In the history of Hollywood sequels to independent films, I'm not sure there are many masterpieces. But whatever you thought of the original Paranormal Activity, you must admit that the fact that its sequel is just as good is a rare treat. If the eternal mantra of the Hollywood sequel is "bigger is better," then Paranormal Activity 2 didn't have to go far to enlarge on the spare and sparse original; in essence, all the filmmakers have done is double the number of inhabitants in the haunted house. But along the way, they also flesh out questions you might have had from the first film and they accomplished this without taking anything away from what made that first film experience scary.
Paranormal Activity 2 begins a few months before the events of the first film, in a house that looks a lot like the one where the protagonists of that film, Micah and Katie, were terrorized. Perhaps that's not so strange, this is suburban Southern California after all. A family of four moves into the house: Katie's sister Kris, her husband Daniel, teen stepdaughter Ali, new-ish baby boy Hunter plus their German Shepherd, Abby. And, soon, they too are terrorized by increasingly sinister noises, moving objects and all manner of spooky things you should be familiar with.
Thanks to what appears to be a nasty break-in early in the film, the family splurges on six high-definition security cameras around the house, which increases their sense of ease, but is most beneficial for increasing the number of places that scares can happen. Other than the increase in coverage, reports of a budget nearly ten times that of the first film is staggering when you realize that Paranormal Activity 2 looks about the same. There is perhaps a bit more CGI this time around, but the series remains a very workhorse-like production, where simplicity is favored above all else.
Though the sequel essentially retreads the first film, Paranormal Activity 2 is better in a lot of ways. The new family is endearing in the short amount of time we are allowed to play voyeur in their lives before the haunting truly begins, and the fact that we get less time with the characters moves the film forward at a better pace and leaves less chance of their "faux verite" interactions to become grating. There are more scares this time around, and surely they will be best experienced in a theater, but the scares are also more complex and often rely on our knowledge of the first film. You can see this entry independently, but the films work better in tandem.
There was a pretty harsh divide last year between audiences who enjoyed the naturalistic feel of Paranormal Activity's ghost story and those who focused on the lack of big scare scenes. Here again, there are going to be those who claim the sequel is boring and nothing happens, but they can't fool me: I was there and everyone in the audience was fixed to the screen. I've never seen a crowd of teenagers sit so still during protracted silences and long scenes without pay-off.
I don't mean to overemphasize the atmospheric nature of the film; the scary moments are not particularly psychological in nature, and we are still talking loud noises and jump scares, but the atmosphere is slower and less reliant on mile-a-minute jump cuts, flashes of light and rock music. You know something bad is going to happen, and Paranormal Activity 2 teaches you to wait for it. That your average movie-going audience would be okay with "waiting for it" is an anomaly in the age of overstimulation, and if its success inspires more big-budget horror producers to explore a more deliberate pace, then the Paranormal Activity series might turn out to be the best thing to happen to the horror industry in years.
Cross-posted at Ornery-Cosby.