Paranormal Activity 2
At Rave and Quality 16

“Paranormal Activity”

At Rave and Quality 16

3.5 stars

If there’s one architectural benefit to McMansions, it should be that ghosts can’t effectively haunt them. Even the most determined ghoul is bound to get lost in the cul-de-sac maze of potted palms, self-cleaning pools, Thomas Kinkade sailboat watercolors and superstitious foreign housekeepers that comes with every Silicon Valley nouveau riche three-and-a-half bath home. Right?

Unfortunately for the Reys — the protagonists of “Paranormal Activity 2” — this is not the case. A family as postmodern as the house they live in, mom Kristi (television stalwart Sprague Grayden, “24”) and company find themselves playing unwilling hosts to a disruptive supernatural guest. Their haunting is shared with the audience, thanks to a security camera system installed in the wake of a burglary during which nothing was stolen. Convenient for us. The first film made it clear that demons hate it when you videotape them; perhaps the demon staged the break-in to give itself a head start.

Like every dumb family since “Poltergeist,” the Reys refuse to leave. They don’t express any unease at leaving each other alone in the house for extended periods of time, and they don’t take the proactive step of contacting Southern California’s foremost demonologist, as the first film’s protagonists did. But these aren’t quarrels to be dissected frame by frame in SAC 236; they are to be shouted at the screen, in a rousing chorus with the rest of the petrified peanut gallery.

Where the film genuinely falls flat is in the conclusion. It should be so easy — just cut to black after a jolt. Hey, what’s this noise coming from the basement? Slam! You’re dead! But it aims a little higher, a little more meta, at its own peril. It seeks to connect the sequel to the original as explicitly and tangibly as possible, and the ending coda lets all the air out of the balloon after what should be the final crescendo in a dark basement. Either pop the balloon or cut the shot at the balloon’s most distended, but don’t let it deflate. Still, the expansion of the balloon is maddeningly tense, and worth paying to experience.

Ultimately, don’t try to gauge the film’s merit in a vacuum. It varies drastically with what you want. If you want to bite your nails, and close your eyes, and open them long enough to scream, and then laugh at yourself for having screamed, and then scream and grab your date, and then apologize for grabbing your date so hard, and then scream some more, there’s no reason not to see the film.

The original was only worth watching in a crowded theater, and the same is true of the sequel. If “Paranormal Activity” becomes an annual Halloween franchise like the “Saw” series, make a rule: do not watch it on television. The slow burn effect does not work when you’re on the couch and you can pause the film for a bathroom break, and oh mom just called, and oh shucks your French bread pizza got burnt in the microwave. In the theater, you are trapped. You can’t get out of the house, just like the Reys. But you’re not alone. You’ve got dozens of friends around you, to protect you, just as you’re there to protect them.

You might notice “Paranormal Activity 2” is being shown in big multiplexes, whereas the original first appeared at the State Theater in midnight screenings. The effect isn’t altogether lost on the screen. In the first film, no one knew what would happen. Now, everyone knows what’s coming; it’s just a question of when. Is anticipation as frightening without the ignorance? That’s up to you to shriek and find out.

Most species of hot peppers go untouched by animals; humans, meanwhile, harvest them, grind them up, splash them on our tacos, and, for some reason, we act surprised when our mouths catch fire. The same is true of horror films. Fear is not an emotion to which we merely resign ourselves — we invite it. We want to savor it, if only for a few hours at a time. “Paranormal Activity 2” delivers that sensation. It might not be as innovative or surprising as the first, the same way a Zagnut bar isn’t as peanutty as a Snickers. But come on. Halloween hasn’t changed in decades, and we still eat that candy gladly.

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