Well over a week has passed since "Paranormal Activity 2" opened in theaters and dominated the box office before stepping aside for the behemoth known as "Saw 3D." But since I discovered the first Paranormal Activity on a screener provided for me just prior to its under-the-radar arrival at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2008, I can't let the latest installment in this homemade franchise slip past without comment. "Paranormal Activity" was a low budget horror movie that not only looked cheap but embraced its cheapness, using the power of suggestion and the intimacy of fabricated home video footage to create a truly creepy atmosphere. Its primary allure came from the attentiveness to audience engagement demonstrated by director Oren Peli. The lesson, especially once Dreamworks/Paramount bought the movie, was both obvious and valuable: Effective shock tactics don't require big budgets.
However, the opening seconds of "Paranormal Activity 2," which I greatly enjoyed, announces its industry clout. A title card explains that Paramount would like to thank "the families of the deceased," setting the stage for the morbid story that follows, and continuing the found footage illusion that gave the first installment such an unsettling naturalistic kick. Now, that naturalistic kick belongs to Paramount.
Thankfully, the DIY aesthetic has migrated into the mainstream, rather than vica versa. Like the first movie, "Paranormal Activity 2" relies on the visceral impact of slow-build sequences that culminate in sudden, jarring moments, a tactic theoretically pioneered by producer Val Lewton more than seventy years ago in the famous bus scene of "Cat People." But it also plays with the off-the-cuff nature of home video footage by placing the characters in close quarters that both familiarizes us with them and makes us fear for their lives. The tension is at once old school and new. In that sense, "Paranormal Activity" has successfully invaded the blockbuster arena by upending expectations of the studio horror film while reaffirming familiar scare tactics.
The "Paranormal Activity" formula provides the best opportunity to engineer audience reactions this side of Tyler Perry (The crowd for "Paranormal Activity 2" went wild at the screening I attended, and at one point a woman in front of me shouted, "They're buggin'! I'm buggin'!") Beyond the physical result of Tod Williams's direction, however, the sequel also taps into a certain kind of eeriness implicit in the threat to suburban domesticity, which was precisely what made "Poltergeist" so frightening back in the day. The images of ghostly things only have permanence because their targets seem so tragically incapable of defending themselves. One ill-fated character in "Paranormal Activity 2," unaware of his impending doom, jokes to his friends about the bumps in the night: "We can't let this affect us. We do that and the terrorists win." Or, rather, the audience does.
The sequel has mythological dimensions that, while borrowing a page from Sam Raimi's superior "Drag Me to Hell," smartly offer an explanation for the events of the first movie. Now that the studio has made its imprint on the "Paranormal" legacy, it's nice to see that the first time out wasn't just a tryout.