Time has flown by so fast these past few weeks that I’ve barely had time to savor the build-up to Halloween. No matter: This week I’m making up for lost time with a look at “Paranormal Activity 2,” along with a short run-down on some random horror flicks I’ve seen in the past week or so. (The old “Film Log” feature is returning, thanks to Battle Royale, so be on the lookout as I attempt to log mini-reviews for every movie I watch. I usually average about four or five a week. Also, please see the sidebar for a brief update on the blog goings-on.)
Next time, expect a review of Clint Eastwood’s latest piece of Oscar bait, “Hereafter,” followed by “Due Date” and then either “Skyline” or “Unstoppable,” depending on word of mouth. Seems like slim pickin’s for awards season, but perhaps things will pick up soon.
I’m about the biggest “Paranormal Activity” fan that you’re ever likely to come across. In 2009, in the face of mockery, I proclaimed the film as one of the five best I’d seen that year, and insisted that star Katie Featherston should have won an Oscar for her heartbreaking, powerfully subtle tour-de-force as a suburbanite tormented by an evil spirit. Like “The Blair Witch Project” 10 years prior, the film had its share of detractors, but nevertheless managed to make its mark as one of the most successful independent features of all time — all on a budget of roughly $15,000. Simply incredible.
And, like they did with “Blair Witch,” studio execs have seen fit to expand the mythology established in the first film to fill a needless sequel — or, in this case, a prequel. To be fair, “Paranormal Activity 2” is no “Blair Witch 2” — it’s not objectively terrible or torturous, the acting is serviceable, and the direction (by Tod Williams, of “The Door in the Floor” semi-fame) is even, at times, inspired. But it’s all just so repetitive, isn’t it?
Cue security camera footage showing the pool. Cut to the foyer. Cut to the living room. Cut to the kitchen. A curtain moves when it shouldn’t be moving. Cut to the little boy’s room. Cue loud banging noise and barking dog. Repeat for 90 minutes.
The first “Paranormal Activity” was criticized on similar grounds, but with that film, first-timer Oren Peli circumvented the repetition by: 1) injecting flair and originality into scenes involving the mundane, such as Ouija boards and dark attics; and 2) confining the night-time footage to the couple’s bedroom. In Williams’ movie, the viewer is catapulted all over the house with very little rhyme or reason to the shot choices, and the whole thing eventually becomes a little unintentionally disorienting.
The other key component missing here is a great central performance. Thanks to some creative tinkering with the timeline, Featherston’s character is back, now in a supporting role, but her presence isn’t nearly enough to lift the movie out of its repetitive funk. The other characters are unlikable and completely unengaging, and as such it’s nearly impossible care about what happens to them.
Ultimately, the film exists primarily to explain events that occurred in the first movie. But when you’re dealing with things that go bump in the night, aren’t things scariest when a little mystery and ambiguity is involved?
Halloween Film Log
“April Fool’s Day”
1986, Fred Walton, U.S.
Long-beloved by genre fans, this is exactly the kind of good-hearted, cheesy ’80s horror quickie that people are talking about when they say, “They just don’t make ’em like they used to.” A better-than-average cast (including Thomas F. Wilson, perhaps better known as Biff Tannen) aids this goofy “And Then There Were None” homage that finds a group of college-age acquaintances spending an April Fool’s Day weekend at a rich friend’s island resort. The corpses start to mount at a pretty good clip as someone begins to pick off the guests one by one, and everything culminates in one of the genre’s most memorable twist endings. What’s not to love?
“Drag Me to Hell”
2009, Sam Raimi, U.S.
Kitchy fun, with Raimi taking a much-needed break from the superhero genre to return to his horror roots. Alison Lohman stars as Christine Brown, a middle-management bank employee who denies a gypsy woman an extension on her mortgage and subsequently finds herself being plagued by a vengeance-minded demon. In order to save her soul from eternal torment, Christine must figure out a way to beat the demon at its own game. The film is about as gross as a PG-13 entry can get away with, and, if you’re feeling frisky, you could interpret all the oral-fixated vileness as an elaborate way of tackling our heroine’s subtextual eating disorder. Like I said, only if you wanna.
“The Bird with Crystal Plumage”
1970, Dario Argento, Italy
Argento has made several better films, but this, his debut, remains one of his most noted. The filmmaker had not yet perfected the “giallo” style he would later use to great effect in works like “Deep Red” and “Tebebre,” but it’s still fascinating to see the building blocks of Argento’s distinctive technique. The plot is pure Hitchcock, and concerns an American writer who, while visiting Italy, witnesses an attempted murder. Everything seems straight-forward at first, but after speaking with the police, the American can’t seem to shake the vague feeling that he saw something in the struggle that didn’t quite make sense, wasn’t “quite right.” Targeted by both the suspicious Italian police and an at-large serial killer, the American must come to grips with an extreme case of culture shock as he attempts to make sense of the crime.
“The House on Sorority Row”
1983, Mark Rosman, U.S.
Pretty much what you’d expect. I watched it in the hopes that it would provide some shred of fun or innovation, as in the “Slumber Party Massacre” series, but alas, this one’s DOA. Think “I Know What You Did Last Summer” stripped of its budget and production values, and you’ve got a pretty good handle on this movie about a group of college gals who accidentally kill their shrewish landlady in a prank gone wrong. Let’s see if you can guess what happens next.
“The Rage: Carrie 2”
1999, Katt Shea, U.S.
Protip: When you’re filming a sequel to a masterpiece that was directed by one of the most influential auteurs of his time, you would do well to include as little footage from the original film as possible, lest you provide a constant reminder to viewers that they are watching a vastly inferior product. In addition to cribbing footage, Shea also attempts to make liberal use of “Carrie” director Brian DePalma’s oft-imitated techniques, but in the end just comes across as clueless and ham-fisted. The movie overall is a bore, and star Emily Bergl is just too darn cute to be even remotely believable as an awkward social outcast. Just watch the original again.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.