Let me begin by saying I did not see 2007's "Paranormal Activity," so I have no idea how this 2010 follow-up compares to its predecessor. What I do know is that the filmmakers shot both movies on relative shoestring budgets, and both movies returned comparatively enormous profits. The financial and stylistic model here appears to be "The Blair Witch Project," given that all three films are pseudo-documentaries, meaning the filmmakers capitalize on the low production costs by trying to make viewers believe they shot the movies with inexpensive video cameras. Obviously, the scheme worked; you purposely shoot cheap, make the cheapness a part of the picture, and then reap huge rewards. Nothing wrong with a little creative free enterprise.
The idea of "Paranormal Activity 2" is to show the viewer what purports to be a real-life haunting in the manner of television's "Ghost Hunters" or "Ghost Adventures." To establish the real-life aspect of the movie, the filmmakers pretend that handheld video cameras and mounted surveillance cams captured everything we're seeing on screen.
What's more, director Tod Williams ("The Door in the Floor") and screenwriters Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst attempt to make it seem all the more real by using a preface thanking in advance "the family of the deceased and the Carlsbad police department." Now, what are we to make of that? We know somebody's going to die in the film, and it ain't going to be good if the police are involved. It sort of takes away some of the film's suspense right from the beginning if we know what's coming.
So, here's the setup: First, the filmmakers introduce us to a suburban Southern California family--the father, Daniel (Brian Boland); the mother, Kristi (Sprague Grayden); the teenage daughter, Ali (Molly Ephriam); and the new baby boy, Hunter. The family enjoys taking pictures with their video camera, so that's how we get all the early footage of them.
Then, after what seems like an eternity of preliminaries--meeting the folks, the mother's sister Katie (Katie Featherston), her husband Micah (Micah Sloat), the housekeeper Martine (Vivis Cortes), and the daughter's boyfriend Brad (Seth Ginsberg)--we get down to business. Namely, one day the family finds all the downstairs furniture thrown around in disarray. They figure it's thieves or vandals, even though the perpetrators take nothing (think of "Poltergeist" here; indeed, the house even resembles the one in "Poltergeist"). To guard against future intrusions, the father installs little security cameras all over the premises--upstairs, downstairs, and in the yard. Presumably, somebody edited the film we're seeing after the fact from all the video and surveillance footage taken while the events occurred. Oh, and to add to the "realism" (and I assume to cut costs further), there is no musical track, either.
Anyway, now you know how the filmmakers want us to believe the story unfolds. Only there really isn't much of a story. We just see a series of weird, mostly unexplained developments evolve through the eyes of either the family's video camcorder or the security cameras. Among the odd happenings: the automated swimming-pool-cleaner mechanism keeps popping out of the water at night and up onto the cement; various doors open and close by themselves; a dark shadow looms over a sleeping character; etc. To add to the verisimilitude, we get little time stamps on the bottom of the screen, as though it were real video footage. And the filmmakers let us know the passage of time further by marking the days on screen.
So far, though, not much is happening. It's all buildup. In fact, practically the whole movie is buildup, with virtually no plot or character development and the least amount of dialogue possible. The daytime shots are in color; the nighttime shots are in a bluish monochrome. Here, again, you might think of television's "Ghost Hunters," "Ghost Hunters International," or other such shows. (By the way, to keep the record straight on who copied whom, "Ghost Hunters" began back in 2004, three years before the first "Paranormal Activity" film, and, of course, "Ghost Hunters" is an attempt to document real ghosts rather than make them up.)
The older Hispanic housekeeper first senses the presence of evil spirits in house, followed closely by the family dog and the baby. Eventually, the mother and teenage daughter come around to the idea, but the idiot father refuses to believe in ghosts or hauntings even when he sees the evidence in the video footage. I guess the message here is to trust the instincts of older Hispanic ladies, dogs, babies, and maybe women in general, but never trust men to go with their feelings; apparently, they have none.
Since the actors in the film are relatively unfamiliar faces, since there is barely ever any mention of character names, since it's difficult at first to tell one person from another, and since none of these people have an identifiable personality, it's hard to worry about any of them. As a result, it's tough to care about the film itself or anything much that happens (or doesn't happen) in it.
For the first 95% of the movie, almost nothing does happen except the few bumps in the night I've mentioned. The filmmakers would call this building suspense. I call it boring. Finally, things do start happening in the final ten minutes, and when they do, they go right off the edge of the planet. All the careful attention the filmmakers put into making everything that goes on as realistically paranormal as possible, as credible, as believable as a ghost story can be, goes out the window with demonic possession and killings and blood, and suddenly we're into "Exorcist" territory. This movie borrows from everyone, even a little of Robert Wise's "The Haunting" and Ridley Scott's "Alien," although it's nowhere near as forceful as those films.
The frights, when they do come, are not really of the tense or suspenseful sort but of the simple shock variety: There are no elaborate special effects, which is a relief, just mainly loud noises that startle you (although even some of that shock is lessened by the low rumble that always precedes it).
"Paranormal Activity 2" isn't actually a bad picture, no matter how negative my comments may appear. For the mock-reality horror show that it is, it functions fine, which explains my giving it an average, if not very enthusiastic, 5/10 rating. It's just that the filmmakers took me out of the picture early on with their minimalist style, their unsubstantial story line, their scarcity of characterizations, and their lack of a musical score, leaving me never to get back in. I'm not really keen on non-movie movies.
Because the filmmakers lead us to believe that everything we're seeing is from a low-cost video camera, they can get away with low standards of picture quality. Therefore, even though Paramount use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4 AVC codec to transfer the 1.85:1 ratio image to disc, they and we know it's not supposed to look all that good. Accordingly, the PQ varies from OK to something much less depending on the time of day and who (or what) is shooting the picture. For whatever it's worth, it works well enough.
Like the picture quality, the audio quality is intentionally minimal. Yet the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 actually does the soundtrack a favor with its wide dynamic range. No, you won't find much (or any) surround here, and since there is no music in the movie, there is no musical bloom from the side or rear speakers. There is only dialogue, which comes across clearly and naturally, and several very loud, very dynamic noises, which are all the more effective coming from a background of almost dead silence. So, the audio sounds limited most of the time, but when it comes to life, you'll know it.
Paramount present the movie in a two-disc package. Disc one contains the Blu-ray edition of the film in both its original, R-rated theatrical cut (ninety-one minutes) and an unrated extended version (ninety-eight minutes, which I watched). In addition, we get about four minutes of "exclusive found footage," meaning, I assume, deleted scenes; sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two is a DVD that contains a standard-definition transfer of the unrated movie and a digital copy of the unrated version, the latter for Mac's and PC's (the offer expiring on February 8, 2012).
I applaud the filmmakers for trying to do something different with both "Paranormal Activity 2" and, presumably, the first "Paranormal Activity." However, that doesn't mean I liked much of what I saw. In "Paranormal Activity 2" you have to sit through eighty minutes or so of tedium for the final ten or fifteen minutes of confusion and mayhem, which, when you finally do get to it, goes off into a neverland of silliness far removed from any plausible haunting. For me, the meager payoff wasn't worth the effort in time and patience. The bother wasn't worth the wait.