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Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

04/19/2011 1 comment

Some horror movies work because you don’t know why things are happening. Of course, humans are curious creatures, and when faced with terrifying, inexplicable phenomena, we try to figure out what is going on and why. This is both a minor failing and a major boon for the species, as it helps us understand the world when we risk getting eaten by it. A number of horror movie sequels try to explain what happened in the first one. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. How does this one fare? Let’s find out.

Paranormal Activity 2 is a supernatural horror film directed by Tod Williams, serving as both a prequel and a sequel to the original Paranormal Activity. It stars Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Seth Ginsberg, Sprague Grayden, and Micah Sloat.

In the year 2006, new parents Kristi and Dan Rey find themselves faced with a chilling event: their house has apparently been burglarized, with every single room ransacked save for the nursery. However, the only item that has been taken is a necklace belonging to Kristi’s sister Katie. Justifiably spooked, Dan installs a number of security cameras around the house, through whose neutral eyes we witness the events that unfold throughout the film. Over the next few days, Kristi and Ali, Dan’s daughter from a previous marriage, start to hear strange noises and see items moved by an unseen forces, and their housekeeper and nanny Martine is convinced that they are being tormented by evil spirits. Dan is skeptical, and fires Martine after her repeated attempts at spiritual cleansing. All the while, though, the security cameras continue to record, until it becomes apparent that the spooky activity is centered around baby Hunter, and it might be connected with a secret in Kristi’s family’s past…

I enjoyed this one about as much as I did the first movie. In haunted house franchises like this, too often the attempts to explain or justify the haunting makes it something lame, but not so here. While the collective plight of Katie and Micah from the first movie is given an explanation, the reason behind it makes their situation seem so much worse. This, paired with the stinger at the end, combines to chilling effect as you see the ultimate result of Dan’s final decision. Watching the first one along with this one helps a lot, especially as the timeframe of the second one is established relative to the first. The ending definitely leaves you with an “Aw, crap!” feeling that sticks with you.

As with the first, the characters here feel like real people. Dan’s attempts to reckon with the mysterious activity mirrors Micah’s from the first movie, but he’s less of a dick about it and he genuinely comes off as wanting to protect his new family. The role of poking the demon with a stick falls to older daughter Ali, who believes in the paranormal but doesn’t recognize the danger of the hauntings until much later, and her boyfriend Brad, who thinks the whole thing is a joke. Ali parses out a likely reason for the demon to torment their family through her research, and in the context of the tale it appears chillingly plausible. Her attempts to contact the thing with an Ouija board get half a pass here, as she had no psychic to warn her against such a thing, but even so she seems like she should know how stupid that would be. At least she doesn’t make their situation (much) worse with her messing around.

If you liked the first Paranormal Activity, you will likely enjoy Paranormal Activity 2. It expands on the overall story and explains some of the unseen spectre’s motives, without ruining the perceived menace. I do recommend watching the first movie before watching this one, so things make sense, but this one is a pretty spooky movie in its own right.

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Ghostbusters (1984)


Number one rule of marketing: Find out what people want, and find a way to provide it. Waterborne plague? Sell bottled water. Zombie apocalypse? Shotguns, food, and ammo. Outbreak of hauntings? Paranormal extermination services. It’s simple, really, especially considering the growing market that three New York parapsychologists are about to discover…

Ghostbusters is a comedy film produced and directed by Ivan Reitman, and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. It stars Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Rick Moranis, Sugourney Weaver, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson.

When three quirky parapsychologists – Drs. Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Ramis) – lose their jobs at Columbia University, they decide to use their knowledge of the supernatural in a slightly different field: extermination. After their first attempt ends in hilarity, they develop equipment to help them capture and contain the ghosts, and set themselves up for business, advertising themselves as “the Ghostbusters”. Things appear to be set for failure until they finally get their first call from a posh hotel with a recurring haunting; after they capture this one (destroying most of the ballroom in the process), the calls start rolling in, with more and more people in New York City finding themselves vexed by wayward spirits. Business is so good, in fact, that they must fire a fourth member of their team, Winston Zeddemore (Hudson) to help distribute the workload (and to have someone to explain the supernatural stuff to), but before long the boys starts to wonder if their newfound success might not be a symptom of a building menace that has the potential to endanger the world…

Ghostbusters is one of those old favorites that I first saw while growing up, and it still holds up well today. The core cast are all close friends of Ivan Reitman, and in fact a similar combination (Reitman-Murray-Ramis) can be seen in Stripes. The actors worked well together, and you could tell that they enjoyed the hell out of whemselves while filming. In addition, I have been assured that Aykroyd is that big of a paranormal nerd in real life. Of course, the best part about this movie is that it works as a comedic scare film for both kids and adults – it isn’t that bloody, and the sexual stuff is more suggested than shown (at least, I wasn’t sure what that female ghost was doing with Ray until years later when I first heard of the succubus).

