Paranormal Activity 2 is a lot like Poltergeist, except it’s bad. Like that 1982 ghostie, this newest installment of a fledgling franchise explores the origins of American prosperity, and shares a fear of middle-class signifiers: here, toys that come to life and, in its best moment, possessed cabinets. But the movie of which we’re most reminded, of course, is the franchise founder. And this movie’s failures just illuminate the triumphs of the first. Paranormal Activity père succeeded by virtue of its minimalism, exploiting in tandem its expert one-upmanship pacing and the tyranny of the long take: the audience was imprisoned in the unedited shot, with the gripping guarantee that whatever scare director Oren Peli had in store of them would be creepier than the last. Like any well-behaved horror sequel, this part-two has more—more characters, more cameras—because new director Tod Williams doesn’t understand that the aesthetic only works with less.
Cleverly, this sequel has positioned itself as a prequel, set roughly two months before the first. It focuses on Katie’s sister and her extended family: husband, toddler, adopted teenage daughter, dog, and Latina nanny. After their house is trashed one day—by the demon!—they install several security cameras throughout the house, whose footage becomes our nighttime source of information…and the teenager has a camcorder to fill in the rest. Because that’s what teenagers do. In the first film, the husband used his camera as a means of avoiding dealing with his wife and their problems, which their “demon” could have been read to represent. In the second, there are lots of cameras only because that’s the franchise’s aesthetic, and their presence often doesn’t make sense. Like, why would father and daughter record themselves bad-mouthing mommy behind her back? (While we’re at it, why are Hispanics more “in tune” with evil spirits? Because they’re more like dogs, who can also sense them, than white people?)
The unfortunate answer is, because this is a dumb and lazy movie! Director Williams drags it down with too many lulls, fake outs and cheapjack scares. And he depends too much on manipulating the audience’s general concern for the welfare of crib-age children. But Paranormal Activity 2 does pick up, or at least engages the viewer slightly, once it starts to investigate the why. (Once, that is, the script takes prominence over the direction.) The curse exists on the mother’s side (like Jewishness?), but it goes back several generations: it’s an ancient evil that lives in their basement because the family’s very foundation is rotted. The demon wants their baby because it struck a deal with a great-grandparent: the soul of a male heir in exchange for money and power. The family’s wealth and privilege is striking: their sweet 50” plasma, their swimming pool and comfortably large house, the dad’s casual racism and intractable beliefs. Positing materialism as literally evil, the results of a demonic deal, are comforting themes for an audience still treading water in a recessionary economy. More fascinating, though, is where the movie takes these ideas. The movie ends with a display of selfishness (or, quintessential Modern American-ness): the dad shirks his family’s responsibility, handing it off to another—and fucking them over—just to preserve his own little bit of power. In Paranormal Activity 2 that’s an ineffective strategy: do that, and you’re still fucked. Welcome to America.