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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Trapped in the Closet: Paranormal Activity 2

Despite what the people running the Saw franchise seem to think, horror is the one genre where you can't keep doing exactly the same thing over and over again and expect to get the same results. You have to mix things up, if only a little, if you expect to keep scaring people. But messing with success in horror is a tricky business, and it only takes a few tiny changes to turn a deeply frightening tale into yet another "boo!"-fest.

For example, for the most part Paranormal Activity 2 sticks closely to the template of the original: there's a small number of people in a big house where strange things are starting to happen. Video cameras are set up to capture the weirdness, creepy things are filmed, and suddenly things get out of hand. But beyond those broad strokes this gets everything wrong.

Firstly, it's not a realistically annoying young couple that're being haunted here: it's a bland-ed out regular family that exhibits only the barest amount of personality required to push the plot forward (the husband fires the Mexican nanny for her smoke-filled rituals to ward off evil spirits; the perky daughter breaks out the ouija board because she thinks the spirit might be her dead mum).

Some reviewers complained that the original couple got on their nerves, completely missing the point: in the real world, people who are stressed are often annoying, what with their worrying they’re going to die and everything. Going for “likable” over “interesting” characters totally undercuts the realism that went a long way towards making the original’s collection of slamming doors and spooky noises scary. This is a generic family here, without a single recognisable trait: why should we care in the slightest what happens to them? And so we don’t.

The original manufactured a compelling sense of dread through its night vision video camera scenes by showing the same scene over and over - a bedroom with an open door and a darkened corridor beyond - and slowly adding tiny changes: a moving door, someone getting up in their sleep, a thumping sound. Paranormal Activity 2 instead shifts the action all over the house, totally failing to build any location-based tension: should we be scared when it cuts to the pool? The Kitchen? The baby's room?

Maybe if we had some sense of the layout of the house itself, but – despite an actual tour at the beginning of the film – the geography is mostly confused. Which again, detracts from the atmosphere: few things are as frightening as thinking there’s something coming for you in the dark, but where the original’s straightforward layout (everything led to the bedroom) could make the shadows in a dark hall disturbing, this is just a mess.

Even when individual scenes work, they never build on each other to create the awful sense of something demonic groping towards a hideous goal that made the first film so unsettling. In the first film, the evil had a plan and the couple couldn't escape it, each night something to be feared because you knew the unseen force was getting closer to whatever it had planned. One night a door would open, the next there’d be a thumping noise, then there’d be a thumping noise and the door would open; whatever was coming next, it wasn’t good.

In this, some rooms have things happen that are unsettling at first but quickly lose their power once it becomes obvious they’re going nowhere. In the kitchen a pot falls down, later some cupboards fly open… and that’s it for the kitchen. Doors slam shut or fly open, but there’s not much sense that something behind them wants to get in. It’s like the film-makers didn’t realise that in the first film the events weren’t just frightening on their own, they actually suggested something even worse. Here a slamming door is just a slamming door..

No surprise then that this has to eventually resort to showing people being dragged into the closet by an unseen force, but even that doesn’t really work; yes, being pulled around by an unseen being would certainly scare the shit out of you if it happened to you, but just watching it on a screen happen to someone we don’t care about is more puzzling than scary. What’s the unseen force going to do? Use the cast as human dust-busters? This film completely fails to establish any sense that the supernatural force has an evil scheme – it’s just doing things because it can, and like kids coming back to egg your house every night this quickly goes from deeply disturbing to deathly dull.

It doesn’t help that the film actually spells out the exact reason why all this stuff is happening (it’s the supernatural version of being harassed by debt collectors). One more time: the first film worked because it suggested so much but explained so little. Knowledge is power, and it empowers the audience – which is not what a good horror movie does. A good horror movie makes us little kids scared of the dark, not people going “ahh, if I say these lines and wave this cross around all this crazy shit is over”.

If nothing else, this does get one thing right – it skilfully illustrates the difference between a film made by people who want to scare an audience and know what they’re doing, and a film made by people who just want to make a film that looks like the last one. The first Paranormal Activity was a surprise hit: this contains no surprises at all.

Anthony Morris

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