There are several schools of thought regarding sequels to horror movies, and one of the most commonly held was best expressed by noted drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, who wrote, "If you're gonna make a sequel, make a sequel. Bring the dead people back to life and do it all over again." Sure, that might not sound very imaginative, but the notion of changing everything up and starting from scratch doesn't always work so well. After The Blair Witch Project became one of the biggest bonanzas in indie horror history, the producers decided to take a completely different approach with the sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and ended up with a movie so bad and so thoroughly off-putting it killed off a potential franchise in its opening weekend. Writer and director Oren Peli scored a success similar to The Blair Witch Project with his high-concept, low-budget hit Paranormal Activity, and for the sequel he's played it smart -- Paranormal Activity 2 carefully follows the stylistic template of the original, but adds just enough new wrinkles (and plays on just enough of the details of the original) that most folks who dug the first film are sure to enjoy it, even if it doesn't add much to the formula and lacks the freshness of the first film.
Paranormal Activity 2 was shot on a significantly larger budget than the first movie, and this time around the film has more than two main characters, making the human interactions noticeably more complex. Also, while everything in Paranormal Activity was supposed to have been shot by one of the two protagonists, in the sequel several characters have video cameras, and a battery of surveillance equipment gives director Tod "Kip" Williams (taking over from Peli) more angles to work with, but this still follows the gambit of folks documenting themselves while demons are making their lives miserable.
In this case, the story takes place a few months before the events of the first film, and we discover that Katie (Katie Featherston), the much put-upon leading lady in the original, has a sister living in an upscale Los Angeles suburb named Kristi (Sprague Grayden). Kristi has a new baby son, Hunter; a likable lug of a husband named Daniel (Brian Boland), who owns several fast-food joints; a teenage stepdaughter from her hubby's first marriage, Ali (Molly Ephraim); and a large, friendly dog. As the family gets used to the new arrival, strange noises are heard late at night and when they come home from an outing, they discover that the house has been trashed, even though none of their valuables have been stolen. Daniel responds by installing a security system and a network of surveillance cameras, though that doesn't stop the noises or the Latino housekeeper's insistence that spirits lurk in the home. When Katie and her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), stop by for a visit, they discuss the strange goings-on with Kristi; the women of the house believe supernatural forces are at work, while the men find that notion ridiculous. That doesn't last long, as the spirits get noisier and angrier, especially when Ali begins doing some research on the subject, and before long the safety of the household is being threatened on several fronts, possibly due to some dirty dealings in the family's distant past.
While Williams isn't quite as scrupulous as Peli in making it clear that everything we see is being photographed by one of his characters, Paranormal Activity 2 follows the lead of the original quite carefully and uses its "found footage" visual strategy to its advantage, though the film looks noticeably cleaner and sharper than the debut, even as a patina of digital grain is added in the interest of realism. The movie's special effects are also considerably more elaborate, though the use of CGI is subtle and the film has its feet planted more firmly in the real world than the average contemporary horror movie overflowing with impossible images. Screenwriter Michael R. Perry subtly picks up on minor details from the original film and works them into the story here (as well as adding a few interesting sidetracks of his own), even as the story walks on far more familiar ground than the original -- the nosy teenage daughter, the oblivious husband, the ethnic character who understands the supernatural, and the pet that knows evil when it smells it are all pretty standard stuff in horror screenplays, but Williams and his cast bring enough naturalism to the film that it's hard to quibble about such details. And at a time when the "torture porn" cycle of horror movies has threatened to wipe out subtlety once and for all, Paranormal Activity 2 is, like its predecessor, a welcome exercise in suspense that brings out fear, unease, and a few real shocks in an understated manner without hitting viewers over the head with the terror of what's onscreen. Paranormal Activity 2 is never as interesting or as absorbing as Oren Peli's original, but the people who made it clearly understand what made that film work, and they respect its craft and its vision just enough to come up with a movie that works the same way. It's good enough to make Paranormal Activity 3 seem like a welcome prospect, which is a whole lot more than anyone has ever said about a third Blair Witch flick.