There's nothing to "Paranormal Activity 2" but fear itself. And profits.
After first-time director Oren Pell created the first "Paranormal Activity" on a budget of $15,000 and Paramount Studios reaped returns of more than $100 million, a sequel - well, a prequel, actually - was a foregone conclusion.
In fact, a whole franchise is a foregone conclusion. After reaping more than $40 million in opening weekend box-office sales, "Paranormal 2" leaves lots more room for sequels, prequels, lunch boxes, videogames, for the foreseeable future - at virtually no cost to the studio.
For openers, there are no multimillion-dollar contracts for the stars. They have to be unknown for the "found footage of the deceased" concept to work - although Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat from the first film do put in appearances in this prequel. They probably made a little more this time than the $500 they were paid for the original.
But even now that audiences have a pretty good idea of what's coming, the vibe of the first film works just as well the second time around.
Opening the same weekend as Clint Eastwood probes our deepest fears in the more ambitious and profound "Hereafter," "Paranormal Activity 2" takes a more basic and direct approach - through the little hairs on the back of your neck.
It's the "Seinfeld" of horror films - a movie that, for the longest time, seems to be about nothing.
It's set essentially in an upscale San Diego home, where the furnishings co-star with actors (whose names are buried in the credits). After an apparent break-in and a system of surveillance cameras are installed in the home, the only thing moving onscreen for a while is the digital time counter/clock in the lower corner of the screen.
With its monotonous static shots of room interiors, the whole thing feels like a Pier One catalogue brought to life.
Once things start happening, however, it's more like the latest e-mail ad from costco.com -except the sale items now have minds of their own and are running amok.
Haunted houses have always been a staple of ghost stories but haunted tract houses are the "Paranormal Activities' " ace in the hole. Similarly, the family inhabiting this one - dad Daniel (Brian Boland), mom Kristi (Sprague Grayden), teenage daughter (Molly Ephraim), new baby Hunter, nanny Martine (Vivis) and their trusty German shepherd - could easily be your next-door neighbors.
Taking over the directing duties from concept creator Pell, Tod Williams wisely mines the familiarity of his subject matter. The "home movie" look of the thing, beginning with bringing new baby Hunter home from the hospital, totally belies the impression that those are actors on-screen, acting. Teen daughter Ali is particularly convincing, greeting her new sibling, "Hello, brother from another mother," or comically shooing her dad's video camera away as she paints her toenails. And the baby and the dog add memorable performances to the mix.
Having never been a fan of horror films -never understanding the concept of spending good time and money to scare the poop out of yourself -I'm still wondering why I got such a kick out of this one.
Granted, I left the theater looking over my shoulder at anything that moved ever so slightly. Entering my darkened home took a little extra gumption and it took a while to fully trust the family cat again.
But still, compared with horror movies' recent trend in the direction of ever-kinkier sadism and ever-more-explicit gore, "Paranormal Activity" offers a more primal form of fear, that's almost fun.
Maybe it's that the security cameras are stationary, sparing the audience the seasickness that comes from handheld camcorders. Maybe it's that this installment offers a somewhat plausible explanation for some of the mysteries afoot.
But I think it goes deeper. "Creature comforts" don't earn that label easily. When they stop being comforting, when your walls stop protecting you from what's outside, but instead become a prison holding you in-why, that's a whole lot more terrifying in a much deeper place than moviedom's latest chainsaw massacre or amputation, 3-D or not.
In our consumer economy, when your stuff turns against you, that's the scariest thing ever.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.