, I finally had a friend of mine lay out the first "Paranormal Activity" beat for beat, and you know, it does sound pretty scary. So I had the ending spoiled -- at least I figured I wouldn't be going into the sequel blind.

I needn't have worried. While "Girl" was a film that needed some backstory, "Paranormal 2" has nothing other than style in common with it's predecessor. Should you rush out and see it? Well, maybe, maybe not, but at least it shouldn't be lack of foreknowledge that holds you back.

Dan and Kristi have a perfect life. Along with teen step-daughter Ali, the couple has just welcomed new baby Hunter into the fold. Living in their idyllic Southern California home with a nanny and a doting German shepherd, they would seem to have it made in the shade until, about a year after Hunter's birth, strange things start to happen. After an apparent break-in, Dan hires a security company to completely outfit the home with cameras, constantly recording and this footage, along with assorted hand-held "hey, smile, I'm filming you," shots are what make-up the entirety of the narrative. Over the course of a few months, things get weirder and weirder, eventually convincing both Ali and Kristi that something is seriously wrong. Is something stalking the family? Is Hunter in danger? The dog sure seems to think so.

It's hard to say too much about the film without spoiling it, but I think you get the gist. I have to say, I'm impressed with the level of tension and terror the filmmakers can evoke using little more than spooky sounds and some very rudimentary doors-closing-by-themselves-type special effects. I'm guessing that was what people liked about the first one, as well, and I'm doubly impressed that the studio resisted the urge to deliver a "Blair Witch 2" type of sequel, where the unique style was abandoned in favor of an idiotic story with big-budget production values.

Also unlike the original "Blair Witch," "Paranormal Activity 2" is a slow-build, its mostly stationary camera a welcome relief from the manic, jittery style usually associated with hand-held, "reality" based films. On the other hand, I can't say "Paranormal 2" even holds a camera to "The Blair Witch Project." For one, the earlier film has something about it that settles in the pit of your stomach and won't go away. There's real horror lurking just outside the tent, and it freaked me out. "Paranormal Activity" has a few good scares, and was enjoyable enough, but really it's just about a wealthy suburban family and something that goes bump in the night. Yes, it gets serious at the end, but it was nothing that caused me to lose any sleep.

I was interested in the story, and the acting was fine for most of the film. There're some nicely constructed family confrontations, but there was a major element of disbelief I was completely unable to suspend. OK, I get it, this is all found footage and what happened is "really real" somehow. But if that's true, why is it that the characters spend large amounts of time talking about deep family issues and dark family secrets with camera in one hand? It makes no sense that we would actually have these conversations on tape. I understand, some movies need a backstory, but as the writers are unable to properly introduce, nor wrap-up said backstory, I'd say the exposition is a complete wash. "Doesn't all this scary stuff happening now remind you of the vague and poorly described scary stuff that happened to us when we were kids?" Honestly? Who cares. And put down that camera when you talk to me!

Narrative details aside, I enjoyed most of the film, and did jump several times, along with most of the audience. Adding the character of the dog is a stroke of genius, the implication being that the German shepherd can see or sense the ghostly presence when no one else can. She and baby Hunter were my favorite parts of the movie -- the dog because she gives the film it's best moments of dread, and Hunter because he reminded me of my own 1-year-old, and I could only imagine how much fun that kid had on the set. Unlike some horror or violent action films where you wonder what effect the filming has on the child actors involved, "Paranormal Activity" would have seemed like nothing more than one long playdate for little Hunter.

On the other hand, the fact that I didn't feel the need to rush right to my daughter's crib to check on her when I got home suggests that maybe the scares in this movie don't settle as deeply as the filmmakers were hoping.

On most levels, "Paranormal Activity 2" is a success. A rousing, hair-raising success? No, but inoffensive and entertaining is enough for a pleasant fall evening. It may not keep you up nights, but it won't have you walking out, either.

Grade: B-

"Paranormal Activity 2" is rated R for language and brief violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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