Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, Tod Williams)

The original Paranormal Activity was a phenomenon. Partly helped by an innovative marketing campaign, the efficient, highly effective low budget horror film scared the living daylights out of millions.

Paranormal Activity 2 releases today, and Paramount is hoping those millions want more. Judging by my local Bow Tie cinema, and it's midnight screening on Thursday, audiences most definitely do want more.

If you enjoyed the first film, the chances are very good that you'll enjoy the second film. I enjoyed the first film, and I can say without any hint of hyperbole that I think the second film may be the best horror sequel to be released in the last ten years (though I have to qualify that by saying that I haven't seen the sequel to the original [Rec.] which horror fans have unanimously applauded). There's nothing here that re-invents the wheel here, but the film does take the elements of the original that worked, does them at least as well, sometimes better, and it dispenses with some of the elements of the original film which didn't work so well and adds to the story in an inventive way that actually adds to the first film.

The other reason I'd go so far as to say this is one of the best horror sequels in the last ten years (and is destined to find it's way onto the list of greatest horror sequels of all time) is that it adds a new dimension to the story of the original. This isn't just a rehashing of the original film with a new set of characters. It's taking the story and mythology set up in the original film, and adding depth and breadth to it. Anyone coming to this film having not seen the first, is not going to be lost (though it would spoil the originals ending), they'd be going into the original with more information about the characters and essentially be given a deeper understanding of the over all story. Somehow screen writer Micheal Perry and director Tod Williams have pulled off the rather amazing feat of making these films co-exist as completely separate works that stand on their own, but also making each more rich due to the others existence. The entirety of the Hollywood studio system could learn something from the group of people who were responsible for the creative decisions behind this film. THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD BE APPROACHING SEQUELS, NO MATTER WHAT GENRE.

I saw the original film in a theater full of college students in Georgetown a few weeks before it was finally given a nationwide release. It is one of the most memorable theater going experiences I've ever had. That audience completely bought it, and was being wildly, gleefully terrified. I saw almost exactly the same reaction during the sequel. People were screaming, jumping, covering their faces, yelling at the screen, and just about losing it as the film and it's creators cranked up the tension. The suspenseful elements that worked in the first film are here, and played perfectly. As in the first film, everything begins innocuously and becomes increasingly sinister, unsettling and heart stopping as the film progresses. As I said, they didn't reinvent the wheel here, but they use the elements established in the original film so well, I can't fault them for it in any way. In a crowd full of people, at midnight, veteran film fanatic and horror film aficionado that I am, my heart was pounding, I was jumping and exclaiming "AAAHH". It scared the hell out of me, and I loved every second of it. Three quarters of the way through, I had to put my drink down to make sure the person sitting next to me wasn't going to end up wearing it.

Jump scares like those, which were used to such good effect in both films, are usually just a cheap device in most horror films. In this film, they're used to establish the fact that these characters are in actual peril. It's not some fake out moment or quick shot of a blunt or bladed object moving at the screen and audience with great speed. They are used to specifically to increase the suspense, and the third act of the film is almost nothing but nail biting, hair pulling, fist squeezing suspense.

On the level of pure film enthusiast, setting aside my own personal affection for horror films, when I look at this film in the context of story, performances, etc., this is definitely a better film than the first. I wouldn't necessarily have thought this after seeing the first film, but now that I've seen the second, I can see that the concentration on and the amount of time spent only with two characters wasn't the best possible use of the story and the basic conceit and purpose of the film. Paranormal Activity 2 succeeds where it's predecessor failed by giving the audience six speaking roles total, and four central characters (five if you include the dog). It seems to move much more smoothly because no character or plot point is too belabored, and just the additional number of characters creates a different dynamic which is probably inherently more interesting. As much as I enjoyed the fact that the original did focus on just two characters, and was very much about the toll the events were taking on their relationship, the additional family members in this film gives rise to the ability of the story and the film makers to explore a bit more territory. And the actors in this film do a really great job. This kind of "found footage" film depends to such a great extent on the ability of the actors to convince you that they aren't actually acting and that what you are watching is just regular people, addressing whatever situation the film happens to put them in, this cast has done a great job. The only new cast member I know is Sprague Grayden. She's had a number of roles in some of the more popular television shows in the last ten years, and I've seen her in a few small roles in other films, but she does a damn good job of selling her role in this film. I'd give more praise to the other actors in the film, but none of them are listed on IMDB. The only reason I'm able to identify Grayden is because I recognized her from her television work.

Another really strong aspect of this film, and why I believe this is one of the best models for a sequel that I've ever seen, is that when it does call back to some moment or piece of information in the first film, it doesn't just do so in order to say to the audience, "Hey, remember how much you liked that movie, well don't forget this is the sequel to that movie you liked so much (wink, wink)." When there are call backs to the first film, they actually provide some kind of information that strengthens the first films narrative structure, give it more meaning and explain some pieces of information that were missing. It's in this way that the film not only stands on it's own, but adds new realism and relevance to the mythology of both films. In that regard, it's actually an imaginative and pretty amazing piece of writing. It intertwines both stories in a way that is organic, sensible, surprising and believable (as believable as any narrative dealing with the super natural can be anyway). It's a really great thing to see a film, so much at home with itself in being a horror film isn't necessarily trying to make it's innovations in the scare department (although there actually are one or two of those), but more so in the story and writing.

