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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

* * *
Dir. Tod Williams

When Paranormal Activity 2 was announced I was not at all expecting I'd even see the movie, expecting that the film would get everything wrong that the first film got right: the minimalism, the structure, etc. It sounded like and was a cash-grab. But this cash-grab far exceeds any possible expectation.

People have made somewhat of a deal about how this didn't bomb like Blair Witch 2. But BW2 was nothing like the original, instead a mainstream Hollywood horror film aimed at teens. Paranormal Activity 2 is almost the same film as the first, but it's also just as good.

One question I often ask myself is if a film justifies its own existence. This film passes with flying colors, acting both as a prequel, sequel, and complication of the first film. People who missed the first won't be lost, but will miss some of the dark humor and added sense of dread and even tragedy of those who've seen the first. The sequel concerns Katie's sister, her older successful husband, her step-daughter, and her newborn son, who, after an apparent robbery, install security cameras and of course catch something they weren't expecting.

This film isn't as scary as the first, though it does include one scene that I think was scarier than anything in the first. However, it is far more disturbing, and like the first, sticks with you after you leave the theater. In many ways, this film has less happening in it than the first film, in terms of set pieces. Williams, this is his first non-indie drama, makes this film all about dread. That was what made the first film such a success and an important film in the subgenre. After Blair Witch all of the found-footage horror films used the shaky-cam aesthetic. This gave the viewer a first person point of view, a sense of confusion, and often nausea. But PA gave us extraordinary dread and horror in a static frame, the many doors, closets, and hallways giving us a myriad of possibilities for horror to come out of, giving the viewer a more detached third person point of view. Why this is brilliant is that it plays directly off of the psychological explanations of the Haunted House film in which the house acts as a microcosm for the psyche. In these films the horror comes more from the viewer imprinting their own fears onto the "blank" space created by the static frame.

I believe that one of the reasons that these films have been such successes, its not like there hadn't been found-footage horror films in the last decade, is their structure. The failure of American horror films in the past decade has been the inability to learn the right lessons from the Asian horror films. Unlike in the 1940's when Universal co-opted the atmosphere and style from the German expressionist directors, Hollywood instead adapted the stories. The problem is that what was revelatory about the Asian films was their narrative disruptions. Either in genre's being cannibalized or falling apart into horror (like Miike's films) or in a use of a non-linear non-causal approach (like the Ju-on films). The French new horror has followed in the Asian horror in terms of providing film where the narrative is unreliable, uncertain, and unstable.

The Paranormal Activity films are some of the few American films that use a similar structure, albeit as a byproduct of the function of its gimmick. The films events are shown in a sliding scale of linearity and add an extra dimension of dread to the viewer. This works even stronger in this film, its best moments being when you are unsure if the part you are watching is prequel or sequel. The order in which we are shown the six cameras that are used in the film is repeated and this adds a sense of inevitability that adds to the narrative.

The film is not without its flaws. The film looks too "good" at times, the ending is too messy, and the characters don't feel as developed as they did in the first film; the overly superstitious Latina maid being the most embarrassing aspect of this. However, the film does a good job of ethically dealing with an infant in a horror film where it is in danger. I was watching closely to see how they would film these scenes, and with clever use of post-sound or a puppet (the switching between the cameras makes for a nice "organic" and unnoticeable edit), the child actor doesn't seem to have been exposed to any of the traumatic elements of the film.

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