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Paranormal Activity 2: Unrated Director's Cut DVD Review

Paranormal Activity 2 movie poster Paranormal Activity 2

Theatrical Release: October 22, 2010 / Running Time: 91 Minutes (Theatrical Cut), 98 Minutes (Director's Cut) / Rating: R (Theatrical Cut), Unrated (Director's Cut)

Director: Tod Williams / Writers: Michael R. Perry (story & screenplay); Christopher Landon, Tom Pabst (screenplay); Oren Peli (original film & characters)

Cast: Katie Featherston (Katie), Micah Sloat (Micah), Brian Boland (Daniel Rey), Molly Ephraim (Ali Rey), Sprague Grayden (Kristi Rey), Vivis (Martine), Seth Ginsberg (Brad), William Juan Prieto (Hunter Rey), Jackson Xenia Prieto (Hunter Rey), Daniel Bierend (Surveillance Camera Expert)

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Paranormal Activity was a bona fide phenomenon. Made for a mere $15,000 and released gradually to meet and build demand, the homegrown horror movie went on to gross over $100 million domestically and nearly $200 million worldwide. The film's viral success and "found footage" design reminded many of a movie released ten years earlier, The Blair Witch Project. Blair Witch made more money (even ignoring the industry's steep ticket inflation) and the public's understanding of its veracity seemed more in question, but the two projects had a lot in common. So when Paramount Pictures quickly commissioned a sequel, the equivalent seemed to be Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the profitable but loathed and immediately forgotten 2000 sequel. If Paranormal was aspiring to a repeat of the original Blair Witch, then Paranormal Activity 2 was aspiring not to be anything like Book of Shadows.

Young Hunter and Abby the family dog stand on alert just past the soul's midnight in "Paranormal Activity 2."

Rather than taking the Book of Shadows approach of toppling the mythos of the original film, Paranormal Activity 2 opts to provide more of the same.
Its predecessor, written, directed, produced, and edited by Oren Peli, documented a young couple's trying experiences in an evidently haunted house. That was set in the fall of 2006; Paranormal 2, produced by Peli but written and directed by new blood, is set primarily in August of the same year, making it something of a prequel, with minimal overlap.

As you should recall, the first film's lead female, Katie (Katie Featherston), had experienced childhood trauma of the supernatural variety, which had made her open to and weary of the possibility of similar terror confronting her and her boyfriend (Micah Sloan) in their home. The focus here is on Katie's sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), also affected by that cursed youth, and her family: husband Dan (Brian Boland), their infant son Hunter (Jackson and William Prieto), and Ali (Molly Ephraim), Dan's teen daughter from his previous marriage.

Once again, there isn't a traditional narrative. The Rey family's experiences are relayed in home movies and footage from comprehensive security cameras installed following a (convenient) home ransacking. Some of the same unexplainable phenomena that Katie and Micah are soon to face befall the Reys. A pan falls in the kitchen. Doors open and slam shut all by themselves. In the most extreme situations, strange things occur to Abby, the family's German Shepherd, and Kristi herself.

The Reys getting burgled leads to the installation of surveillance cameras granting us practically wall-to-wall coverage of their home life. Despite claiming top billing, Katie Featherston, the star of the first movie, returns in a supporting role here.

Like the first film, Paranormal Activity 2 revels in the creepiness of relatable domestic oddities and proceeds to uncover the terror in heightening such disturbances with the suggestion that some greater force is at work. For me and, I think, most viewers, other horror movie villains like psychotic killers and deadly animals are simply no match for the faceless unknown that feels like a more plausible and insurmountable threat. The movie doesn't have to do much to tap into deep-seated fears within all of us who don't have answers to life's every question.

Some of the movie's greatest power lies in ordinarily inanimate objects seemingly possessed into movement: a pool-cleaning device, a toy truck.
Whereas most horror films opt for big scares, bloody kills, and strong atmosphere, this and its predecessor instead supply the mundane, capturing the kind of conversations you are far more likely to have than a screenwriter is to imagine. It is this perfectly believable reality that enables the film to disarm and unsettle you.

Since this is the second time such a story is being told in such a way, the experience isn't as great or remarkable as it was before. But Paranormal Activity 2 is still supremely effective at reeling you in and sweeping you up in its thrills. The achievement lies in the restraint. A different suspense movie might labor over how to stage, shoot, and cut a sequence to maximize impact. Here, the filmmakers can just stay on a high angle closed-circuit surveillance cam view and tinker with its subjects in the slightest way. Even if you're now expecting something, you're not sure exactly what and the scare doesn't rely on a character you might care for, but yourself and these ordinary people representing you.

And yet, don't think the filmmakers have it easy or deserve less credit than those seeking to move with traditional storytelling methods. Such an exercise in minimalism requires creativity and craft. The film is tautly edited and the practically unknown actors face and meet tall challenges in having to play things naturally and not assume any foreign airs or instincts.

Of course, just as on Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity, it's not that hard to enter this film vowing not to be frightened and come away bragging that you weren't. If so, congratulations. You were able to separate reality from the screen on which a scripted motion picture was projected. I am more concerned by anyone buying into the found footage claims (like the original, this one thanks the families of the deceased and the police department for their assistance) instead of recognizing them as a launching point.

I'm not sure what, other than ego, is gained by watching this determined not to let it get to you. Such a mindset reduces this and other movies of this sort to nothingness. So too might scrutinizing the temporal relationship between this movie and its chronological sequel, which seems to have been established to allow for the original stars to participate on the fringe and not give the movie an "It's happening again!" feel.

