Sunday, 31 October 2010

Frustratingly Flawed: Paranormal Activity 2 Review

My concern for Paranormal Activity as a franchise was that it would fall prey to the same problems that plague the Saw series. With each passing entry to the franchise being exactly half the quality of the last until all that's left is a dried up cash cow that's nothing more than a shadow of it's former self.

And as much as I would love to tell you that this is far from the case, unfortunately Paranormal Activity 2 looks to be setting that franchise on the same path.

With that said I think I'll begin with the positive.

(Warning - Mild Spoilers Ahead.)

The Good

The Story:
The story was easily one of this films greatest strengths, which is something I never imagined I would be typing in regards to Paranormal Activity 2. The set up and development of the plot are exactly what you would expect from this franchise based on the first entry. There's a house.... some people... some cameras... and of course, paranormal activities ensue. But beyond this, the films core story did something quite remarkable which really impressed me and showed off it's true potential.

Often sequels suffer from something I call "This story didn't need to be told" syndrome. Where the first movies story was wrapped up in a way that trying to squeeze a sequel out of it is very difficult and the writers have to find convoluted excuses to drag new stories out of the concept and bring characters back, of course this isn't the case for all films (some have concepts that naturally lend to sequels) but when this is the case it can result in sequels that simply don't need to exist. Yes I'm looking at you Matrix Revolutions....

And in all honesty when I saw the first Paranormal Activity I strongly felt it would fall into this category and that its sequels were doomed to struggle in terms of story. And to my surprise despite this films other shortcomings (more on that later) it did manage to completely avoid this problem.

A good sequel usually finds a way to be it's own film and have a story worth telling while, at the same time, supplementing the story of the original and adding to the mythology. About 15 minutes into the Paranormal Activity 2 it is revealed that we are not watching a sequel as we assumed, but a prequel. We discover this when the film quite obnoxiously states in massive typeface that these events take place about 60 days before Micah's death... while Micah is on screen. Anywho, back to my point, this is actually a very clever storytelling device because it means we get a glimpse at the events leading up to the first movie, and this opens opportunities to shed more light on it's somewhat mysterious story.

As this story of demon haunting progresses we discover that these events are quite literally the cause of the unfortunate fate that befalls Katie and Micah in the original film. I'm being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers, but the way Paranormal Activity 2's story intertwines with the original is executed perfectly and it actually manages to make the first movie stronger by flawlessly expanding it's story in a way that both fits seamlessly with the original content and doesn't hinder it's own tale.

By the end of this film I truly felt that this sequel earned it's right to exist and that's an impressive feat in itself. Especially considering how complete the story felt after the first film.

Unfortunately, this is roughly all I liked about this film... the rest left something to be desired.

The Bad

Failure to Build Tension and Frighten:
What I feel made the first films horror effective was it's method of building tension by slowly escalating the nature of the demons activities. It started small and gradually became more and more overt, which worked because it created a certain level of believability, by the time you saw Katie dragged from her bed by her ankles, the film had been building up to an event of that size, so it didn't feel out of place. This sequel absolutely throws that out the door and becomes almost farcical as a result.

There's a haunting moment where the baby is slowly lifted out of it's cot by an invisible force, it's one of the films most innovative moments but unfortunately, the effect of this scene is lost because it happens earlier in the movie, at a point where the most the demon has done is close a door. This was such a jump in the scale of it's activities that the audience in my particular screening literally laughed out loud at this moment, because it seemed ridiculous to go from moving doors to floating children. Had the movie saved this moment for later in the film when we had experienced some of the demons other abilities we might have found ourselves finding it more believable. This is one example of a problem that persists throughout this film and it highlights the films greatest failure, it's inability to build tension.

The film also fails to truly frighten it's audience. The central reason for this is the absolute lack of innovation. It does almost nothing the first film didn't already do. Opening and closing doors? Check. Loud bangs? Check. The sound of footsteps without any identifiable source? Check. A demon communicating via a Ouija board. Check. Shadows moving across people while they sleep? Check. Whispering peoples names? Check. Dragging people from bedrooms by the feet? Check. Possession resulting from a weird bite? Check.
It doesn't take a screenwriting degree to know that something would struggle to be scary if the audience have seen it before.