The special effects were well-done for their day, with the proton pack effects and ghostly apparitions still holding up well. The stop-motion terror dogs are a bit dated, but this is only a minor nit is what is otherwise a well-made and well-acted movie. The Godzilla-ish miniature effects used in the Stay-Puft sequence were well-crafted (though that suit must have been stuffy as hell), and I could actually believe that there was a fifty-foot snack mascot walking down the street, no matter how absurd it would look in any other context. The cast reacted well to the spooks and monsters, and nothing felt forced or half-assed.

If you like supernatural comedies, I strongly recommend adding this one to your collection. It’s an old favorite that has lasted for years, and will continue to last for years to come.

Paranormal Activity (2007)


Ever since she was a girl, Katie has been harassed by an unseen supernatural presence, which has subsequently followed her to the new home she shares with her boyfriend Micah. Micah has just had the brilliant idea of setting up a video camera at night to record some of the nocturnal goings-on, hoping that if they can capture proof of the paranormal maybe they might get some help in getting rid of it. If not, at least they have some cool footage of the supernatural to sell. Simple, right?

They are about to learn that this is the parapsychology equivalent of poking it in the face with a stick.

Paranormal Activity is a supernatural horror film written, directed, and edited by Oren Peli, who also set up his own house to use as the movie’s setting. It stars Katie Featherstone, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, and Amber Armstrong.

It starts simply enough. Micah (Sloat) comes home with a video camera which, as it is explained, he plans to use to record the nocturnal shenanigans of an unseen entity that’s been plaguing his girlfriend Katie (Featherstone), in the hopes of identifying it and getting rid of it. Katie explains the backstory on camera, implicating the being in the fire that destroyed her family’s home when she was eight. It returned when she was thirteen, and has recently shown up again since moving in with Micah. She doesn’t care about the money-making potential of the footage; she just wants the thing gone. They also enlist the help of a psychic (Fredrichs), who informs them that this thing is actually a demon that has fixated on Katie – but his area of expertise is ghosts and not demons, so he gives them the number of a local demonologist to consult, and warns Micah both of them not to antagonize or try to communicate with it. Naturally, Micah decides to be a dumbass, and the incidents only escalate. NICE JOB, MORON.

Of course, the real meat of this movie (around which the plot-padding is arranged) is the footage of what the invisible demon gets up to at night. Yes, that’s right. Invisible. The demon is never recorded on camera. However, all the phenomena that one associates with haunting footage are there – odd noises and knocking sounds, an unattended door moving while the homeowners are asleep nearby. A spooky addition is Katie getting up at butt-thirty in the morning and standing, staring at the sleeping Micah without moving while the footage fast forwards through the next two and a half hours. These events soon escalate to a horrifying conclusion (of which there are apparently four; I have only seen the DVD release one)…

Originally conceived as an independent film, it was picked up by Paramount after studio representatives saw it at a screening and promptly crapped their pants were impressed by the minimalist approach. The film premiered at the Screamfest Film Festival, was shown at the Slamdance Film Festival, and was screened at the Telluride Film Festival. It is currently the most profitable film ever made, filmed on a shoestring budget of $10,000 and earning $194 million worldwide.

I saw this movie a while back, not really knowing what I was getting into. I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project, so I gave this one a shot. It scared the piss out of me. I watched it again recently, this time knowing exactly what I was getting into. Guess what? It still scared the piss out of me. There is something so vulnerable about having stuff like this happening in the dead of night while you’re sleeping and helpless, and the fact that you never see the demon just makes things worse. The effects were subtle and understated, and the setup made something as simple as a door moving six inches by itself incredibly eerie. The fact that the nighttime shenanigans were filmed by a single fixed handheld camera on a tripod didn’t detract from the effect at all; rather, the in-universe camera made it seem more genuine, like these were actually a couple of college students with weird shit happening to them for no goddamn reason at all.

