The technique of ‘found footage’ is far from a novelty in horror cinema. Long before The Blair Witch Project (1999), audiences were being terrified by Cannibal Holocaust (1980), a film so dedicated to its premise of being factual that the director was arrested on suspicion of having killed his actors. But that was thirty years ago, and audiences have since become far savvier about exactly what is real. With this in mind, it is impressive that with 2009’s Paranormal Activity, director Oren Peli managed at least to raise the possibility that what the audience was seeing might be genuine. However, with this hurried and repetitious sequel, the minds behind Paranormal Activity 2 seem to have done their utmost to dispel any lingering sense of terror.
The plot centres on the Rey family, whose step-mother, Kristie, is the sister of Katie from the original. It opens with the parents bringing their new baby, Hunter, back from the hospital, and it is at this point that things take a turn for the spooky. Yet from the very first night in the house – helpfully signposted as ‘Night 1’ – events take a predictable and increasingly boring turn. An indispensible weapon in the arsenal of any great horror film is the gradual build-up of tension, as well as strongly established location and characters, yet here, the cameras manage to establish the physical layout and nothing more. It is a bland location utterly lacking any discernable identity, a far cry from the iconic house of The Amityville Horror (1979). Worse still, the characters themselves lack any depth whatsoever, instead being reduced to stereotypes that fail to elicit any sympathy from the audience.
Even without depth or strong characterisation, it is still possible to make an effectively frightening horror film, but this possibility seems to have escaped director Tod Williams. The first half hour seems to gesture towards developing the characters and building tension, but it achieves neither, instead eliciting only boredom from the audience.
Yet even once the film gets going, things hardly improve; each scare is reduced to a loud noise intended to make the audience jump, a cheap and utterly superficial tactic. It also swiftly becomes dull – once you’ve seen a door slam several times, it quickly begins to lose its ominous significance. The gradual development of the spooky goings-on in the house is also achingly predictable, getting bigger and, inevitably, less effective as the film develops; they progress from the familiar creepiness of vague noises to a laughable repetition of the first film, with a woman being dragged around the house by an invisible force.
Much of the first film’s strength lay in its coherent execution of the ‘found footage’ technique, yet here, as Williams strains to maintain a sense of realism – who records their banal phone conversations and most intimate moments and arguments with a camcorder? – it becomes clear that Paranormal Activity 2 is a monotonous failure on almost every level. It is a witless, hurried and painfully predictable mess, and worth avoiding at all costs.
Ben is right. The technique of ‘found footage’ is far from original. It is, however, far from an exhausted genre. While CGI slowly overmasters virtual blood and guts, the simple hand-held camera approach refreshes the thriller film industry. More importantly, though, this style of ‘back to basics’ filmmaking can be far cleverer than any technology could ever be.
The film’s director, Tod Williams, is acutely aware of how to exploit an audience’s potential sensitivities: the cinematic equivalent of rocket-science. Paranormal Activity 2 does just this. The phenomena in the film take place largely at night, tapping into one’s most vulnerable state of being asleep.
The film is based on extensive research into paranormal phenomena and demonology, concluding that ‘demons’ are perceived as the most malevolent and violent entities. The actors themselves are not given a script, instead just the basic outline of the story – a process known as ‘retroscripting’. Their performances are, as a result, raw reactions to the scenes set up by the director: Williams had rightly observed that genuine fear is something that cannot be scripted.
In terms of the characters, they deliver: the audience is lulled into tentative comfort by Hunter’s warm baby gurgles and Kristie’s soft temperament. The audience’s heavy investment in the characters is abused night after night as the strange goings-on unnerve and terrorise them.
As Kirby astutely observes, Williams dedicates an hour of reel to atmospheric build up, creating an almost nauseating tension. The low and persistent buzzing of the camera is very quickly associated with impending, inescapable fear. The documentation of their experience through the use of ‘Night #1’, and so on, intensifies the unbearable anticipation of the inevitable: a count-down, if you will.
Even the harrowing ending is slow-paced, drawn out and overwrought: a comforting sign that Williams resisted the popular temptation of taking ‘gore’ and running with it. Paranormal Activity is clever, structured, meticulously timed and, without a lurking shadow of a doubt, bloody scary.