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The Little Horror Movies That Can…

Next month is October, which means Halloween, so I’ll be taking a closer look at the horror genre (both with reviews of movies and my own unique style of commentary), but the success of the new Paranormal Activity on a budget of less than $15,000 (and I thought District 9 was cheap) has got me wondering: why is it that low-key horrors are so scary?

There's been a lot of activity around Paranormal Activity this weekend...

There's been a lot of activity around Paranormal Activity this weekend...

Okay, this article comes with a concession that yes, okay, most horrors are cheap – at least relative to other films. Minimal star or director power in the genre help keep the costs down and the genre’s recent fascination with slashers as opposed to ghouls also means that the special effects budget doesn’t soar. But $12,000 is still small even by those standards. And low-key is more than just the budget – it’s arguably a state of mind.

Take Paranormal Activity, for example. It’s the story of a young couple who think their house might be haunted, so the husband sets up a night-cam to see what’s really going on. Spooky hi-jinx ensue. It isn’t exactly rocket science – and I doubt there’s copious amounts of CGI involved. But why is a film like that generating such a huge reaction? Surely there are a few hundred different horror movies produced on bigger budgets that could execute the premise more effectively? That’s just logic, right?

This isn’t the first time that a cost-effective low-key horror film has dominated discussion of the genre. Arguably the last horror film to have a massive cultural impact was The Blair Witch Project, which was not – alas – a study of the relationship between Tony Blair and some dude named Witch, instead a hand-held camera trek into a haunted wood. I saw it when it first came out and (even at twelve) I thought it was overrated. I might watch it again to get in the mood. Despite this overhype, it did hold the public’s attention in a way that no horror has since.

Maybe there’s a reason these small projects are so effective. The first argument in their favour is restraint. These days it’s all blood-and-guts schlock with torture porn thrown in for free – your Hostel and your Saw franchises. Back in the old days there was restraint in mainstream horror – classics like The Shining for example. Even the gory films – like the chestburster from Alien or the original slasher in John Carpenter’s Halloween – hold nothing to the gratuitous violence and sheer volume of bodily fluids that their sequels and franchises would go on to contain. It became less about the horror and the terror and more about the shock.

Which old witch? The wicked witch!

Which old witch? The wicked witch!

These low budget films don’t really have the option for gratuitous and pointless special effects. It’s a huge cost for a small film. So the directors have to rely on talent, staging and pacing to provide the scares. It works because we know that (unlike the gore) it won’t be over in a moment, and also because it just takes more skill to create that atmosphere – I think audiences respond to that talent. It’s almost a novelty in today’s day-and-age.

There is another reason why these films can be so terrifying. Big special effects cost money. Studios provide money. Studios provide money in order to get a return on their investment. Studios get a return on their investment by opening to as wide an audience as possible. Obviously schlock like Saw and Hostel avert this by being so cheap to produce (I hear there’s a price break at a dozen!), but if you want lots of fancy studio money for your ghost or ghoul story or for big actors or for fancy stunts or location work, the studio is going to want to make sure it gets that back. That’s why you’ll never see a movie with the rich visual imagery of Sleepy Hollow, for example, opening as a pure horror (as it arguably should be). Instead it becomes a slightly off-kilter thriller.

Because films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project are so cheap, there’s no need to cut them down or to pursue a lower rating. Despite opening in a tiny number of theatres, Paranormal Activity is turning a profit even as you read this. What will be interesting to see will be the amount of money the director receives for his next project and whether he is forced to “tone it down a notch”.

Maybe it’s a good thing that truly horrorifying horror isn’t a beast that is tamed well by the studios. It makes it all the more special when one wanders along out of the wild. Even if we have to wait years between the good ones.

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