That said, if you don’t like the found footage genre, and if you like seeing your monsters onscreen, you probably won’t like this movie. Most of the terror is largely implied, leaving it up to the audience to imagine what sort of being is harassing them and what could possibly be causing the weird noises at night, not to mention the bits where Katie is shrieking her head off in another part of the house. The terrifying spikes of fear when the weird stuff happens makes the other scenes seem like padding, and there were bits where I just wanted the demon to eat Micah and be done with it. The psychic seemed to know his limitations well enough to realize when he was over his head, but bailing on them at the eleventh hour really didn’t help them at all, even if it was an effective barometer of how real things had gotten by that point.

So, if you liked The Blair Witch Project and you like subtle haunted house movies, you will probably enjoy being scared spitless by this movie. Just don’t watch it immediately before you go to bed.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)


In 1797, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a cautionary ballad about an apprentice sorcerer who learns a hard lesson about calling up spirits he doesn’t know how to control. In 1897, Paul Dukas wrote a symphonic poem inspired by the ballad. In 1940, the symphonic poem was adapted into a segment in Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse as the ambitious apprentice to a powerful sorcerer named Yinsed. It proved so popular that it was included in 1999’s Fantasia 2000. The next logical step, of course, was to make a Nicholas Cage movie about it.

Wait… what?

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fantasy-adventure movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Jon Turteltaub, and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, inspired by all that stuff I mentioned before. It stars Nicholas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Monica Belucci, Teresa Palmer, and Alice Krige.

In the year 740, the sorcerer Merlin has three apprentices: Veronica Gorloisen (Belucci), Maxim Horvath (Molina), and Balthazar Blake (Cage). Horvath joins forces with Morgan le Fay (Krige, as herself), betraying Merlin and mortally wounding him before the other two can stop him. While Balthazar fights Horvath, Morgana tries to kill Balthazar, only to be stopped by Veronica, who sacrifices herself and absorbs Morgana’s soul into her own body. Balthazar is forced to trap the fused sorceresses in a device called the Grimhold, resembling a set of Russian nesting dolls, in order to prevent Morgana from killing Veronica from within. Before dying, Merlin gives Balthazar a dragon ring that will choose the Prime Merlinian, the one who will be Merlin’s successor and stop Morgana once and for all. Over the centuries, Balthazar is shielded against aging and death as he searches for a sorcerer worthy of this title, in the process hunting down those who would free Morgana and trapping them in successive layers of the Grimhold.

In the year 2000, 10-year-old Dave Stutler encounters Balthazar in a Manhattan antiques store. Balthazar offers him the ring, hoping he might hold promise, and it accepts him – but then Dave accidentally opens the Grimhold, freeing Horvath and getting a terrifying glimpse of the magic world that leaves Balthazar and Horvath trapped for ten years in a Chinese Urn. Nobody believes David’s account of the wizard battle, as there is no apparent evidence of any such thing left behind in the shop, and over the years he comes to the conclusion that he’d hallucinated it all. Ten years later, the two sorcerers are freed, and Dave is a physics student in college who just wants to be a normal guy. Too bad fate has other things in mind for him…

When I first heard about this movie, I thought, “Okay, feature-length film based on a segment from Fantasia. Starring Nicholas Cage. Made by Disney. This will most likely be flashy but mediocre.” Cage’s movies have tended to vary widely in quality, and the idea of sorcery in the modern world has been done before, with Harry Potter and The Dresden Files. Does it work here? Hells yes. The brief prologue quickly got me up to speed with the setting’s context, and once the plot was kicked off, it gave a perfectly good reason why wizard battles aren’t reported every day in the modern world: normal folk simply can’t see magic. Their brains come up with another explanation for what happened, regardless of how flashy it is, like in the Discworld books, because they “know” that magic doesn’t exist anymore. That said, the special effects were great, and while some of the sorcery looked like obvious CGI, it was okay because, well, it’s magic. Most of it was very subtle, though, and sequences like the car chase through the mirrors and the Chinatown dragon were very well done. And the giant metal eagle that serves as Balthazar’s aerial mount – wow! Dammit, I want a giant metal eagle! There is also a hilarious sequence near the middle that serves as basically an extended shout out to the Disney segment, and while the circumstances were slightly different, it is true to the spirit of the original.

