So much attention was given to Paranormal Activity’s innovative viral marketing campaign that the movie didn’t get enough credit for being shrewd in its own right. Yes, the DIY vid-cam aesthetic owed plenty to The Blair Witch Project and imitators like [REC], and could properly be faulted for arriving late to the party, but writer-director Oren Peli smartly integrated the reality-TV age, where seemingly everyone’s on-camera, with the classic thumps and bumps of a haunted-house movie, which are still elementally terrifying. The sequel, Paranormal Activity 2, multiplies the cameras and cast members, but mostly takes the conservative route, repeating and oh-so-slightly amplifying the lo-fi shocks that audiences liked (or could be convinced to see, anyway) in the original. As much as the franchise borrows from Blair Witch, the filmmakers clearly learned a different kind of lesson from Blair Witch 2.
A prequel of sorts, Paranormal Activity 2 brings back Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, and resets the timeline to two months before their dread-soaked haunting. But they’re mostly relegated to the periphery, as Featherston’s sister (Sprague Grayden) and her family—including a skeptical husband (Brian Boland), a teenage step-daughter (Molly Ephraim), and a toddler—are tormented by a demon spirit. On top of the extensive camcorder-ing that goes on in the household, a camera gimmick similar to the one in Paranormal Activity is justified by a home invasion where the place is ransacked, but nothing goes missing. Fitted with surveillance cameras in the bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and both exterior sides, the family is now ready for the escalation of terrors they’re about to face.
Director Tod Williams, the frightmaster behind the John Irving adaptation The Door In The Floor, doesn’t mess with success, adding just a few bigger scares to a formula that’s virtually the same. And that formula still works, especially in the sickening procession of nights—each documented with dates and timestamps—that keep getting worse as they march along. Paranormal Activity 2 stretches itself perilously thin, and seems intent on stretching its tacked-on mythology with intimations of a second sequel. But what was scary once is scary twice, like a carnival funhouse remodeled with a few new mirrors and spring-loaded spooks.