I wasn’t much of a fan of the 2009 no-budget blockbuster, “Paranormal Activity.” A film cursed with abysmal acting and shallow scares, the picture nevertheless enchanted a nation of horror fans, rocketing a movie made for little money to blinding box office glory. And why not? Genre fans were starved for something with a little crude fright to it, devouring a movie that wasn’t concerned with torture or schlocky theatrics. It wasn’t innovative, but it was a pure event, finding itself in the right place at the right time. Paramount Pictures, eager to pounce on a phenomenon they stumbled ass-backwards into, ordered up a sequel in a hurry. A year later, we have “Paranormal Activity 2,” a prequel of sorts that flattens the initial burst of surprise into irksome retread.
With new baby Hunter in the house, parents Daniel (Brian Boland) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) are eager to settle into their lives, supplemented by Daniel’s teen daughter, Ali (Molly Ephraim). When unexplained occurrences start breaking up the daily routine of the household, Daniel is skeptical, while Ali surveys the spooky shenanigans through her camcorder and various security cameras stationed around the property. For Kristi, the supernatural elements carry a darker history tied to her sister Katie (Katie Featherston), who comes to visit the family, yet tenaciously refuses to cooperate with the investigation.
Did you have any burning questions after “Paranormal Activity” concluded? I know I sure didn’t. Paramount assumes everyone did, so they’ve struck a tone of explanation for the follow-up, prequelizing the stuffing out of “Paranormal Activity 2” as a painless way to sniff out a story that could support a hastily assembled second lap.
Replacing original franchise mastermind Oren Peli is Tod Williams, a director last seen with the 2004 drama, “The Door in the Floor.” Because when one thinks of nerve-wracking horror, Tod Williams automatically comes to mind. Williams is an odd choice to helm this low-fi prequel, especially when much of the film insists on rehashing terror beats from the previous picture. “Paranormal Activity 2” is practically a remake at times, once again staging a demonic haunting inside a suburban dwelling, which drives a passive, disbelieving couple crazy. The fresh elements here are Ali and family dog Abby, who remain the only two who understand the gravity of the situation, acting with a refreshing sense of logic Peli could never muster for Katie and boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat, who briefly returns here) in the earlier feature.
As found in the previous film, the frights are staggered out over a few weeks, with much of the action confined to the eerie irritants found in the security camera footage. Pans are knocked around, pantries and drawers explode, and the basement holds a wicked secret it wants to share with Kristi. Scary? Not really, unless you count endless cheap jolts to be chilling, which, according to the grosses of the first film, many do. Williams doesn’t bring anything to the prequel besides a fatter budget and valuable hindsight, which beefs up the film nicely, allowing for more advanced special effects. The rest is just more of the same, with the cast aggressively trying to sell the “reality” of this found-footage picture, which only reinforces its obvious artificiality.
Besides freaking out the audience with thumpy haunts, “Paranormal Activity 2” looks to piece together this puzzle in full. Whether or not there was a puzzle to begin with is entirely up to the viewer, but the prequel seeks to provide a reason for Katie’s possession and, as unlikely as it sounds, a reason why Micah loves video cameras. Wow. Williams is ordered to add layers to the goofy make-em-up mythology being assembled here, but it’s a halfhearted pass at rooting the film in humdrum motivation. The idea behind the series is far too brittle to support a weighty sense of significant, emotionally turbulent history, and the last thing the producers should be doing is encouraging folks to dig deeper into what’s merely a cinematic version of a campfire ghost story.