Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

A few weeks ago, Hatchet II came out with a big push among the internet horror community to "support unrated horror." Personally, I think supporting scary horror sounds like a better way to go so I'm throwing my endorsement behind Paranormal Activity 2, one of the scariest horror movies to come along since, well, Paranormal Activity.

A common refrain among the positive reviews for this sequel is "I didn't expect this to be any good, but..." and I've got to say the same. Upfront, this movie had a very high likelihood to suck. The idea of a quick, cash-grab sequel to an out-of-nowhere indie hit reeked too much of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), a movie justly regarded as an instant franchise-killer and just a shit movie altogether. Happily, the team behind Paranormal Activity 2 are clearly a smart bunch who aimed to not repeat the mistakes of that film.

Original PA director, Oren Peli, returned as a producer and the new film's director Tod Williams (The Door In The Floor) and screenwriter Michael R. Perry (a TV writer who contributed to such '90s series as Millennium and Freakylinks) have proved to be completely in synch with the aesthetic established by Peli in the first film. The difference between the two films, from a production standpoint, is virtually imperceptible. Whatever minimal jump up in budget this sequel had has allowed children and dogs to be incorporated into the mix (child and animal actors being wild card factors that a low budget film would usually want to avoid) but other than that, Paranormal Activity 2 uses the same low tech cinematic tools found in the original.

As with Peli's film, Paranormal Activity 2 again demonstrates how effective the simplest scares are if they're executed the right way. A slamming door or a child's mobile moving on its own can be hair-raising if it's part of a story that the audience is engaged in. While some viewers will carp - as they did with Blair Witch - that there's nothing scary about these movies because they aren't explicit, it's heartening to me that so many people have embraced them. It's a sign that everyone isn't completely numb to the old-school appeal of things that go bump in the night.

The story of PA 2, admirably kept under wrap right up until its release, is more of a prequel than a sequel. Rather than focusing on just a tormented couple, here it's a married couple, along with their teen daughter from the father's previous marriage and a new baby that's just being brought home as the film begins. For those who found Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston to be an unlikeable pair, the family at the heart of PA 2 might be more appealing. I understood how Sloat's character rubbed people the wrong way - by design, he was generally a complete ass. But whether the filmmakers were deliberately responding to audience criticism of the first film or not, the family that PA 2 focuses on is extremely likable - even the teenage daughter, a character that would usually be a source of annoyance.

Just to note - once again, we're dealing with people that live well outside the income range of most Americans (this family has enough bread to have a live-in nanny) but outside of making me wonder why horror has inexplicably gotten away from depicting working class, or even middle-class, characters, I have to concede that the actors here are able to sell their characters as accessible, down-to-earth people.

In seeing how effortlessly PA 2 gets us involved with its well-off characters, I flashed back on William Friedkin's botched return to horror, The Guardian (1990). With Friedkin's film, one of the reasons why it didn't work was that as soon as you have a family rich enough to be hiring nannies, it's hard for everyone across the board to naturally empathize with them. These aren't the people next door.

At the time of The Guardian's release, Friedkin stated that horror doesn't work unless it's a blue collar thing and I guess he thought his characters were close enough to qualify as working stiffs but they didn't and Friedkin didn't find a way to make their troubles relatable. PA 2 doesn't have that problem. I'd be very surprised to read even negative reviews of PA 2 that cite the cast as a detriment to the movie.

The escalation of events in PA 2 and how things line up with the original is best left for audiences to discover on their own. I will say I was surprised at how gracefully it all came together, especially for a film that likely involved as much improvisation as this - and that was under the gun to be made quickly, to boot. A lot of films and TV shows today are all about building a mythology and that's something that usually puts me off as it seldom feels like organic storytelling. Here, though, I'd almost be willing to believe that Peli had it all planned from the start.

Speaking of Peli, I've got to say how much I like the fact that I know so little about him. Over the last decade or so, there's been a rise of horror filmmakers who've made a career out of working the horror community. Above whatever other skills they might have, they're experts at selling themselves to the horror fanbase. They say all the right things in interviews (fans eat it up like dogs if they think a filmmaker is speaking their language) and they're tight with all the right people within the online press. Basically, their thing is that they're "one of us." And that would be fine - if their movies were better. In light of that, I find it refreshing - and telling - that Peli doesn't pander at all to the fan community (I can't even recall reading a single interview with him in Fango or Rue Morgue) and yet he makes movies that are actually scary. Which, to my mind, is what someone who really knows horror ought to be doing. Call me crazy.

As you might expect, the ending of PA 2 is left open for a sequel (although off-hand I can't think of too many horror movies that don't naturally allow for a sequel). I'm not sure if I want to see the story continue but then again, I said the same thing after the first film. Whether they go ahead with a third installment or not, PA 1 and 2 can be safely regarded as one of the best one-two punches in horror history.


Alexi Frest said...

This films seems to be fun... I'm avid to see it.

Jen said...

Great review! It is the first one I have read for this film and it has me actually excited to see it 9which I am going to do today.)

Jeff Allard said...

Mina, Jen - thanks for the comments. Hope you like the movie!

Anonymous said...

And yours is the review I've been waiting to sway my decision. Great review and I'm going to see it tomorrow.

By the looks or sound of it, it does appear that the made the characters more likeable on purpose. Just my feeling. And that's great because that was a minor detraction for me in the first film.

Sarah said...

I've been hard-pressed lately to think of too many films that feature working class or lower/lower middle class characters. Middle class or upper middle class is through the roof, but it is getting more noticeable, particularly in the Bay-produced remakes.

I have an uneasiness towards directors who want to come off as fanboys, so it is probably a good thing that I don't read too many popular horror news sites. Yeah, Eli Roth knows his stuff, but I have yet to like or enjoy any of his movies.

Unless I hear something that really bowls me over, I will wait for the PA2 DVD. I was not a fan of the first film. But I'm glad that the characters in this are more likable. I do not want to deal with another Micah character.

Jeff Allard said...

Cortez, I hope you won't feel I steered you wrong on this! But I do think that PA 2 is a sequel that's on par with, or better than, the original.

Sarah, it is crazy how rich characters in horror movies have become. I think of films like the Prom Night remake, The Haunting of Molly Hartley and The Uninvited where characters live in houses that you and I will never afford (well, I know I won't). Even the remake of The Stepfather had a single mother somehow living in a gigantic home. I think Hollywood is just so out of touch with how most of America lives. But...that's a subject for another post, I guess.

As for the rise of fanboy directors, it's an obnoxious trend to me. On the one hand, it's cool to think that, hey, a real fan is making horror movies yet on the other hand, if the movies they come up with are garbage like Halloween II it's a "with friends like these..." situation. You know, you can say all you want in interviews - if your movies don't deliver then you're not doing the genre any favors.

And don't worry, no character in PA 2 will annoy you like Micah - although Micah himself does show up briefly.

Bob Ignizio said...

Missed this when you originally posted. I was very much surprised to find I liked PA2, since I was very negative towards the first one. Micah was a big part of that, but I also felt the first film was too loose, and I never bought into the characters as real people. That wasn't a problem here. The "ethnic nanny who knows all about the supernatural" threatened to go into caricature territory, but I think the film just narrowly escaped that trap. All in all a solid flick. And yeah, nothing against Adam Green, but I don't care if my horror is unrated or G rated. I just want it to be good.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, Green has picked the wrong decade to be railing against the injustices of the MPAA. Hatchet was nothing special and I can't imagine that Hatchet II is much better.