You can separate the viewers of the first Paranormal Activity into three categories: 1) People who were terrified by the experience; 2) people who were terrified by the experience but have too much pride to admit it; and 3) people who were legitimately bored by the movie. The latter category is understandable; it’s an experience you have to buy into, one that takes the proper mood and setting, and requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. Without it, Paranormal Activity and its sequel might come off as an exercise in tedium — a dull, restless patience-testing experience that’ll leave you scratching your head wondering wondering what anyone else found redeeming about the movie.
If you fell into either of the first two categories, however, Paranormal Activity 2 will not only match the terror of the first film, it will outdo it, and in the process, do something a sequel may have never accomplished before (much less a horror-movie sequel): Make the first movie even better.
What makes this franchise more successful than most other horror movies is that Paranormal Activity doesn’t reach for the big kill; it doesn’t amp the violence or pile up the body count. It’s painstaking in its ability to lull you into its atmosphere, refusing to satiate our desires for quick developments or provide relief — Paranormal Activity doesn’t give in to your anxiousness, it draws out that anticipation to the brink (and sometimes beyond that) of what you can take, and even then, it brings down the hammer sparingly and in a staggered crescendo. The real work of Paranormal Activity is in the silent shots, or the scenes of family banality, the way it turns that restlessness you’re feeling for most of the movie into complete helplessness by the end. And no franchise has perfected the jump-scare shit-in-your-pants jolt of terror as well as Paranormal Activity.
Paranormal Activity has no boogeyman — there is no quantifiable evil you can point you finger at. There’s nothing you can stop, or defeat, or kill. After two movies, we still have no fucking idea what’s haunting these people, and it’s that fear of the unknown that drives the films. As long as the filmmakers continue to follow a similar formula, using different but related characters (and the sequel is careful to mention a few possibilities), while building even incrementally on the now slightly more developed mythology, Paranormal Activity may in fact be able to pull out the long con, successfully dragging us along in our pee-stained undies for five or six installments. Unfortunately, in the end, they’ll never be able to satisfy our expectations. Nothing is as scary as something you don’t know or understand, and the second we do — or even think we do — the franchise will die.
Paranormal Activity 2 is a prequel; it begins one month before the events of the original take place, and for a very long time, you wonder what kind of cheap gimmick they will employ to tie the two together. The events of this film are not entirely separate from the original. They are happening to the family of Katie’s sister, and even Katie Featherstone from the original returns several times during the course of the movie (Micah makes a couple of cameo appearances, too). But the two movies not only complement one another, the sequel enhances your knowledge of the first. I’m sure there are unexplained gaps, but I’m not willing or curious enough to re-watch the original to critique the flaws in continuity. Paranormal Activity 2 does its job — it scares the goose bumps off of you — so how it syncs up with the first film is a futile exercise in academia.
The real miracle of Paranormal Activity 2, however, is that, if you’ve seen the first film, you know almost exactly what to expect. Yet, though it doesn’t veer away from those expectations — the victims are a family instead of a couple, but otherwise, the narrative is similar in execution — it manages to conjure the same haunting magic by following the same template. It succeeds not by restarting the experience of the first movie, but by continuing it, pulling us deeper in, clutching us around the heart, slowly squeezing, refusing to let up, until the final acts of terror send you home paranoid, uneasy, and uncertain whether to sleep with, or as far away as possible, from your children.