Skeptical Dad (Brian Boland) checks the tapes revealing why he finds his pool cleaner outside the pool every morning. Ali (Molly Ephraim), the Reys' teenage daughter, and her boyfriend Brad (Seth Ginsberg) ensure the Ouija board retains a role in the series by taping their play.

Taking a little longer than its predecessor but still not as long as many films, Paranormal Activity 2 debuts on DVD and in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack next Tuesday, three and a half months after opening in theaters. Its box office performance reinforced the franchise's commercial value. While this one grossed $25 million less domestically than the previous fall's entry, it didn't have the ballooning budget of Blair Witch 2. In fact with a reported production cost of $3 M and a North American gross of $85 M, Paranormal 2 easily ranked as the year's biggest return on investment. And with the Saw series conquered directly and definitively, Paranormal looks to fill its void of annual fall cinema staple. It will be interesting to see how long Paramount and the producers can keep the series going and when and how they'll start to mix things up. Scheduled to open this October 21st, the third movie has not yet had its plot disclosed.

As on the first film, Paranormal Activity 2 is presented in both its theatrical cut and an unrated alternate cut. While on the first movie the differences were limited to a shorter alternate ending, what is here billed as an Unrated Director's Cut runs seven minutes longer (6:55, to be precise) than the original version and diverges in a number of small ways throughout. I was able to spot six reinserted scenes that made up the difference. If you don't want to know what they are, feel free to skip the following paragraph.

The director's cut adds: a brief early shot of the front door open, foreshadowing later significance (0:10); a mother-son moment, where a highchair is tipped over (0:48); footage from Night #4 followed by Abby barking at the house (1:19); Night #11, where a stovetop fire leads Dan out to the pool (2:19); some more time with the family, specifically Dan getting burned in the hot tub (1:35); and Ali discussing her nightmares (0:44). Unless other spots have been shortened, I've caught everything.

If you didn't skip over the previous paragraph, then you know that nothing huge is gained in the extended cut, just some additional family moments (Dan and Ali, most of all) and incidents cut to save time and spare repetition. I doubt anyone will come away with a strong preference between these two cuts. As you'd suspect, nothing but choice and marketing considerations leaves this director's cut unrated; the theatrical cut is about as tame an R rating as you'll find and while the extensions add a tiny bit of profanity, this is far from NC-17 material.

It's worth noting that at three points during playback of the two cuts, my review copy of PA2 froze and reset my DVD player as not a single other of the hundreds (thousands?) of discs that have been viewed on it has. Is my DVD haunted? Is it subpar authoring stemming of the two-cut branching? Or did my player simply die? It appears to be the last one, although I'll never know if the laser lens stopped working because of over two years of heavy duty usage or because it was possessed by the spirit of a demon disc.

Paranormal Activity 2: Unrated Director's Cut DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish, Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Captioned and Subtitled
Release Date: February 8 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.98
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available in Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Combo ($39.99 SRP)
and Video on Demand

VIDEO and AUDIO

Paranormal Activity 2 doesn't have the usual Hollywood sheen. The home movies are shot on consumer-grade digital cameras and the security cameras are, well, security cameras. As such, this lacks the sharp, slick visuals of most of its contemporaries in the same league as it distribution and box office-wise. Any technical shortcomings (blurriness, heavy grain, artifacting) are intentional and there happily isn't much of the jerky nature of more handheld found footage films.

The sound is decidedly less low-tech. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix supplies nice atmosphere in the soft buzz of surveillance footage and typically mild rumble of the presumed house demon. Inevitably, there are some sharp peaks in volume, which the soundtrack handles as well as everything else. It's worth noting that a descriptive track has been provided for the blind. I suspect that they can see the humor and futility in something so visual being translated for them so precisely. I don't know that I've encountered as bizarre a candidate for DVS treatment.

Kristi goes searching for Hunter in this unused "found footage." This young man's frightened response to the original movie is preserved in the green glow of night vision in the teaser for "PA2." Simplicity, thy name is Paranormal Activity 2's menus.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Aside from the second cut of the film, there is almost nothing in the way of bonus features.
"Found Footage" offers 3 minutes and 49 seconds of unused material. Basically just a deleted sequence, this shows the Rey family's frantic search for their missing baby Hunter. It does play a bit bigger than much of the movie, which may be why it was dropped.

"Trailers" holds a teaser for Paranormal Activity 2 (1:08). Though it retains the night vision shots of scared moviegoers, it's not quite the original preview, since it ends with a DVD and Blu-ray mention. The same section's "Previews" reel promotes The Traveler and The Romantics before repeating the disc-opening trailers for Jackass 3, Dinner for Schmucks, Case 39, and Middle Men.

Befitting the movie's design, the static, silent menu screens are plain white text on black, matching the film's matter-of-fact onscreen titles. Following the auto-played studio logo and ads, it does feel more lazy than inspired.

Nights are logged and as August 2006 advances, the paranormal activity within the Rey household heightens. Daniel is not pleased to come home to a house with smoke being dispersed by the nanny.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

At some point, the appeal of Paranormal Activity's design will fade, but that time has not yet come. Paranormal 2 stays close to what made the first film such a phenomenal word-of-mouth hit. That may make it infinitely more familiar than its predecessor, but it is still an engrossing and creepy experience superior to most horror movies. I'm surprised and pleased that this hasty follow-up does not disappoint.

Once again, Paramount has spared the movie of many bonus features, something that has its reasons and that I don't mind (although they could easily do much more to further the illusion that this isn't a standard feature film). The movie and its presentation are strong enough to consider buying anyway.

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Reviewed February 5, 2011.



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