Friday, 29 October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

That pesky demon's about but the element of surprise has evaporated in this much anticipated sequel to last year's micro budgeted supernatural hit, Paranormal Activity; nevertheless, it keeps the bumps and bangs coming with steady aplomb. Oren Peli's original was hardly that, instead fusing classic genre tropes of darkness, sound and unseen menace (a la Robert Wise's The Haunting) with the trendy sub-genre of 'found footage' (a la Blair Witch). It pulled it off so successfully however, that a sequel was inevitable.

And a sequel we get, or rather a prequel, staging itself before the events of the first Paranormal Activity, and looking at the effects on a different family. Eventually, we come to understand, in a nifty bit of narrative overlapping, how the two films join together, but to begin with the set-up is very familiar. A well-off suburban family consisting of wife, husband, his daughter and their new baby son, appears to have been the victim of a break-in. Noting that little appears to have been stolen, they have security cameras installed at amusingly strategic points around the abode (is an intruder really going to take a dip in the pool?) Not long after that, the wife and daughter become suspicious that not all is at it seems...

It would be remiss to give away any more of Paranormal Activity 2's surprises, because many of them are spectacular - and spectacularly well timed (a certain kitchen scene is guaranteed to take pride of place in many 'Jump Scare' lists). But there's no denying it also exposes the mechanical nature of the very formula that scared us in the first place: long periods of furtive silence, followed by shuddering payoff. For a supernatural flick, it never surprises at any stage and also loses what little originality existed in the premise to begin with.

Working on a larger budget ($3 million apparently - that must have gone on marketing?), new director Tod Williams feels the need to pad out the narrative, not only exposing pacing deficiencies but also opening it up to cliche that feels out of place and jarring. So now we have the token Mexican nanny spreading incense and warning of imminent threat; the use of the cross to ward off evil; and of course the inevitable midnight sojourn into the basement that only those snoozing at the start won't have seen coming.

But however cynical the formula is, it still works thanks to Williams' shrewd eye for a shock moment and engrossing performances that lure us into a cosy domestic set-up invaded by a monstrous presence. And the director adds just enough disturbing wrinkles to an already nerve-shredding experience, primarily involving the family's young son, a development of increasingly nightmarish proportions. And although it's over-explanatory in certain shots, the power of suggestion is for the most part brilliantly preserved, the tension broken only by carefully calculated humour (the pool cleaner scene offers genuine, if fleeting, respite).

And, regardless of its inevitable detractors, there's something to be said for a film that (largely) finds menace in understatement, rather than screaming in one's face. It's part of a proud heritage of horror cinema that realises the breath on the back of your neck, and the icy whisper in your ear, is far more frightening that flinging a bunch of offal at the screen; in other words, more M.R. James than Michael Bay. Don't worry about playing a game; just watch out for that creaking door...

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