In the shivery-skillful, highly worthy fear-factor sequel Paranormal Activity 2, we’re inside a tasteful and spacious suburban home in Carlsbad, Calif., where a patchwork quilt of a family — husband, second wife, toddler, teenage daughter from first marriage — finds itself menaced by what looks, at first, to be a robbery. (There’s a break-in and the house got trashed, but?nothing was stolen.) To protect themselves, the family sets up a hidden-camera video-surveillance system, and this allows the film to cut back and forth among half a dozen fixed-angle views of the house, each one coming at you in granular streaming video. (The shots are in color during the daytime, and dank fluorescent monochrome at night.) The images all point down, which is subtly disquieting, and each one is composed with enough wide-angle space and distance, and enough nooks and crannies, so that even when nothing is happening, the often dead-silent shots tend to grow scarier the more you look at them.
There’s an image of the front walkway; one of the swimming pool (where a mechanical, bottom-trawling pool cleaner keeps teasing us to think that it may be a poltergeist); a kitchen-eye view of the living room; a living-room-eye view of the kitchen; a shot of the entrance foyer and shag-carpet stairway; and, finally, the nursery, where a toddler named Hunter becomes a particular object of fascination — for us, and for the spirit who may be on hand. In Paranormal Activity 2, our eyes keep darting back and forth, scanning the sidewalks, the doorways, the posh bric-a-brac in that overstuffed kitchen, searching (before it can frighten us!) for a telltale bit of movement — for the barest hint of an apparition edging into the frame, or an inanimate object that decides to move around on its own. It’s like a haunted-house version of Where’s Waldo. Alfred Hitchcock used to say that if you jolted an audience with a bomb blast out of the blue, that was merely a shock, but if you planted a bomb and made the audience wait for it to go off, that was suspense. Paranormal Activity 2 blends the two modes into what might be called shockpense. The film keeps jolting us out of the blue, all right — with sudden booms, doors that open of their own accord, or a frying pan that drops out of a pot hanger. In a funny way, though, what makes these devices work is their very randomness: They tickle us with terror because watching the movie, we do know that a bomb has been planted, only it’s a bomb — or, more accurately, a demon — you can’t see.
Offhand, it would be hard to think of another movie that squeezed more thrills and chills out of a single frozen-camera setup than the original Paranormal Activity. No one who saw it will forget that deceptively bland, spooky-neutral, gray-and-white shot of a ranch-house bedroom, the time code leaping ahead in little jump cuts of fear as the goings-on grew ever more freaky and bumpy-in-the-night. Made for roughly $11,000, Paranormal Activity was such an ingenious fusion of form and content that there was every reason to suspect that the sequel would use a bigger budget to deliver fewer goose bumps. But Paranormal Activity 2, directed by the gifted Tod Williams (who has no connection to the original film), is anything but a rip-off. It made me jump, sweat, and chew my fingernails.
Mixed in with the movie’s stately panoramas of anxiety is the usual clatter of handheld camera and fake-authentic in-your-face acting/nonacting. If The Blair Witch Project set the gold standard for horror-movie performances that sort of, kind of convince you that you could be watching an actual documentary, Paranormal Activity 2 never quite takes that full creepy-crawly vérité leap. The actors are vivid, but it’s a far trickier thing to make us believe that we’re watching not just a bunch of testy twentysomethings but a complicated nuclear family. It took me a while to register that Kristi (Sprague Grayden), the perky mother of Hunter, is married to Daniel (Brian Boland), the gruff and goateed middle-aged dad, because they never truly seem like a couple. (Katie Featherston, from the first movie, makes a welcome reappearance as the same character, who is now Kristi’s more-than-meets-the-eye, feisty sister.) There are great horror movies about families who fall apart when goosed by the supernatural, but here, despite the humanistic background of director Williams (his previous films are the wry and wise Jeff Bridges drama The Door in the Floor and The Adventures of Sebastian Cole), the psychodrama is thin. I also found the ending too abrupt. (Don’t worry: I’m giving away nothing.) For most of Paranormal Activity 2, though, you’ll watch and wait for the unknown and be jittered with pleasure when it arrives. B+