In the last Horror Month review, Wally pointed out that despite the massive returns on a modest budget, Blair Witch Project did not open the floodgates for other found footage horror movies. He argued that it could be because they rushed out an inferior sequel with a larger budget, no found footage angle and it bombed. For whatever reason, the found footage concept lay pretty silent after 1999’s Blair Witch Project and it would ultimately be 2007’s Paranormal Activity (given a wide release in 2009) that became the movie to show the industry that you can make a relatively inexpensive horror movie with this structure and get big returns. But it wasn’t just the fact that it was a low-budget found footage movie. Paranormal Activity inspired similar movies because it was effective at delivering scares. Let’s ignore the diminishing returns of its sequels and the other films that it inspired and look back at why this movie worked.
While writer/director Oren Peli released Paranormal Activity in 2007, it was a modest movie (some estimates say the budget was as low as $15,000 and shot in a single week) that was shown on the film festival circuit. Paramount recognized that it had broad appeal and bought it, making some minor cuts and reshooting the final scene with a few digital effects for a bigger punch. That was released in theaters in 2009, in limited release in September and wide in October. As a fan of horror movies, my fiancee and I caught the first showing in limited release. I found it effective and I’m pretty sure my fiancee liked it even more, even though she wanted to keep a nightlight on that first evening.
The reason Paranormal Activity works as well as it does is it uses its potential limitations as opportunities. A tight schedule meant that instead of a full script, the actors were given details of what they needed to accomplish in the scene and they improvised the dialog. This loose, conversational, overlapping dialog combines with the footage from prosumer level camcorders to add to the authenticity.
The abbreviated shooting schedule meant the story needs to be focused and lean. A couple is dealing with paranormal activity in their home. The boyfriend, Micah, wants to document it. Katie has vague recollections of something similar from her childhood and has an instinct to ignore it as the only effective way to resolve the issue. But the focus of the movie is very tightly on how these two people react to a very intimate invasion and what it does to their relationship.
The low budget meant that the actors hired were unknowns looking for an interesting opportunity. Katie Featherstone said in an interview that they were paid as little as $500 initially. Because the cast isn’t recognizable, it’s that much easier to believe in the characters. There’s very little to take you out of the movie. The cast is lean, with two leads and only three other characters as supporting cast. It all works in the story’s favor by keeping the focus on the fear of a young couple that their home is dealing with an angry spirit (or, as they learn, a demon). Finally, the budget meant that the entity stalking the couple at night is completely unseen. While this could come across as some type of cop-out, it works within the established rules of this movie, which has its characters set up cameras to catch any potential paranormal activity, and forces the audience to pay very close attention.
Because the demon in the film is invisible, it makes the viewer much more active in the movie than usual. While cameras observe a house that should be still at night, the audience listens closely for any out-of-place sound: footsteps or breathing for instance. The viewer carefully examines every inch of the screen, looking for a stray shadow or slight movement of a picture frame or bedsheet. While the audience carefully looks for an out of place element, the tension builds. You KNOW something will happen, but will it be slow or in the background or will something suddenly get thrown in the foreground? It forces an audience to place their imagination into the movie and our ideas of what is scary is so personal that it’s much more effective than, say, a machete cleaving a head.
The movie is far from perfect. The character of Micah shouldn’t be very likable since he instigates the activity. But so much of the movie is shot from a first person perspective that it’s easy to overlook that and basically become willing voyeurs into the couple’s problems. There’s a part of us that wants to see them tormented. Otherwise there’s no movie. But we may feel a bit guilty sitting there staring at them sleeping in their bedroom, willfully breaching their privacy.
Not everyone has the patience for this type of movie. It’s not a passive experience. You either buy into the premise and begin paying close attention, using your imagination to fill in the intentional blanks, or you don’t. If you don’t, the movie will not work. But for me, it does. At least the first time.