Paranormal Activity Takes on Saw
There's something strange about horror movies: very few of them come out in October, when the approaching Halloween holiday makes audiences in the mood for them. Think about this year's horror/thriller fare. There was Jennifer's Body (September 18), Sorority Row (September 11), The Final Destination (August 28), A Perfect Getaway (August 7), and, my favorite, Drag Me to Hell (May 29). None of those have a Halloween-friendly release date. When October finally rolled around, the movies became more of a mix of art-house fare and comedies: A Serious Man, Whip It, Couples Retreat. What gives?
While I can't say for sure, I blame the lack of Halloween movies on the Saw franchise. While each of the sequels after Saw II have made less money than the one before it, the series still seems to have a lock on Halloween. No one else dares release a horror move in the last weekend of October, and few try to wedge their way into October at all (but kudos to Zombieland and The Stepfather for trying). The movie has even asserted its dominance over the Halloween release schedule in its new tagline: "If it's Halloween, it must be Saw." I consider that attitude the main reason a movie like Halloween 2 would come out in the inexplicable and non-spooky month of August instead of, you know, around Halloween.
This year, though, there seems to be one movie out there that might beat Saw at its own game: Paranormal Activity.
In case you've been immune to its word-of-mouth hype, the movie's about a couple haunted in their San Diego home by an unseen entity. At the start of the movie, they decide to record their lives with home cameras to try to capture some proof of the phenomena they experience. The result is a Blair Witch-style "found footage" kind of movie, in which most of the scares come from off-screen noises and tense atmosphere.
To me, Paranormal Activity is doing everything exactly as it should to steal Saw's Halloween-movie crown. Before Saw became an institution, it was a little indie genre movie with a small budget ($1.2 million) and no stars to hang on a marquee (sorry, Cary Elwes, I love you but you're not box office). Paranormal Activity has the same blueprint, only more extreme. Its budget was a miniscule $15,000, and it has only four characters and zero recognizable faces. When Saw first came out, people responded to the fact that it was a new entry into the horror genre that came from outside the normal Hollywood studio channels, and now they're doing the same for Paranormal Activity.
Even better is the way that Paranormal Activity is slowly creeping into theaters nationwide. At first, there were only a few select screenings in college towns. Those lucky attendees left theaters and immediately started chatting about how scary the film was. Then, the film did something strange: It set up a system by which if audiences wanted the movie to come to their hometown, they'd have to go to the website and "demand" it. (Basically, you filled out a form with your name, age, and hometown.) Producers promised that if it hit one million demands overall, Paramount would give the movie a nationwide release. That demand system changed the entire conversation about the movie. People stopped calling it a cool little indie movie that would hopefully find an audience, and started talking about how many people across the country were demanding it (and how chilling the people who'd seen it thought it was). Midnight shows in the towns that "demanded" the movie sold out, garnering more buzz, and it got its million hits to get the nationwide release.
The only danger to promoting the movie this way is the possibility for overhype/backlash. But I saw it this weekend and, while some of the "scariest movie I've ever seen" comments are a little hyperbolic, I had a great time at the theater. (And, when I went home, I was sure glad that I was awake and hanging out with friends when a bulletin board fell off my apartment wall. Had I been alone in bed, I would've sworn the racket came from something more sinister, and I would've totally done the close-my-eyes-tight-to-make-monsters-go-away thing.) And, what makes it even better is that I saw it around Halloween, when it gets dark early and I'm in the mood to be scared. More horror films should get the courage to do this and go up against Saw, too.
(A tip: The trailer for the movie shows a little too much. It's better if you go in cold.)