I’ve learned not to expect too much from horror sequels. Last week, after all, I watched Lost Boys: The Thirst, and I don’t need to write a review to tell you how that one turned out. And anyone remember Blair Witch 2, which was much slicker than the original but which took that franchise into a quick tailspin from which it never recovered? That’s what I was expecting with Paranormal Activity 2.
But surprise! I absolutely loved this movie.
For starters, it took what we loved from the original film (the do-it-yourself handheld videotaping, the young couple who cannot escape the “paranormal activity” haunting them) and improved upon it. In this sequel, we’ve got handheld cameras, yes, but the film offers dozens of additional security cameras throughout the house; some are more prominently used than others, but the storytelling is much more fluid because we are able to see so much, to move from room to room without any difficulty. Also, whereas the first film focused on a young couple in a big house, the sequel gives us a complete family (husband, wife, young girl, newborn boy, dog), which automatically makes the entire situation Poltergeist-tense, and we also get a house that feels a thousand times too large for the family. Sometimes horror films succeed because of claustrophobia; in this case, though, the movie succeeds because of emptiness, the feeling that there is just so much space all around you that could be haunted, and there’s no way to get away from it all.
But the other great thing about this film is that it actually builds upon the story of the original, clarifying and sharpening the background, history, and overall conflict. It’s a prequel, sort of, and we actually see the characters from the original appear at various points throughout the film. We even come to understand how/when certain events in this film happen in relation to events in the original (much like Back to the Future II, where Marty McFly actually sees scenes from the first film happening in front of him).
My main gripe with the original film, in fact, was that it had an “easy” ending. The story had built and built, and really, the filmmakers saw no other way to end the thing except to suddenly give us a possession and a death. That movie (I argued) failed in the final frame because it forgot the motivation behind the demon at the center of the haunting. Sounds strange, I know. But the demon has a motivation for haunting the couple. And if the demon wanted to kill either of them, it could have killed them in the first scene. So why wait until an hour and a half of footage had elapsed? And if the demon wanted to possess the girl, why hadn’t it done so years earlier? Why wait? No, the movie actually told us (and The Exorcist used this same motivation for its demon) that the haunting was all about fear and terror, making someone’s life terrible. Why was a young girl possessed in The Exorcist? Because the devil wanted to be a dick. And you know what? That’s an excellent motivation.
So I loved the original, but hated the ending. Here, however, the story actually reveals a different motivation for the demon. And, just as in the movie Poltergeist, we come to know exactly why this family is being haunted. And this ties together brilliantly with the reason for the haunting of the young couple from the original. It would have been easy for this sequel to just give us a completely different couple in, say, North Carolina, and to just start a series of films about random unrelated hauntings…it still could have made a lot of money. But the film builds on the original, and actually makes the original into a better movie. The final scene in Paranormal Activity 2 is every bit as scary as the first, but it left me uneasy long afterwards, rather than leaving me questioning the entire premise.
It’s also important for me to note (because this is what I always do) that this series is shaping up to be the ultimate example of Millennial Literature. It’s a story crafted by the participants (handheld cameras, security cameras, etc.), and it’s all at once slick and well-produced, but still grainy and throwback, as if it’s just a bit disgusted with CGI. What makes it such an interesting example of Millennial Literature, though, is that so many movies and TV shows appeal to the youth generation by growing ever-louder, by jump-cutting epileptically, and the Paranormal Activity films are quiet, slow, still; they use silence and motionless images to capture our attention, rather than shouting at us. Quite the contrast to the average Millennial-targeted blockbuster.