'Paranormal Activity' And The 'Blair Witch Project' Effect

A horror movie is made by a young and unknown creator. It is shot on digital video, in a style intentionally giving the impression that the movie’s principal characters are the ones filming, not a director. The characters are played by unknown actors. They’re threatened by a supernatural, largely unseen force. The film plays before small audiences on the festival circuit, gaining praise and infamy with each screening.

If you stop right there, you could be describing either “Paranormal Acivity,” which Paramount is giving a limited release this week, or “The Blair Witch Project.” What remains to be seen is whether or not “Paranormal Acivity” will be the runaway multi-million dollar success that “Blair Witch” was ten years ago. It also remains to be seen if it will be a revitalizing force for its genre in the same way.

When it released in the summer of 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s “Blair Witch” was a revelation for horror cinema. The 1990s were a bad decade for scary movies. The vast majority of those that saw a wide release were derivative echoes of ‘80s slasher classics or high numbered sequels to old franchises like “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween.”

It’s telling that the most successful horror film of the decade was one that satirized the genre. “Scream” (1996) was fundamentally about how stale horror cinema had gotten. A combination of factors made “Blair Witch” so effective three years later: its then-revolutionary multimedia viral marketing, its intentional amateur presentation and the resulting perceived authenticity. More than that though, the movie was legitimately scary in the way it built suspense.

“Blair Witch” didn’t birth many imitators -- "Cloverfield" and... ?? -- but it did stir up enough public interest for studios to at least try to find more original horror for release. The early years of this decade gave rise to a number of hugely successful new horror movies, two of which proved so popular that they brought about another period of stagnation for horror in general. “The Ring” (2002) spurred a literal flood of American remakes of Japanese horror films while “Saw” (2003) popularized the “torture porn” subgenre of horror.

“Paranormal Activity” is now releasing into much the same environment that “Blair Witch” did. We're mired in a stagnant pool of old ideas that, while they still have an audience, are failing to excite and spook in the way they once did. It will be interesting to see if the old formula of “reality horror” will manage to engage audiences and excite the industry in the way it did ten years ago. Earlier this week, "Paranormal" had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s looking quite likely that we're in for something special.