In college, I wrote an essay in which I attempted to devise a mathematical formula for "the ultimate ghost story." Since I obsessed over ghost stories, mostly Victorian, I found myself studying them and comparing them to their ancient, folklore counterparts. I did actually come up with an algebraic-style formula that you could supposedly "plug" the elements of any ghost story into to find out if it "worked," but unfortunately that paper is long gone so I can't reproduce the - wink, wink - blindingly brilliant formula for ghost story alchemy. CLICK HERE to read Jeff Bayer's review of Paranormal Activity 2.
I do remember bits and pieces of it, however, and there were two crucial elements that I still believe are key to any great ghost story: 1. Pacing, and 2. The Oral Tradition.
Both Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 excel in these categories, although I would suggest that the sequel is actually much scarier and more effective than the original for a handful of reasons. More on those in just a moment.
The pacing in both movies is perfect. Those people who thought it was boring, probably went in expecting standard horror or slasher, both of which tend to gallop immediately into gore. Ghost stories, traditionally, are paced just so - the action has to start at a microscopic level (a room is colder than the others, the cat growls at an empty chair) and then gradually and methodically build until the molehills are actual mountains and the whole planet is burning.
Both movies are also presented as stories through real people from "discovered" footage after the fact. All ghost stories originated as tales told around the fire. It is one of the oldest forms of folklore. Therefore, to tell the story from the perspective of the victims without any visual or audio disruptions (soundtrack, narrators, high-tech editing) is to boil it down to its purest form. It's the closest we can get to the fundamental campfire ghost story without being personally involved.
But the second one can't possibly be better, right? That just doesn't happen. Especially when the studios push someone into a project, because the first one was so successful. The studios don't care if it's quality; they only care about the money coming in. Oftentimes this leads to sloppiness.
That's not what happened with Paranormal Activity 2. It was crafted with just as much methodology and love as the first, but this time the filmmakers went a little farther. They gave us much higher stakes by introducing an infant and a dog into the mix, because most of us can watch fictional grown-ups be slapped around by the supernatural, but no one is comfortable with animals or little children in peril. This didn't ever feel like a cheap plot device, either; it really feels like a new family with their new baby and the family dog.
In the first Paranormal Activity, you cared what happened to Micah and Katie since they were presented as "real" people. But it wasn't like it stayed with you for too long. Paranormal Activity 2 capitalizes on that same sense of realness, except it is so much more vivid with this family, that the ending will probably linger with you. You feel as if you are truly watching footage from a genuine American family and that you are marching, day by day, toward witnessing their inevitable death, and that is off-the-charts disturbing.
Like you find in most classic ghost stories, the little boy and the dog know something is awry, but obviously can't communicate it to anyone. There are scenes from a nanny-cam that are just the toddler and the German Shepherd staring at the same empty space that are incredibly subtle and sinister. You know, through their nervous glances, which rooms the family should worry about, but no one else does. Again, it puts you in the position of having to witness this nightmare unfold and that's all you can do: sit there and watch.
The second film also uses a really effective sound effect building up to some climax: the prolonged sound of wood creaking. It isn't overwhelming, but you get the general idea: those are the sorts of noises you hear before something big and bad happens; it's the sound a ship makes as its getting ready to sink, or it's the sound of the tree branch underneath you giving way. It clues you in that something is coming, but you don't know what or where. The movie gives you a view of the entire living room, the young mother is standing at the window by herself, and you hear the sound of pressure being applied to wood - you end up focusing intently on the screen, searching the room for the first signs of danger. This makes you much more vulnerable to jumping and/or yelling, because you're already watching so closely. And it rarely comes from where you expect.
One of the things I found so impressive about Paranormal Activity is that it didn't give you any explanation. Explanations are tidy, comforting little things to have when it comes to scary movies. Not knowing is far, far worse. Paranormal 2 breaks with that slightly, by giving us some noncommittal information: the daughter finds information on the internet about people making pacts with demons, offering the creature their first born male in exchange for wealth or success; the daughter also researches the entire family genealogy and discovers that Hunter, the toddler in the house, is the first male child born on the mother's side since the 1930s. So, maybe a great grandmother somewhere in history made a deal with a demon and maybe the unseen thing in the house is a demon, but it's all just casual conjecture. Giving us this information doesn't detract from the movie's effectiveness, which took some calculation on their part; the people behind this movie know how to tell a damned good ghost story (even if that ghost does turn out to be a demon).
All that being said, I agree with Bayer's score of 7/10. It was believable to have the family put up cameras everywhere after the break in, but when strange stuff starts happening they barely check the footage. It has to be that way, because otherwise the movie's over after the first week, but it bothered me at the time. I'd be rooted to those recordings daily if I were in their position. My stepdaughter has creepy footage of one of my son's toy trains scurrying around on its own, playing awful kiddie music in the middle of the night? Time to check the recordings!
So, that's my two cents. I loved it and I recommend it.