This does seem to be the end of the story. There wasn't anything in the film or the ending of the film that gave it the same kind of "wide open" ending that is so often the case when a studio or film maker is specifically making a film with a sequel in mind. In fact, it seems to wrap up both films pretty well. There could conceivably be a sequel in developing a narrative for what you don't know when the film ends, what exactly happens to two of the characters or where it is they go at the end of the film, but it would be more of a stretch than even developing a sequel from the ending of the first film. Given what the film makers were able to come up with and were able to do with this film, I wouldn't completely put it past them, but I can say it did seem like this was supposed to be the end of the story. There were no major plot elements left open, no real mysteries to be solved, or answers to be discovered that would change or add anything to the first and second films. I can't conceive of a better way to end the Paranormal Activity saga. Of course, if the film pulls in a huge profit, another sequel will quickly be on track, but it's not something this film seems to suggest or guarantee. This should be the end for the franchise as far as I'm concerned, but if the film makers were able to create another sequel which actually does succeed in broadening the story and mythology as well as this one has, I'd go see it.

Whether or not there will be a third film doesn't change the fact that if you enjoyed the first film, at all, you should go and see the second film in as crowded a theater as you can find, as soon as possible.

Reaction to Paranormal Activity 2 is overwhelmingly positive in critical and audience reaction. I've read a few reviews since writing my own that bring up a few critical points that I think are valid and are worth noting and that I didn't include because of my own enthusiasm for the sheer fun of the theater experience. The first act has some pacing issues. It's a little on the slow side, which I expected, because the original used it's first act to start laying the groundwork for the suspense in the second two acts. The problem with the first act in this film isn't necessarily the fact that it's slow, but that it's uneven. There are times when it seems to intend on picking up the pace and moving along into the next two acts pretty quickly, and then it slows down again, giving some more exposition, character development etc. It doesn't hurt the effectiveness of the film as a whole, because the second and third act are so strong, in part because of the character and exposition it slows down to provide, but it is there, and it is something audience members who can't wait to get to the scares are going to notice.

The other criticism I've read that does have some validity (though it's something I tend to forgive, given the nature of a "found footage" narrative) is that there are one or two points during the film where to some of the audience it might seem unrealistic that one character picks up a camera. I say "it might seem to some audience members" because it's not something specifically explained, but given what we've already been told about one character specifically, and their perspective on the events that are unfolding, it does make sense for that character.

Another negative criticism I'm reading tends to be in comment sections and really doesn't relate so much to the success of THIS film, as it does to a dissatisfaction with the direction the film makers chose to take with the story. To me, that's not particularly a fair kind of criticism. These film makers, made this film. Is it effective in it's aims or is it not? If this isn't the movie you would have wanted to see, not the story you think should have been told, go make the movie you would have wanted to see, and then let the audience tell you which is more effective.

The other criticisms I'm reading seem to be coming from two specific perspectives. The first really comes down to the fact that this film doesn't have the kind of excitement behind it that the first one did, that it doesn't feel "new" and "fresh." Well, it is a sequel, and the first one wasn't really all that new either. Cinema verite has been around for decades, and there have been plenty of "found footage" films in the last two decades. Paranormal Activity felt new and exciting because Oren Peli found a new way to work that into the film and the story, and make it believable. This film, because it's a sequel, is somewhat bound by the rules of the mythology as they were established in the original. That's a criticism of sequels, in general, not this particular film. The second set of criticisms I think are unfounded seem to basically be coming from people who are just too cool to get excited about the film in part because getting genuinely scared during a film is something they don't think is "cool" and in part because of a genuine enjoyment in hating and picking apart everything that is "mainstream." That's got nothing to do with the actual film this set of film makers decided to make. These film makers were fortunate enough to have a major studio financing and marketing their film. Maybe that's something some people don't think is a good thing. Personally, I think it's completely neutral. It can be a good thing, it can be a bad thing. It depends on the film. I honestly can't imagine that this film cost anymore than an independent film that happened to have found a good financing opportunity. I can't find the actual figures on the cost of the film, but I'm willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that it was much cheaper to make than your average Hollywood production, and it suffers from neither being under financed or from having too much money available and throwing it into digital effects (something too many films suffer from in today's day and age).

Here are some reviews from other sites, that cover the film good and bad.

Ain't It Cool (Capone)- minor spoilers for storyline, nothing major that ruins the film experience though

Ain't It Cool (Massawyrm)- No spoilers, and a negative review that adds credence to the my argument that most of the people who have something negative to say about this film, aren't actually reviewing this film. They're talking about the overall approach of the franchise or something they don't like about "found footage" movies, in general. Though, there I do agree that people are more likely to remember the experience of seeing the film than they are to remember the film, I personally think that once in a while it's good to have a film that is ALL ABOUT THE THEATER EXPERIENCE.

Bloody Disgusting



Roger Ebert

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