Diabolic Discussion: Children of the Blair Witch


Paranormal Activity and other hand-held horrors

Ryan Rotten: Someone’s done it again, Rob. They’ve managed to tap into something simple and yield big box office numbers. We saw this happen ten years ago with The Blair Witch Project and now history is repeating itself with Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. While I was less than impressed with The Blair Witch and wanted to run out of the theater not in terror but to hurl up my popcorn (I’ve since been better about “shakey cam” stuff), Paranormal Activity hit all the right buttons – even though I’ll admit to not liking it the first time I saw it when it premiered at Slamdance about two years back. If the talk I overheard and participated in at the American Film Market this month was any proof, Peli has left an indelible mark on the genre that a lot of filmmakers are going to aspire to. Especially the low cost/maximum impact equation.

Regardless of the fact that Paramount sat on the film with the intention to simply remake it and regardless of the money the studio spent on reshoots, test screenings and advertising (which inflates the “it only cost $11 thousand!” budget), Paranormal Activity is a success story that many are going to attempt to emulate, both in execution and business handling. That scares as many guys you and I know in the horror field as it excites them. It really should be the latter.

RobG.: Oh, I’m terrified of that. I’ve already heard rumblings of tons of copycat movies, all done the exact same way, all shot on the fly with extremely low budgets and using no name actors with hopes of a high profit and having a “hit on their hands.” And quite frankly…I think that sucks. Why? Because using a bad movie like Paranormal Activity, (a movie I openly dislike) will generate more bad movies, because the people that want to green light these types of projects are completely missing the point. I disagree with you, The Blair Witch Project is far more effective a film then Paranormal, for one because I actually care for the characters in Blair Witch and I despised the ones in Paranormal. I could not identify with Micah at all, who came off like a buffoon trying to start a bar fight with a ghost. Who the hell calls out a ghost? Really? You know that’s not going to end well. And it immediately turned me off and made it extremely difficult for me to get into the movie.

Now, had neither character done nothing to instigate the haunting, then it would’ve been a different story. Case in point – The Entity. I’ve only seen that movie once and will probably never watch it again because it terrified me so badly. Because no matter what Barbara Hershey did, she still got raped by ghosts on a regular basis and there was nothing she could do about it. I slept easy the night I saw Paranormal, because I’m not stupid enough to call out a ghost! (Also, you don’t freakin’ see anything. At least not in the Slamdance version we both saw.) Now, that’s not to say that I don’t think there are great movies that implement the “found footage” style, the cinema verite technique. It’s just Hollywood is going to use P.A. as a template for all the wrong reasons. And that’s because Paranormal set the bar so low on every level. On acting. On cinematography. On story. (Did they ever even explain the possession nonsense properly? I don’t remember, or care.) I think one of the main reasons people responded to those characters is because the general public is so used to crappy reality television that they’ll accept bad acting when they see it, because they assume that’s “reality acting.” Not just that, but I had five friends, (seriously five) ask me, “Is Paranormal Activity real?”

Ryan: When I saw the Blair Witch I heard the exact same thing from the girl sitting behind me. Idiocy is forever. I find it curious that you – and tell me if I’m wrong – relate to a woman being raped by a ghost more than a couple getting spooked in their house. The Entity is no doubt disturbing and dirty, but it falls apart halfway through and loses its potency. You’ve obviously got a bullshit filter you turn on and off because if you thought Paranormal‘s characters were despicable I’m shocked you were not annoyed by the Blair Witch trio. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but Paranormal was a far more satisfying theater-going experience. And let me emphasize theater-going because you really do need to see this one with an audience. I think it’s the first film I’ve seen in a while where the audience just shut the f**k up and let the film wash over them.

You point to the hopelessness of Hershey’s character in Entity, yet Katie in Paranormal faced the exact same thing. No matter where she went, this thing followed and she couldn’t kick it. And I don’t think audiences welcomed the film solely to the footage they witnessed, they related to it on more primal level than that. The thing that makes you sit up in the middle of the night wondering what that creak down the hall was. What the thump in the ceiling could be. I no doubt believe that shows like Ghost Hunters, and its fans, helped fuel the success of the film. Ghosts and the supernatural sell, man. The Others, The Sixth Sense When you do it well, it’s a hit. I think Peli reinvigorated the haunted house/ghost genre, utilizing the less-is-more Robert Wise/The Haunting approach for a new generation. And he did so with a narrative technique that seems to be the go-to way to freshened up some of our favorite subjects in horror. Rec did wonders for the “zombie.” Cloverfield was an exciting way to revisit the giant monster destructo-genre. There will always be copycats, we’re just going to see a lot more, I think, than we did in the wake of the Blair Witch. And I’m curious to see the other films this technique will be applied to. Especially the “exorcism” sub-genre…

RobG.: Well, in all fairness, like I said, I only saw The Entity once and it was when I was very young, so it of course left an indelible mark on me. I related to the fear of not being able to avoid the attacks. You mention that the same thing happened to Katie? I saw it two years ago and don’t remember that tidbit. All I remember is it wasn’t exactly clear to me if the ghost was haunting the house or following Katie. They were stupidly filming everything, and Micah was being a hardcore skeptic even when the evidence presented itself and all I remember is that he did everything he could to instigate the attacks. (Doesn’t he say something like “That all you got?” or something along those lines?)