The writing and acting were also spot on. Nicholas Cage as Balthazar was understated and looked a bit tired, but then, he’s been alive for over a thousand years. Alice Krige as Morgana le Fay is basically every character she has ever played: hauntingly beautiful, vaguely spooky, and perfectly willing to devour your soul. Alfred Molina, whom I’d previously seen as reluctant monster Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, was gleefully evil as Horvath and left his share of bite marks in the scenery. Jay Baruchel as Dave is effective as an unwitting apprentice sorcerer who spend half the movie trying to wrap his mind around the news that magic is real, but once he gets into it (and after the, er, broom incident) you get the idea that he has great things ahead of him.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was an unexpected delight from Disney, and I would highly recommend it to fans of “modern magic” tales. It has action, magic, humor, and a well-developed plot that will delight any fan of modern fantasy.

The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)


Before you move into your new home, there are few warning signs that you should check for. Is it:

  • Built on top of an improperly relocated cemetary?
  • The site of a multiple murder?
  • The site of dark Satanic rituals?
  • Talking to your youngest daughter through TV static?
  • Bleeding from the walls?

If so, the proper answer to your realtor is “thanks, but no”. Of course, these things are not likely to be disclosed to house hunters, making ample fodder for plenty of haunted house movies. Of these, a fair handful are “based on a true story” (the actual veracity of which is likely to be hotly debated). Here’s one of them.

The Haunting in Connecticut is an American psychological horror film produced by Gold Circle Films and directed by Peter Cornwell. Is stars Virginia “Candyman” Madsen, Kyle “A Remake on Elm Street” Gallner, Martin “Agent Cody Banks” Donovan, Amanda “She’s the Man” Crew, and Elias “The Prophecy” Koteas.

Presented as a true story, Connecticut focuses on the Campbells, whose oldest son Matthew (Gallner) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, for which he is receiving treatment in a hospital in Connecticut. Seeing the effects the long commute has on him, his mother Sarah (Madsen) rents a nearby home to reduce the amount of time spent on the road. Matt moves into the room in the basement, which they soon discover is also home to a mortuary (strike 1). The family starts experiencing supernatural events that the family initially blame on stress and hallucinations from Matthew’s treatment (which appeared to be radiation of some sort), particularly when Matt starts having visions of a young boy from the 1920s named Jonah. As the events intensify, Matt contacts a minister he met at the hospital for assistance, and learns that his supernatural experiences are likely the result of the previous occupant’s occult activities (strike 2), including seances (strike 3) and necromantic rituals (strike 4). Jonah is discovered to be the spirit of a child medium who would call up spirits that another would then bind to the house to amplify Jonah’s powers (strike 5). It isn’t until the bound spirits start messing with the rest of the family – proving that it isn’t all in Matt’s head – that they become starkly aware that something has to give – but how do you get rid of a presence that you can’t see or touch?

Having grown up on fare like Ghostbusters and Poltergeist, I was starting to think I’d seen it all as far as haunted-house movies go. However, this movie combines traditional ghost story elements with metaphysical concepts and occurrences accepted as fact by those who believe in the paranormal, such as calling up spirits via seances, and the manifestation of ectoplasm, presenting photos from documented seances. It also adds another elements to explain why only one family member has paranormal visions and occurences: Matt has terminal cancer (it is not specified what sort) and therefore walks in a “border state” between the living and the dead, a condition that apparently attracts the angry dead. The minister he consults for help is likewise implied to be dying, allowing him greater insight into Matt’s problem. Overall the level of research and detail put into the paranormal aspects combined decently well into a spooky, atmospheric story, if a slightly derivative one. My only real complaint is that compared to the in-camera ghostly effects, the flashback where Jonah produces a column of CGI ectoplasm from his mouth seemed disappointingly fake.

Of the main cast, I’d seen two of them before in horror movies: Madsen in Candyman and Gallner in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and they both seem well-suited to the genre. Gallner had his work cut out for him, having to act like a kid undergoing what must have been exhausting and draining treatments for cancer, with his character having days to live by the end. Madsen, trying to wrangle her sick son and two younger healthy children, managed to convey the level of exhaustion and frustration one would expect in her situation, just holding on my her fingernails trying to keep her family together even without the suspicion that her son might be going crazy or hallucinating from the drugs on top of it – and she needs all he strength once things really start to blow up.

If you like your horror movies to have lots of gore, you will want to give this one a miss. However, if you want a well-designed haunting with roots in real-world parapsychology, I suggest renting this one.