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Paranormal Activity 2

A Supernatural Suburban Terror

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Paranormal Activity, Olen Peli’s supernatural thriller in the “found footage” sub-genre, took a circuitous route from production to exhibition. The film premiered three years ago at the Screamfest Film Festival and Paramount picked up distribution rights, but couldn’t decide whether to release it or remake it. It took the timely intervention of Steven Spielberg to convince Paramount executives to release Paranormal Activity It grossed almost $200 million internationally.

With Peli involved only as a producer, a sequel went into pre-production almost immediately. Paramount eventually tapped Tod Williams (The Door in the Floor, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) to direct.

Paranormal Activity 2 centers on an upper-middle class, suburban family in Carlsbad, California. Daniel Rey (Brian Boland) is financially successful enough that he can afford a spacious abode with an equally spacious backyard pool. He’s also successful enough that his wife, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), can be a stay-at-home mom to their infant son, Hunter (William Juan Prieto/Jackson Xenia Prieto), while he works from home or elsewhere. Daniel’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Ali (Molly Ephraim), lives with them. The Reys can also afford a live-in Latina nanny, Martine (Vivis). She’s the first to suspect a supernatural intruder has invaded suburbia.

The Reys return home from a trip to discover their house trashed, but nothing, curiously, stolen. Daniel reacts like any reasonable homeowner would: He installs six cameras around the house and by the pool. During the day, the cameras roll in color. At night, they’re in a grainy blue-grey hue. Both Kristi and Ali encounter unsettling, non-natural phenomena: loud bumps, the low, persistent, rumbling sound we first heard in the first film, doors that open and close by themselves, and ultimately, physical attacks by an unseen menace. They suspect a supernatural cause, but Daniel clings to a rational explanation, no matter how incredulous, for the increasingly strange, increasingly dangerous haunting that beset the family.

The screenwriters, Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst, connect Paranormal Activity and the sequel by making Kristi and the first film’s central character, Katie (Katie Featherstone), sisters. Pabst also cleverly builds on and expands on what we learned in Paranormal Activity about Katie and her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), seen in the sequel via video footage and a prominent photo placed strategically on a wall adjoining a staircase.

Paramount gave Williams a significantly larger production budget than Peli had for Paranormal Activity ($3 million vs. $15,000), but recognizing one reason for the first film’s commercial success, kept the sequel to a single location. The suburban home exemplifies (and symbolizes) financial success, material comfort, social status, and with that status, an expectation of safety from harm or violence. It’s that last idea, that even a suburban home isn’t safe from an impossible-to-stop, supernatural, class-conscious intruder, that helps to explain why Paranormal Activity resonated with audiences last year.

Of course, there’s another, simpler explanation for Paranormal Activity’s success: Audiences wanted to experience the emotional kicks that come from fear (someone else’s, not ours) in a controlled environment.

Those elements, combined with the eye-straining, grainy, static camera/handheld camera style carried over to the sequel (but with extra, unsettling vantage points), and the jump scares, shocks, and surprises Williams periodically deploys to remind moviegoers that they are, indeed, watching a horror film, explains why Paranormal Activity became a commercial hit last year. Paranormal Activity 2 will likely follow suit this weekend and next.