As far as Blair Witch, you have to remember that it was truly the first of it’s kind and even when I watch it now, I try to put myself in the frame of mind I had 10 years ago to fully appreciate that. Now, before fans jump on me, yes, I know there were films like Cannibal Holocaust or even Man Bites Dog. But Blair Witch was at a time when reality television (with the exception of MTV’s The Real World) wasn’t a household thing. It was the first real “viral” campaign on-line, the first time the internet was truly used to market a movie and it worked beautifully for that film. I can relate more to those three characters out in the woods getting lost and frustrated with each other, because they reminded me of my friends. I know if we were in that situation, we’d probably get very frustrated and snippy with each other like that. Granted, neither movie really showed anything – I have not seen the CGI enhanced ending to Paranormal Activity, that even our friends whom are firm supporters of the film don’t like, but that last five minutes of Blair Witch is more effective to me than anything I saw in P.A. A door closing, a sheet flying up. Not scary. Give me just a little bit more. That’s just me.

Look – if Hollywood wants to churn out more “found footage” films, that’s fine, but why can’t it be because of films that did it successfully like Cloverfield and Rec? It’s because Hollywood producers want to spend $11,000 and make $100 million for the mere sport of it. I’m sorry, but Paramount put $20 million into marketing that movie, despite the constant mention of “it only cost 11 grand!” And despite their brilliant “demand it” campaign, the plan was always to release it against Saw VI. You mean to tell me they conveniently whipped up 2000 prints (a point brought up to me by my Icons Of Fright co-editor Mike C, whom I saw the movie with) to spread across the country in a matter of four days based on a million people calling to demand it? I call b.s. on that. But kudos to them for pulling it off. It proves that any studio can sell a bad movie if they put enough money behind it. And people fell for it.

Ryan: You and I both know that wasn’t what Paramount intended. They sat on this film for a year after acquiring it. Then announced a decision to remake it. It wasn’t until I had heard the remake was squashed in 2008 – compounded with Peli calling to tell me to keep that scoop under wraps because it might muck up a deal – that I suspected something was up. Then came the reshoots and early screenings, so it was clear they were testing the waters for a theatrical release. But I don’t think they really understood what they had until a bit later in the game. I think you answered your own question when you asked why Hollywood doesn’t model its success on Cloverfield and Rec. The latter they simply remade and called it Quarantine (talk about getting behind a foreign film) and the former made money, but when you get down to brass tacks Paranormal Activity was far more profitable than Cloverfield. Regardless of our opinions of the film, the fact remains: An indie – made with some ingenuity – has received worldwide attention. Will that attention be long-lasting, furthermore, will this reality format?

RobG.: Well as long as they do something more along the lines of Rec and less like Diary of The Dead. I think those two are a good examples of the right and wrong way to do the “found footage” format, in that case with zombies. When I first saw Rec, it completely knocked me off my socks. They took a simple concept, put us right in the middle of it, and made me think “What the hell would I do in that situation?” I guess to an extent, I can understand the average movie-goer thinking the same thing while watching Paranormal Activity. Rec was everything I’d hoped Romero would do with Diary and because I loved it as much as I did, I have a really tough time accepting Quarantine as it’s own entity.

The one I’m really curious about is Cotton, because I always find exorcism films to be scary, but I wonder how this format will work with that setting. I will say this, Paranormal‘s success at least gives me hope that perhaps the studios will start taking notice of more great independent filmmakers and films. I know there’s a slew of incredibly talented and creative kids out there making solid movies with very little money and resources, and hopefully because of Paranormal, the “big-wigs” will actually look at those films rather then dismissing them. When I think back, do you remember a lot of Blair Witch rip-offs? There was The Last Broadcast but that was made at the same time, and maybe a few Blair Witch spoofs, I think? So maybe we’re jumping the gun in thinking there will be a slew of P.A. copycats? I’m all for more creative cinema verite style films, as long as they’re not exactly the same as Paranormal. We’ve seen the ghost in a house via found footage. Give me something new now.

Ryan: I can count few copycats on the way – including Cotton, which you’ve mentioned. Peli is at work on Area 51 which throws a P.A. spin on the alien genre. I don’t think this is going away anytime soon…

Source: Ryan Rotten, Rob G.