After facing issues finding even a modest distribution, Oren Peli wasn’t sure what was going to become of his $15,000 indie horror flick Paranormal Activity. Some time and $105 million later, he has a pretty good idea. Paranormal Activity has become the most profitable independent film of all time.
Paranormal was shot in a style that has spent the last decade evolving from an enjoyable gimmick into a legitimate, and clearly very profitable, genre for moviemakers whose budgets don’t allow the opportunity to create something more elaborate. The handheld camcorder has an implied realism and subtlety that, for example, a Roland Emmerich movie could never hope to create.
But before you pick up your camera with dreams of a low-budget cult classic, remember that no genre is complete without its clunkers. Paranormal Activity is not necessarily the exception to the rule, but it’s certainly set a standard that most films in the genre had failed to reach prior. Here are the seven most memorable films shot in the first-person, handheld camera style—some memorable for the right reasons, others… not so much.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
directed by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez
Leaving The Blair Witch Project off this list would be like keeping Pete Rose out of the baseball Hall of Fame; unless directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were using production money to gamble on the film’s box office success, Blair Witch needs to be here. For all intents and purposes, it created the very genre this piece is about. Sure, there were others. There was the British psychological thriller Peeping Tom in 1960 and Cannibal Holocaust was a cult phenomenon in the early ’80s, but The Blair Witch Project transcended the genre, giving it relevance for a generation that had been bombarded with multi-million dollar projects. After Blair Witch, using the first-person storytelling construct was no longer a novelty, but a very real, growing style that gave moviemakers without an endless budget a new way of captivating an audience.
Still, Myrick and Sánchez weren’t the first to attempt bringing this low-budget concept to life, they were just the first to do so successfully. You will be hard-pressed to find films, in any genre, that surpass the spine-tingling fear you get with Blair Witch. It was an instant classic for a number of reasons and will continue to be talked about for as long as moviemaking exists.
Open Water (2003)
directed by Chris Kentis
Much like District 9, Chris Kentis’ Open Water doesn’t limit itself to the first-person shooting style, although it doesn’t waver too far from it, either. Open Water centers on the lives of two scuba divers, a couple, who are accidentally left behind by their dive group in shark infested waters. The film’s first 15 minutes are shot with the couple’s personal camera, but once they get into the water, the movie develops a more conventional, third-person storytelling style. Although Kentis decided to keep shooting the film in the handheld style, as if a silent third party was documenting the action in the water with them, yet remained safe from the elements and conditions. This concept works for some, creating a very real portrait of despair and a realism to which the audience can relate. For others, it becomes a mild deviation when a more drastic move towards typical moviemaking (a la District 9) might have slipped by unnoticed.
directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza
This handheld Spanish horror film terrified audiences so thoroughly in 2007 that it only took one year for the remake to hit theaters in the United States. [•REC]’s success can be attributed to one factor that most films in this genre struggle to grasp: The camera is actually an integral part of the story. Your average handheld camera effort opens with one of the characters filming his or her buddies at some get-together, and as the astounding unfolds, the only reasoning for the camcorder’s presence is the “people need to see what’s happening here!” campaign. [•REC] is the story of a television reporter doing a routine piece on the life of firemen, only for chaos and horror to overtake the original story. It would only be fitting that a news reporter and her cameraman would continue to film, considering reporting is the very nature of their livelihood. The audience never has the opportunity to think, “I would not be filming this, I’d be running for my life.” All we can manage is the story itself, as the film consumes our every thought as it develops. By its conclusion, we can barely breathe from the madness.
directed by Matt Reeves
Cloverfield isn’t a bad film by any means, but where Paranormal Activity is so effective is precisely where Cloverfield falls short. The build for the J.J. Abram-produced, first-person monster picture was as potent as any film in recent memory. The trailer showed everyone what the Statue of Liberty’s head would look like rolling through downtown New York and instantly made waves across the Internet. It was to be the first handheld camera movie to reap the benefits of a big-budget blockbuster, and moviegoers around the country couldn’t wait to see what monster would destroy our country’s finest metropolis this time.
It wasn’t the “shaky camera syndrome” that served as Cloverfield’s downfall, and it wasn’t undeveloped characters or unrealistic special effects. It was a simple, universal truth that affects every industry of entertainment: The film just didn’t live up to the hype. By giving us that last glimpse of a giant praying mantis looming over the camera, moviegoers were forced to ask, “Is that it?” If you’re going to give the audience the impression that absolution will top off your film, you need an ending that will create just that. Otherwise, fans basically miss out on all the good (and there was plenty of good in Cloverfield) in anticipation of closure that will never arrive. Paranormal Activity understood this. Cloverfield, unfortunately, did not.
directed by John Erick Dowdle
John Erick Dowdle’s remake of the Spanish horror film [•REC] suffered from the same issues that plagued Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho in 1998. Can a movie that offers little distinction from its earlier counterpart really be considered great? With the exception of a few minor changes that “Americanized” the original film, Quarantine appears at times to be exactly the same as [•REC], right down to the final shot. Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”) did an admirable job recreating character Angela Vidal, but in the end, a movie like [•REC] is meant to be done only once. A Spanish language sequel to the original film has already been released. Hopefully that chapter in the [•REC] saga will remain the only rendition.
District 9 (2009)
directed by Neill Blomkamp
One of the difficulties genre films struggle with is the question of whether to venture outside the genre if it means telling a better story. Moviemakers feel that they will disappoint their core audience and sometimes find it better to make a less effective movie with a more consistent medium. Neill Blomkamp proved with District 9 that genres are merely intangible labels created by critics and don’t necessarily stand for anything more than that. District 9 opened as a first-person, faux documentary about a camp for illegal aliens (like, the outer-space kind). As the movie’s plot became more action-oriented, Blomkamp altered his medium and few traces of the early documentary camera work remained in District 9‘s second half. In the end, this served for a much more entertaining movie, bouncing from construct to construct in order to share the best representation of the story at any given moment.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
directed by Oren Peli
What does a ghost look like? Is it a mess of cut up bed sheets, vengeful minions from the underworld or dead relatives? The beauty of Paranormal Activity is that director Oren Peli didn’t let the audience’s perception of ghosts effect what he wanted to do with his film, and that’s precisely what makes the ultra-low budget project so terrifying. With a movie like Paranormal, you shouldn’t go into it expecting a big payoff at the end to validate your intrigue, because creating that payoff for one fan would only alienate another. Audiences experience nothing short of catatonia as they relish in Peli’s ability to exploit the fear that hibernates in the everyday aspects of our lives. Anyone who’s seen the movie will tell you that those inconsequential house sounds that never mattered before were especially vicious after they left the theater that night. Paranormal Activity creates universal fear; you don’t need an overwhelming predisposition towards ghosts or demons to enjoy this film. All you need are eyes and ears, and the ability to associate the things you experience with something more.