‘Paranormal Activity 2’ elevates its predecessor

Posted Oct. 28, 2010, at 7:31 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, directed by Tod Williams, written by Michael R. Perry, 91 minutes, rated PG-13.

The prequel to Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” once again proves that in a horror movie, often the less you see, the more intense the story.

Given Hollywood’s more-is-more sensibility, that concept usually is tossed in the Shasta can, so when a movie like this comes along that actually allows one’s imagination to stand in for the special effects, it makes for a more unnerving film. That’s what this movie has going for it — it trusts the viewer.

“Paranormal Activity 2” hails from director Tod Williams from Michael R. Perry’s script, and the great news is that they didn’t mess with the first film’s formula. In fact, this film somehow elevates the first. It deepens that movie because it takes place two months before the first movie, and thus informs what came before it.

In the first film, Micah (Micah Sloat) and his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) were terrorized by demons in their San Diego home. The prequel focuses on three people, Katie’s sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), and Kristi’s husband (Brian Boland) and daughter (Molly Ephraim), all of whom find themselves in the same night-mare Katie and Micah endured — a demon is set free upon them and turns their lives into a living hell. But enough said about that; anything more would spoil the movie.

What can be said is this: Ingeniously, Williams and his screenwriters incorporate Micah and Katie into the script — each actor returns, which will surprise those who saw the first film, and their presence adds a chilling effect. Those who saw the first movie know what’s in store for them — they know the outcome. That Micah and Katie are here before their own crisis with demons strikes only amplifies what’s in store for Kristi and her family as the film unfolds.

Throughout, there’s much to admire — how spare the movie is, how its undercurrent of horror gradually reveals itself to us and then consumes us, its genuine jolts of terror, and particularly the acting, which is trickier than some might think.

What we’re viewing is supposed to be a homemade video stitched together with surveillance footage, so to pull that off in this story, the actors had to come off as real people aware of the camera in most scenes, annoyed by it in others, and absolutely unaware of it when they were shocked out of the moment by the otherworldly.

Since so much of the dialogue was adlibbed, the difficulty level of carrying the movie forward was even more of a challenge. This wasn’t an easy gig.

But they make it look easy. Grade: A-

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Halloween DVD and Blu-ray picks

Halloween is Sunday. Below are recommended movies that offer more treats than tricks.

“Let the Right One In”

Mirroring the film’s recent English-language remake, “Let Me In,” here is a quiet, intense vampire thriller from Sweden. It’s the story of a pale, bullied 12-year-old boy named Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), and how his budding relationship with a pale, 12-year-old girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson), who is a vampire, leads each to a dangerous precipice that must not be crossed. Oskar, who is that rare horror movie character who has substance, comes to love Eli, but in spite of suffering a cruel life that also includes divorced parents, he doesn’t want to end it. From the start, there is a wariness between him and Eli that draws you into the movie, which is set in the snowy frosts of winter (Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark cinematography is among the movie’s chief pleasures). Each child is lonely. Each needs a friend. And so, as they grow closer, she becomes his protector, feasting gruesomely when she must (the poor thing never remembers to wipe her bloody mouth), but remaining as true to Oskar as he is to her. The movie is violent — sometimes wickedly so — but those moments are few. The director understands the power of subtlety. He knows precisely the right moment to shock, but more important, he does so in ways that you’ve never seen on a movie screen. Rated R. Grade: A-

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“The Fly: Blu-ray”

Kafka would have loved it. This remake of the 1958 original is essentially a horror romance. It’s one of David Cronenberg’s best films, with Jeff Goldblum’s inventor-scientist Seth Brundle joining Geena Davis’ Ronnie in creating a heartfelt, B-movie gross-out. What the film creates in Seth’s unflattering transformation from human being to human-fly is grotesque, but unlike so many of today’s horror movies, none of it is served with a trace of humor. Cronenberg and company are dead serious about their cautionary ideas about the abuse of science and technology. As Seth deteriorates into a mess of ticks, mandibles and twitches, the movie comes down to the nuances of Goldblum’s spot-on performance and the horror of what some will do with a loaded rifle in the name of love. Rated PG-13. Grade: A-

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“Planet Terror”

