When it comes to movies, at least the sort of movies that get released in multiplexes, the only thing more baffling than failure is unexpected success. If, by conventional logic, the safest course is to pre-package and test-screen a film until it takes the familiar shape of hits that have come before, what to make of the occasional aberration that finds a blockbuster-sized audience? Then again, maybe it’s best not to wonder too long and better to try to duplicate that success as quickly as possible.
That seems to have been what happened with Paranormal Activity 2, a quickly turned-around, but surprisingly effective, sequel to last year’s surprise, low-budget hit Paranormal Activity. Written and directed by Oren Peli, who shot it entirely in his own home, Paranormal Activity took the home-video, found-footage style of The Blair Witch Project out of the woods and into the bedroom, watching with static indifference as a young couple named Micah and Katie (played by Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston) gets troubled by an increasingly persistent, unseen demonic force. Apart from a tacked-on—and tacky—final scene, Peli kept the film’s scares lo-fi: Lights turn on for no apparent reason. A Ouija board catches fire. Creaks cut into the ambient hum of a suburban night. But mostly he created unsettling moments by letting nothing happen for far longer than we’re used to seeing nothing happen.
It’s hard to say why Paranormal Activity grabbed audiences the way it did. Blair Witch minted its style a decade before and was still inspiring imitators, like Cloverfield, when Paranormal appeared. The barely there plot about a vaguely defined demon doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny and the lead performances run from callow to almost-convincing. Paramount’s slow-rolling release, which built up word of mouth for the film through the festival circuit, midnight screenings, college audiences, and you-demand-it showings via eventful.com surely contributed to its success. But no amount of viral marketing can make a hit out of nothing.
My best guess is twofold: Audiences latched onto Paranormal Activity because of the ingenious, restrained way Peli used the Blair Witch style and the film’s unexpected, familiar setting. The uncanny image of Featherston standing beside her bed gazing at her sleeping boyfriend as the video’s time code rolls on to show the passing hours is tough to shake. Peli’s film grows tiresome in spots, but it taps into a sense of suburban discomfort like no film since Poltergeist. There is evil in the world, it suggests, and it will find you even in these new houses built to keep you safe from harm.
Paranormal Activity 2 follows the tried-and-true sequel path by simply reprising, and multiplying, the successful elements of what came before. At once a sequel and prequel for reasons tough to talk about without spoiling the plot, the film shifts the action to another corner of southern California suburbia, this one home to Katie’s sister (Sprague Grayden), her husband (Brian Boland), his teenage daughter (Molly Ephraim) and a young son. After a mysterious break-in leaves their home vandalized, but curiously not robbed, the family installs a security system that overlooks virtually every corner of the house. And so we get all the Paranormal tricks, only more of them: more cameras, more frightened inhabitants, and a bigger home with more dark corners and objects that fall to the ground with commanding thuds.
Though an established director responsible for the overlooked Jeff Bridges drama The Door in the Floor, Tod Williams does his best Oren Peli imitation, alternating handheld footage with static shots that always threaten to produce unspeakable horrors from every corner. They rarely do, but the small disruptions in the family’s quiet home life—disruptions that grow more pronounced as their supernatural intruder grows more impatient—get increasingly unnerving. By the film’s end, a recurring shot of a swimming pool and its automated cleaner creates a Pavlovian sense of dread.
There is evil in the world, it suggests, and it will find you even in these new houses built to keep you safe from harm.
Paranormal Activity 2 is scary throughout, even if nothing here seems particularly fresh anymore and, as with the original, its tension deflates as it ramps up to a big finish. But as familiar as Paranormal Activity 2 feels, it remains distressing in its familiarity and uses its suburban setting even better than its predecessor as it fills the screen with images of affluent, insulated suburbanites forced to confront the supernatural forces they’d long dismissed as superstition. (Though there’s more than a whiff of stereotype to the family’s superstitious Latina maid who realizes they’ve run afoul of the spirit world long before her employers.)
Don’t talk about it, and it will go away, one character advises another, and she could be talking about demonic forces or an old family secret. Either way, it’s a classic case of the return of the repressed, which here can’t be contained by immaculate tile floors and won’t be scared off by all those cameras, staring placidly and making cold digital images of the awful, ancient evils that won’t disappear simply because we ignore them.
Keith Phipps lives in Chicago and writes about film, television, books and music. He has contributed to Slate and serves as the editor of The A.V. Club and was a co-editor of Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined by Saxophone, and 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists. You can follow him on Twitter here.