"Paranormal Activity 2" pulls its first surprise by being a sequel, yes, but also (and primarily) a prequel, as becomes obvious early on from the alive-and-well appearances of characters who met unhappy fates in the original. That expectation upheaval aside, pic fares like most horror follow-ups, offering more of the same to somewhat diminished effect. Nevertheless, its opening a week before Halloween (and "Saw 3D") sans serious genre competition should scare up robust returns for Paramount, which wisely stoked anticipation by keeping cast and plot details top-secret. Disappointed word of mouth might prompt even steeper post-opening falloff than usual, however.
The Rey family is introduced moving into their new Southern California home, videotaping the occasion for posterity, of course. There's dad Daniel (Brian Boland), mom Kristi (Sprague Grayden), teen Ali (Molly Ephraim) and infant Hunter, played by twins William and Jackson Prieto once the action jumps forward a few months to toddlerhood. There's also Abby the German Shepherd, and Martine (Vivis), the new nanny/housekeeper. (It's a puzzle why the Reys hire someone who doesn't speak English when they don't really understand Spanish.)
Naturally, Man's Best Friend and Superstitious Ethnic Type are the first to perceive something amiss in the household. But even before that, the family comes home one day to find the place trashed -- yet there's no sign of forced entry, and nothing's been stolen.
Surveillance cameras are then installed both inside and outside to catch whatever pranksters might be spooking this upscale suburban hood. Meanwhile, everyday life goes on, including visits from Kristi's sister Katie (Katie Featherston) and her b.f. Micah (Micah Sloat), whom viewers will recall as the protagonists in writer-director Oren Peli's sleeper-smash original.
When Martine baby-sits Hunter one night, the Reys return to find her frantically cleansing the house of evil spirits via incense and incantation. Soon everybody in the family is getting creeped out, what with toys moving of their own accord, sudden inexplicable noises, etc. The adult sisters admit that in childhood they experienced some similar terrors, memories long blotted out.
Though more briskly edited than its predecessor, "Paranormal Activity 2" likewise takes its time, springing the first big jolt only after a full hour, after which things escalate fast. But nothing here is as unsettling as in the original. That's partly because viewers now know more or less what to expect, but also because the spacious home setting is often too brightly lit to be scary. Plus, pic's new protags are far less engaging and empathetic than the first film's quarreling, psychologically deteriorating duo. (Including a dog and a toddler, two types whose reactions always fascinate, does partly compensate.)
It's good to see director Tod Williams (of the very good but underseen prior features "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole" and "The Door in the Floor") getting a significant commercial assignment, even it's a somewhat thankless one in creative terms. He's lashed to a homemovie/surveillance-camera illusion that's a little less convincing and certainly less fresh his time around.
But it's the screenplay that ultimately demonstrates too little imagination, beyond the manner in which it bookends its predecessor. When all (or at least some) hell breaks loose, scares reprise those in the first film without topping them; the malevolent force never feels like a real character in the narrative. Like the recent "The Last Exorcism," another faux-found-footage scarefest, pic doesn't end with a bang so much as peter out.
Though many times more expensive than Peli's DIY project (albeit still rock-bottom cheap by major studio standards at a reported production cost of about $3 million) and slicker than it needed to be, the sequel stays true to its aesthetic in tech and design terms. An upside: At least this so-so effort is just a letdown; it's no franchise-killing disaster like "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2."