Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
November 2010

Rinse, repeat

'Paranormal Activity 2,' or: 'Hey, ya think audiences will pay for the same movie twice?'

Paranormal Activity 2
Universal Pictures
Director: Tod Williams
Screenplay: Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon and Tom Pabst, based on characters created by Oren Peli
Starring: Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Vivis Cortez and Micah Sloat
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes
(out of four)

The typical strategy for making a sequel - especially a sequel to a surprise hit that probably wasn't originally conceived as a franchise - is straight-up repetition. Now, maybe that's a rather meager distinction, since repetition is such an intrinsic part of the industry as a whole. But sequel repetition is particularly egregious, since the entire point of a sequel - indeed, the definition of it - is to progress, not repeat. For too many sequels, they might as well have just called it a remake.

In this regard, Paranormal Activity 2 does not, for lack of a better word, disappoint. Sure, there are seven cameras this time instead of just one, and . . . uh . . . it's a couple with a new baby, instead of a couple without a new baby and . . . well, as you can see I'm already grasping for straws. Basically the entire rest of the formula remains intact from the first film. To be fair, that reality is given some relevance by the fact that the main character, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), is the sister of the first film's lead, Katie (Katie Featherston), and their shared paranormal history provides a backdrop for both films.

Still, that only adds to the feeling that the franchise is already running in circles - unnecessarily covering territory already covered just one year ago. So it goes with sequels. Studios will ride that repetition as long as it'll take them. You can usually tell the sophistication of an audience by how long it takes people to grow weary of the formula. (Case in point? The Saw franchise is at seven hit movies and counting.)

And so it's no surprise that, from its very first moments, Paranormal Activity 2 seems stuck in place. Following the methodical rhythm (or non-rhythm, really) that the first film established, the sequel introduces us to Kristi, her new-ish husband Daniel (Brian Boland) and his teenager daughter from a previous marriage, Ali (Molly Ephraim). Kristi and Daniel have just brought their new baby home, only to discover that some sort of spirit is haunting their house and disrupting their happy family.

Despite Kristi's insistence, Daniel doesn't believe the house is being haunted by anything. (Why, that's just the little lady being hysterical, of course!) But his non-belief doesn't stop pots and pans from mysteriously knocking around in the kitchen, or doors from mysteriously slamming shut, or the dog from suddenly standing at attention and barking at seemingly nothing.

Since, after all, we are dealing with the paranormal, the filmmakers make sure to fulfill the unofficial prerequisite of having an absurdly stereotypical, superstitious/religious Hispanic character on the periphery to provide the film's sixth sense - in this case, the couple's housekeeper/maid/nanny (take your pick), Martine (Vivis Cortez). This is the second time in as many months, after Devil, that a horror movie has fallen back on this old standby. (Delightful, those archetypes.)

The second way the film provides us with clues is another of my least favorite cliches - it is, naturally, the "Google it" scene. (Self-explanatory.) I've made fun of that convention before, and every time I see it my heart sinks just a little. Yes, it may be realistic - I mean, in real life, Googling is the solution most of the time - but it also takes the legwork out of cinematic storytelling, allowing an easy shortcut that the film hasn't taken the effort to earn. But I digress.

Paranormal Activity 2 is not without its merits, but the moments in which it succeeds are moments that only work once - and, in at least one glaring case, works less and less the longer the scene plays out. This is a movie with no staying power. It also fails to capitalize on its own (minor) differences from the original, forcing an ending whose purpose seems more like a transparent attempt to give the events a bit more proverbial "punch" than a sensible conclusion to the story. Hey, the filmmakers figured, if the dramatic final shots of the original played so well with audiences, why not try to go for more of the same?

And that, in a nutshell, is where the movie fails - in its inability, regardless of the confines of the franchise's set style, to establish anything resembling its own identity.

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