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Movie review: ‘Paranormal Activity 2'

Just when you thought it was safe to auto-record your McMansion existence, along comes “Paranormal Activity 2" to make static video grays, a corner time stamp and well-placed bumps in the night further cause for audience nervousness.

It’s the sequel to last year’s DIY horror hit “Paranormal Activity,” a housebound creeper built on some marginal if appreciatively unslick and non-gory jitters. In true indie-explosion fashion, writer-director Oren Peli’s $11,000 feature went from midnight-screening word-of-mouth to $100-million hit upon release from Paramount (which had the good sense not to stick logos and credits on what was intended to play like found footage of a ghost capture gone wrong).

Any lingering questions, however, as to whether the follow-up represents a “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" scenario — in other words, what gives real shivers to Hollywood: killing a franchise with one bad sequel — can be easily laid to rest. This “Paranormal,” set once again in a roomy two-story suburban house, is more of the same, for all the good and acceptably routine that that implies.

First off, there are more characters, in this case a Carlsbad, Calif., family composed of a dad (Brian Boland), second wife (Sprague Grayden), perky teen daughter from the first marriage, boy toddler, Latina nanny who senses bad spirits and German shepherd (whose alertness to things unseen is one of the movie’s new goose-bump-raising assets).

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There are also more visual perspectives, from the hand-held camcorder that various family members use to document initially happy — then increasingly worrisome — household events, to the six security cameras installed in the wake of an unexplainable burglary. Katie (Katie Featherston) is back, too, as the sister of this movie’s young mom. If that sounds odd considering how the first film ended, this one’s narrative is craftily arranged around its precursor’s timeline, and on that front, that’s all the plot you’re getting here.

Then again, family drama isn’t what the “Paranormal” films are about, and in fact, when talk of demons and motives and history crops up, it feels like filler between the real meat: voyeuristic stakeouts that amount to showdowns with moviegoers’ nerves. Also, the new scenario’s sextet of security-cam coverage — the front of the house, the pool, the kitchen, the living room, the stairs and finally (gulp) the baby’s room — allows for cross-cutting tension, a tool that director Tod Williams (“The Door in the Floor”), taking over for Peli, employs well. Which means one might have to sit through plenty of successive shots of grainy wide-angle stillness, but when the jolting thud or a frisson of movement comes, it can only feel like a warning shot straight from hell.

That “Paranormal Activity 2" mostly eschews the whiff of cashing in, or looking like a low-budget find’s more-moneyed cousin, is a victory of sorts. Call it a case of skilled sameness, of something fine-tuned rather than overplayed. As any patient, malevolent spirit would tell you, if it ain’t broke, break it at just the right moment.

Works every time.

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calendar@latimes.com


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