Robert Rodriguez’s addition to the double-feature “Grindhouse” is a hugely entertaining zombie horror thriller set in a small Texas nowhere, where a virus quickly is turning the town into the flesh-eating undead. Freddie Rodriguez and Rose McGowan star as El Wray and Cherry Darling, former lovers (he’s a gunslinger, she’s a go-go dancer, together they’re magic) who reunite just as the world is falling apart. The latter proves especially true for Cherry, who loses a leg midway through, only to find herself fitted with the most unusual of prosthetics — a loaded machine gun, which the limber Cherry uses not only to walk, but also to mow down the undead in devastating balloons of blood. Bruce Willis and Stacey Ferguson are featured in fevered cameos, with Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton and Quentin Tarantino himself all gamely wading through the entrails. Rated R. Grade: B+

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“The Orphanage”

This foreign-language creepy is set in a large manor house that once was an orphanage for a host of poisoned tots. It’s expertly conceived, a ghost story that unfolds with unusual reservoirs of grace and menace — there isn’t a cheap jolt to be found. Instead, Bayona offers a slow build up of dread through the powerful vehicle of paranormal suggestion. For almost the entire movie, we never really know what’s going on inside the orphanage in question (or what occurred there years ago to make it haunted now), and that’s where the film’s suspense is allowed to mount — in the realm of the unknown. What ensues is everything you could hope for from a good ghost story — moody cinematography, mysterious figures appearing, dead children lurking, psychics tapping into a world nobody wants to face, and a complex puzzle of unearthed secrets that eventually leads to one massive plot twist. Grade: A-

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“The Others” DVD, Blu-ray

Nicole Kidman is Grace, a gorgeous young aristocrat reminiscent of Grace Kelly who’s living alone with her two children in a sprawling Victorian mansion on the British Isle of Jersey. It’s 1945, Grace’s husband hasn’t returned from World War II and is feared dead, and her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), are suffering from a disease that makes them fatally susceptible to light. Fastidious and grim, her lean body sewn into haute couture, Grace keeps the mansion in almost total darkness — she protects her children by locking them away in one of the mansion’s 50 shadowy rooms. It’s a wonderful setup for the macabre, and we’ll leave it at that. Recalling Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” Peter Medak’s “The Changeling” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” “The Others” is an old-fashioned ghost story that understands the conventions of the genre and uses them well. It’s utter lack of special effects is its greatest strength — but there is one caveat. When it counts most, its ability to surprise will depend on its audience’s level of sophistication. Rated PG-13. Grade: B+

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“The Strangers” DVD, Blu-ray

It stumbles in its rushed ending, but what’s admirable about this horror movie is how it remains committed to delivering mounting tension throughout. Writer-director Bryan Bertono uses time-worn horror movie cliches to fuel the action and he uses them successfully, achieving a heightened sense of dread. The film follows James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), an attractive couple at a remote location whose relationship is on the outs and then suddenly thrown into turmoil when a knock comes at the door. It’s 4 a.m., and it turns out to be a young woman who calls herself Tamara. When James and Kristen inform her that nobody is there by that name, let’s just say that all hell breaks loose once the door is shut in her face. What unfolds is lean, tight and disturbing. Mirroring the better horror movies of the 1970s, it’s all about atmosphere and stripping away the clutter to get down to business with low-budget chills. And it comes through. Rated R. Grade: B

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“The Twisted Terror Collection”

A rousing B-movie horror collection from Warner that includes six films — John Carpenter’s 1978 television stalker movie, “Someone’s Watching Me,” with Lauren Hutton in the lead; and Oliver Stone’s 1981 horror film, “The Hand,” in which Michael Caine loses a hand to an auto accident — and the hand won’t die! Also included are 1986’s “Deadly Friend” from Wes Craven, which he’d likely sooner wish to forget; 1973’s “From Beyond the Grave,” with Peter Cushing as a shifty antiques dealer; and 1981’s “Eyes of a Stranger,” with Jennifer Jason Leigh protecting her deaf and blind sister from a serial rapist. Finally, there’s 1992’s “Dr. Giggles,” which is about a mass murderer that stars nobody memorable but nevertheless features a title that gets to the heart of this holiday. Go and have a few laughs of your own. Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Fridays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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