Who’s In It: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Vivis
The Basics: Remember poor Katie (Katie Featherston), the young lady with the camera-happy boyfriend (Micah Sloat) haunted by a demon in 2007’s Paranormal Activity? This sequel/prequel rewinds the clock three months prior as Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her husband, Daniel (Brian Boland) bring their newborn son home to the suburbs, where they live with Daniel’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage (Molly Ephraim), their religious nanny (Vivis), and their devoted German shepherd. All’s peaceful in quiet Carlsbad, CA -- well, except for a mysterious break-in that prompts Daniel to install security cameras in every room. And those strange noises that turn into LOUD strange noises in the middle of the night. And the doors that open on their own. And the unseen forces that seem to sneak into the baby’s room when no one’s looking. But hey, it’s probably nothing, right?
What’s The Deal: After reaping a gazillion-dollar profit on the micro-budgeted Paranormal Activity, Paramount Pictures attempts to make lightning strike twice with a prequel that once again makes it difficult to return home to a darkened house. Director for hire Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor) replicates the feel and structure of the first film, building gradual tension on repetitious scenes of domestic tranquility – the unmanned swimming pool, the baby’s nursery, the living room, the kitchen – before shattering the calm with an escalating series of events, identical to how Paranormal Activity unfolded. But where the first film was marketed with a wink and sold as a maybe-true story, this time around we’re all in on the charade, which frees Williams to up the ante and forgo realism for entertainment; thus, the stakes are elevated, the creepy shenanigans are more overt, and viewers become actively engaged as agents in their own fright, willing the scares to come.
Who’s Good: The entire cast of (mostly) unknowns. Actress Sprague Grayden is slightly distracting only because of her solidly memorable work on 24 and Sons of Anarchy but is excellent here as a new mother and unwitting target of demonic malevolence. She and her fellow actors strike a natural chemistry that makes Williams’ economical, often brief slice-of-life scenes snap with authenticity. Even the baby actors and the dog bounce with energy and are given interesting things to do.
What Paranormal Activity 2 Does Well: Inserts horror movie tropes into a realistic setting. The haunted house, the demons that only dogs and babies can see, the sinister basement where evil dwells – these things would be cheesy and overdone in most modern horror flicks, but subtle performances and restrained direction (not to mention the use of practical over CG effects) give these clichés such power that you might find yourself wondering if supernatural spirits are behind those creaks and thumps you hear in your own home at night.
Where It Really Excels: Paranormal Activity 2 doesn’t just duplicate the scares of the original, it builds on its predecessor the way film sequels should. Story strands and background established in the first film are elaborated on and explained further while shocking revelations answer lingering questions. And yet Paranormal Activity 2 also slyly introduces new information that could potentially sow the seeds of another sequel, suggesting that there are more mysteries to solve before this story has run its course.
Good News For The Squeamish: This supernatural tale will thrill you and chill you without relying on blood and guts, unlike October’s other scary offering, Saw 3D (aka Saw VII). Why suffer through yet another round of moralizing torture porn when this smart, effective, no-frills R-rated pic will satisfy your horror jones and have you sleeping with the lights on (in a good way)?