Conventional wisdom regarding movie sequels dictates that they are rarely if ever good when they're created with the express intention of reprising the financial success of a popular film. And given that Paranormal Activity was one of the most popular horror films of the 2000s, as well as one of the most profitable movies ever made based on return investment -- with a budget of $15,000, it went on to make a 1,333,333 percent profit -- it will be difficult to convince many prospective viewers that Paranormal Activity 2 is not merely an "obligatory sequel" to a holy cash cow, the kind whose financiers would never risk in any way altering lest they not see astronomical capital gains. But rest assured this is not the case.
Even if the sequel does constitute something of a rehash of the original's premise -- a horror mockumentary whose "footage" is provided by diegetic cameras -- it is also, undoubtedly, one of the most ingenious rehashes in film history: while, in the first installment, our protagonist Katie's boyfriend buys a video camera to film them sleeping in the hopes of assuaging her worries that their house is haunted, in the sequel (actually a prequel), her sister, Kristin, who has just become a mother, mistakes what is quite obviously the handiwork of a nefarious poltergeist for that of burglars so she and husband hire a security firm to install a comprehensive system of hidden cameras throughout her home, offering the viewer six strategic vantage points to Paranormal Activity's one. This judicious tweaking by the filmmakers of the original's premise serves to refine more than diminish and, despite their comparatively bloated budget, they manage to preserve its effectively creepy D.I.Y. aesthetic.
Through a combination of alternately claustrophobic and eerily spacey cinematography, naturalistic, almost deadpan acting and an affectless sound mix with no score, the filmmakers produce in their audience an unbearable tension, and then perpetually tease them with promises of its release. Needless to say, this is not an action-packed, scream-a-minute, ultra-kinetic horror film, but rather, seventy slow-burning minutes of what can only be described as the cinematic equivalent of psychological torture, followed by an equally gruelling twenty-minute dénouement which, while thoroughly terrifying, consists of no bloody screaming boogie monsters or nightmarish evisceration. While this is most definitely a horror film, it will not appeal to those viewers with very specific expectations of what a horror film should be -- but, of course, it will still scare them. Case in point: one of the biggest frights in the film consists of a pan falling from a hook. The majority of audience members with whom I saw the film gasped when this happened, and then proceeded to laugh with what seemed like derision. But isn't it more likely that their laughter was provoked not by the absurdity of the film, but by the absurdity of their being genuinely scared by a pan falling from a hook?
Some of the most effectively terrifying scenes in Paranormal Activity 2 depict not the chimeric, fear-inducing stuff of nightmares, but rather, fear itself: believable characters experiencing the understandable fear of nothing in particular, of being alone, of the unknowable and the unseeable, of mere suggestion. The film's characters are skeptical and discerning until the very end: only until the film's final twenty minutes does its black magic ever preclude the possibility that Kristin's torment cannot be explained away by white science as merely a symptom of Postpartum depression. And since the film's demon is never seen in the light -- lest it cease to be scary -- the house itself, with its creaks and groans and draughts, becomes a monolith of fear, an effect achieved in concert with the surveillance gimmick. For example, by arranging the security cameras in such a way that the viewer never sees the home's perpetually darkened basement, but only its entrance, the filmmakers both exploit and exacerbate the audience's preexisting fear of basements, to the point where the basement itself becomes a veritable domain of fear. So it didn't surprise me that some of my fellow audience members actually screamed at the sight of Kirstin simply opening the basement door and walking down the steps -- of course, before laughing at what a stupid film they were watching.