In fact, the closest thing this film had to an original idea in terms of it's scares was having some of it's horror moments occur in the day. Which might sound like a good idea in theory, creating a situation where the audience won't necessarily see the scares coming because they expect them at night. But in practice it creates a problem. Some of the first film's tension stems from the audience being in a position of knowing when something was going to happen, but maintaining the element of surprise because they didn't know what.
Because frightening things only happened in the evening in the original, every time they cut to night vision you could literally feel the tension build for the audience. This sequel doesn't share these core sensibilities, instead going for cheap jumps with plenty of sudden and loud noises that can happen anytime, sacrificing the tension of the night time sequences to do so.

The Characters:
There really isn't much to say here. I've always stuck by the opinion that a film is only as good as the audiences empathy for the central characters. As an audience member, if you think the character is an asshole how can you be expected to care about whatever fate awaits them? And in a horror film it's particularly important, if you don't care then all sense of jeopardy and tension is gone. With Paranormal Activity 2, I didn't really care weather these people lived or died.

In this genre, poor characters have a greater effect on the films overall quality than most because they can severely effect the films believability.
Micah and Katie from the original felt well rounded. They were believable, flawed and had a certain depth. They may not have been the most likable characters in the world but you gained empathy for them simply on the level that they felt like real people. This helped sell the reality of the film and the more real it felt the scarier the moments of horror become.
The characters of Paranormal Activity 2 are flat, two dimensional and one note, causing it to feel far more like a film the it's predecessor. And when your films core is routed in the "Found Footage" genre, the last thing you want is the illusion to tear at the seams. Believability is key.

The Pacing:
The other issue that plagued this film was it's pace. In short, it was astounding to me that a script with such obvious and crippling pacing problems could even get green lit at all. How nobody spotted these issues is absolutely beyond me. Evidently, the writer sustained a rather large blow to the head at some point and thought that it would be a good idea to try and build tension in this film by having absolutely nothing happen for the first 30 minutes, which is both a completely ineffective method of building tension and a great way to make the audience completely bored and restless.

Now, normally I wouldn't single this out as such a huge problem, you can usually argue that this time was used to introduce the characters, set up the situation and develop the story but Paranormal Activity 2 is a short film with a simple premise, you don't need 30 minutes of set up. If you combine it's rather modest length with the amount of time wasted at the beginning you find that Paranormal Activity 2 is forced to cram all it's mythology, story development and scares into the latter half of the film in a rather rushed clumsy and heavy handed manner. The frustration of this is that it's pacing problem is easily remedied, all they needed to do was cut about 10 to 15 minutes from the beginning or maybe make the film a little longer. (Preferably both)

Remember all those really strong story elements I highlighted earlier? Yeah, well surprise surprise, thanks to the poor pacing the film manages to fuck those up too. Because a great idea can sit and be as great as it wants, but if it isn't fully developed and explored its wasted. And that's really the story of this film, wasted potential. It was frustrating to watch this interesting story squandered due to poor script decisions.

I loved the first Paranormal Activity. It was tense, subtle, creepy and had a level of realism that made it's horror elements all the more effective. Summed up, Paranormal Activity 2 tries hard to satisfy my desire for more of this franchise but it is unfortunately not cut from the same cloth. And despite it's potential, it's failures are undeniable and many. To quote Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw...

"It give(s) an inscrutable feeling of unease, as if a stranger has come into your home, thinly disguised as your best friend, and you're wondering if he intends to leave soon or murder you and cannibalise your body."

Anyway, thanks for reading.
-- Dan

PS - In an effort to put an arbitrary scoring system into place I give this film five rabbits out of twenty six.

1 comment:

Tom Chettoe said...

After reading your review I'm very torn in terms of my motives for wanting to see this film. Do I let sleeping dogs lie and leave the first film as it was content. Or do I cough up the cash (not that I would have genuinely swallowed my own money) to go and see this se/prequel to enhance the first film, as the second one seemingly leaves alot to be desired.