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Before 'Prometheus': 'Paranormal Activity 2' Reminds Us What Makes Prequels Work

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Jun 09, 2012 | 7:24am EDT

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Paranormal Activity 2As we venture further and further into the summer movie season, Ridley Scott invites us to take a journey into the most distant points of the universe with the crew of Prometheus. One of the most anticipated movies of the year, Prometheus is, as many of you are well aware, a prequel to Alien. Given that Alien is one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, the task of constructing a prelude to such a monumental piece of cinema is an unenviable one. We’ve seen plenty of franchises attempt to explore origins and roots with varying degrees of success. So before you go blasting off to the multiplex this weekend to see Prometheus, Netflix offers you the chance to examine 2010’s Paranormal Activity 2, a film that presents a few of the crucial elements needed for a successful prequel.

The first thing any respectable prequel must do is to expand the world of the original film. This of course requires that the original film strikes a chord with audiences and creates an iconic universe for its characters. The viewer must be drawn in so that they become familiar with the universe and yearn to know more. In the case of Paranormal 2, the first film was a horror sensation that re-sparked the found footage genre and purported to be a true story. Whether a vast majority of the populace believed the fabrication or not, it still created tension and a desire to know more about the story. Paranormal 2 takes the concept of the first film, the supernatural happenings of a suburban home caught on camera, and expands them outward. Where Paranormal Activity was just one room, PA 2 uses the same construct to place cameras all over the house. It’s a seemingly small alteration that instantly stretches the scope of the film. Suddenly the scares are caught from every angle and we feel surrounded by a dread we can’t escape.

Paranormal Activity 2

As well as expanding the perspective, Paranormal Activity 2 also adeptly explains certain pivotal story elements from the first film. It gives us a context to the relationship with Katie’s sister and hints further at the horrific events of their shared childhood mentioned in Paranormal Activity. These elements would of course be further explained in Paranormal Activity 3. It also offers a suitable explanation as to how the demon presence, as well as that creepy, charred photograph, ended up in Katie’s home in the first place. This not only explains the tragedy that befell Katie and Micah, but then also connects the two stories back together in a shocking finale; making it one of those rare films that straddles both the prequel and sequel designations.

Prequels, in order to be effective, can’t simply lean upon the familiar facets of the original film. If all it does is wink and nod at the story we already know, we’re left with an overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction. It has to stand on its own. In other words, Prometheus isn’t simply two hours of Nostromo references and chestbursters. Similarly, Paranormal Activity 2 isn’t just Katie and Micah shopping for a video camera and buying their house. It’s a separate haunted house film about a distinctive family. Their poltergeist behaves differently, unique to their family dynamic, and at no point do the scares feel identical. The most pronounced way in which Paranormal Activity 2 establishes its own identity, even as it sets up the events of Paranormal Activity, is that there is a remarkable escalation of stakes. Anytime you put an infant in harm’s way, the horror proceedings become immediately tenser.

Again, the Paranormal Activity franchise would push their origins back even further in the third installment, but the way the second one expands, explains, and enhances the universe of the first is what allowed such a basic concept to remain incredibly fresh. And having all these tenets of quality prequels fresh in your mind will undoubtedly augment the experience of seeing Prometheus this weekend.

[Image Credit: Paramount Pictures]

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