Critical Mass: 'Paranormal Activity 2'
One of the most effective tricks in the original "Paranormal Activity's" ghoulish arsenal was surprise. It was a low-budgeted -- some would say micro-budgeted -- shocker with no stars and approached familiar material in a new, unsettling way. The problem with surprise, however, is that you can only pull that off effectively once. (Unless, of course, you're a character in a horror movie, in which case your ability to be surprised by the expected is near-limitless).
"Paranormal Activity 2" has some things working against it that would be great strengths in most any other film -- more experienced actors, a bigger budget and sky-high anticipation. In other words, if "Paranormal Activity 2" doesn't cause critics' hair to turn to white, is it a worthy follow-up to the original?
Writing for The Times, reviewer Robert Abele doesn't see much new or original about this follow-up, but that's A-OK with him. "Call it a case of skilled sameness, of something fine-tuned rather than overplayed," he says. Much credit is given to director Tod Williams, who finds some creative ways to play with the tropes established by original director Oren Peli. "The new scenario's sextet of security-cam coverage — the front of the house, the pool, the kitchen, the living room, the stairs and finally (gulp) the baby's room — allows for cross-cutting tension... Which means, one might have to sit through plenty of successive shots of grainy wide-angle stillness, but when the jolting thud or a frisson of movement comes, it can only feel like a warning shot straight from hell."
The sameness and fine-tuning that entranced Abele tasted like reheated leftovers to Orlando Sentinel critic Roger Moore. "The acting is better, but the hair-raising moments are mostly encores, with the occasional cliched leap at the camera, a body suddenly jerked off camera and the like," he writes. "The movie’s shortcomings are the Hollywood literalism in the third act, the need to show us things and connect dots that we don’t need to connect."
Roger Ebert, who has an admitted bias against ghosts, is probably the biggest non-fan of the sprequel (sequel-prequel). He gave the film a lowly 1 1/2 stars, but his pan may be the funniest review the movie will get. He writes, "The movie is presented as a documentary with no setup, unless the first movie was the setup. It begins with little Hunter being brought home, and then we get titles like 'Day #3.' Of what? One peculiar title says 'Nine days before the death of Micah Sloat.' I probably have the number of days wrong, but you get the idea. What are we supposed to do with this information? I guess we should think, 'Sloat, you poor bastard, you only have nine days to go.' This knowledge is about as useful as the farmer who tells you to make a left turn five miles before you get to the barn."
Fellow Chicago critic Michael Phillips is a bigger fan of the movie than Ebert. In fact, he gets chills just describing scenes in his review. But despite a three-star rating, he still finds a few faults. He writes, "The movie doesn't get the ending it needs (unlike the first one, which had help from an advisor named Spielberg). 'Paranormal Activity 2,' like its predecessor, doesn't advance the genre so much as strip it for parts." In the end, though, he insists, "I'm a fan. I like the restraint."
Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman is also a fan. Like Phillips, he has a problem with the ending, but it's the ghoulish fun of studying the film's static security camera shots that seems to get him going. He calls it a "haunted-house version of 'Where's Waldo' " and coins a new term for the type of tension the film creates: "shockpense." But despite his minor problems, he got what he needed from the movie -- just the right number of chills. "For most of 'Paranormal Activity 2,' though, you'll watch and wait for the unknown and be jittered with pleasure when it arrives."
And what's the final opinion of Dread Central, the horror-themed website with a quote on the movie poster? The site's reviewer, "Uncle Creepy," isn't just a fan -- he sounds ready to propose to this film in his 4 1/2-star review. "It is my extreme pleasure to report that the people behind this film have accomplished a minor miracle: 'Paranormal Activity 2' is every bit as scary as the original. In fact, it's the 'Godfather II' of found footage movies. This is what 'Aliens' is to 'Alien.' "
When you're named Uncle Creepy and have to review stuff named "Monster Wolf" and "Mirrors 2," anything made with the slightest skill must seem like a cold drink on a very hot day.
-- Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: An unquiet spirit demands to know why it was good enough for the trailer but hidden like an ugly sister in the released version of "Paranormal Activity 2." Credit: Paramount Pictures