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[Special Feature] small budget GONE BIG

The first few weeks of August have come and gone and the summer of 2011 has had its share of big budget, summer blockbusters to deepen pockets and hustle children with promises of action figures and printed t-shirts. Super 8, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, X-Men: First Class, and the well-received Rise of the Planet of the Apes read out like a bank statement, each one worth millions and bringing in profits to ease studio woes. It’s a typical summer in the entertainment realm- tons of action with high returns.

But it’s the smaller films that are usually forgotten during this time of year- the films that have a high impact but cost a fraction of what the explosive-prone, star-studded box office beauties do. Those of us living in the bloody, paranormal kingdom of Hollywood horror are often reminded that those low cost flicks can be just as worthy as the ones that break the bank. Just this year, Insidious once again proved that small budgets can go big- conjuring up memories of past horror sensations that have accomplished the same magic trick- turning a few bucks into a few million.

I’m afraid to close my eyes, I’m afraid to open them.” ~Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a crystal clear example of low budget, high impact filmmaking at its finest. The project, with its amateur-footage style approach, was filmed on a staggeringly low budget (estimates range from $20,000 up to $750,000) and ended up grossing over $240 million worldwide. Not bad for a tale of three film students venturing into the Maryland woods searching for a real-life urban legend. “Both Ed Sanchez (co-writer/co-director) and I felt that we had a compelling concept, but it was impossible for anyone to gauge just how big Blair would become,” recalled Dan Myrick, one half of the director/writer duo behind the famed lost footage flick. “That’s what makes this business frustrating and exciting at the same time, no one really knows anything.”

Blair Witch’s simplistic plot is a turn on- an adventure in investigative filmmaking gone wrong. The movie takes viewers on a several day long ride into the world of the Blair Witch, a local legend about a hermit who kidnapped seven children and brought them to his home where they were then tortured and murdered. After turning himself into the police, he claimed that the ghost of an 18th century witch had been terrorizing him and forced him to commit the murders- thus, giving birth to the tale. Simple plot with a small group of characters; talk about an easy formula.

The best part about The Blair Witch Project though had nothing to do with the actual film- it was the ‘based on true events’ marketing campaign that forced the audience to question whether or not what they were seeing was real, which was a huge draw for potential audience members. Influenced by programs such as the 70’s pseudo-documentary series “In Search Of” and “Ancient Astronauts”, Myrick and Sanchez were able to create a worldwide phenomena on a well calculated budget. “What struck me about these programs was the telling of these compelling narratives (fictional in most cases) through the lens of a documentary style. It was very compelling at the time and I felt it would be cool to take the same kind of approach with Blair.”

And that they did. The film’s realistic nature is the bulk of what makes the movie so intriguing- and why the budget was such a small factor when it came to completion. “We would like to say we employed a “method filmmaking” approach to Blair. By this, I mean, we took great strides to portray our narrative and our actors as completely authentic. We shot using a detailed outline, that allowed the actors to improv their dialogue. We used GPS positioning technology to allow for specific route and campsite locations rather than having a crew surrounding the actors, thus allowing them to wander, seemingly alone, through the woods. These techniques, among others, we theorized at the time, would allow the actors to remain deeper in character, for a longer period of time, and since it was supposed to be “their film” by design, letting them shoot as they went along only added to the realism.”

Blair Witch, even with mixed reviews (some going so far as to call it one of the greatest horror movies of the 90’s, while the Razzies felt it appropriate to nominate it for Worst Picture back in 1999), is arguably one of the most effective horror flicks of our generation. Let’s face it- the minute that camera drops, so did our stomachs- no big explosions necessary.

Congratulations. You are still alive. Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you. Not anymore.” ~John, Saw (2004)


Shortly after Blair Witch, the horror community, and the world, were after the next big thing. The genre was clearly taking a turn toward slasher flicks and, with The Splat Pack slowly coming into being, several films took the spotlight. Eli Roth’s Hostel. Alex Aja’s High Tension. Neil Marshall’s The Descent. But it was 2004’s SAW, directed by James Wan and penned by Leigh Whannell, that certainly earned its place with a light budget and heavy content. Filmed on a $1.2 million budget, the film went on to earn over $100 million worldwide and opened the gateway to an entire franchise, ending with last year’s seventh installment, which, alone, brought in over $130 million.

Not too shabby for something that came off of an initial short-film pitch by a couple of film students out of Australia.

The films center around Jigsaw, the serial killer who uses puzzles to murder his victims. (Milton Bradley, take note). But the murders aren’t senseless, nor are they part of some elaborate revenge plot or the work of a paranormal feat. They are the creation of a mastermind who was pushed to the edge by society and their frivolous ways. It was certainly an original concept and one that would open the gateway to smart-plot horror- something a bit deeper than some half naked girl running up the stairs being chased by a guy in an oversized sport coat paired with a super-sized knife. Horror fans were hungry for something different, and Wan delivered the goods.

The plot of the original SAW film was perfectly structured for a low budget. Aside from the scenes where the outcome is being pieced together, the film is basically about two guys in a room with a dead body trying to figure out how in the hell they got there in the first place. The best part about the original SAW film is that it was one of the first in a decade long span of teenage friendly slasher flicks to introduce an effectively scary plot and a brand new murderer to latch onto- after all, who didn’t fall in love with the tricycle riding puppet master?

Wan should pat himself on the back for a masterpiece that has now spanned nearly a decade by itself. With the right formula, he created not only one of the single most influential films of the Splat Pack era, but enough momentum for an entire, blood-filled institution- all on a minuscule budget. The people behind Clash of the Titans should be ashamed of themselves.

I feel it. I feel it breathing on me.” ~Katie, Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity

I remember ‘voting’ to see Paranormal Activity. The film had been creating quite the stir and I wanted to see it so damn bad I spent three days on its website voting for it to arrive in my city. And low and behold, about two weeks later, the film finally got a national release- and it was worth the wait. The theater was packed and the reactions were priceless; over the course of two hours I saw everything from a girl crying her eyes out to a man running out of the auditorium. It was almost better than watching one of those bad teen episodes of “The Maury Show”- the only thing it lacked was the screaming army guy.

Director Oren Peli did an amazing thing with Paranormal Activity. On a budget of only $15,000, he made an effectively scary ghost movie, minus CGI, makeup and costly special effects. He did what many before him had failed to do- actually make an audience feel as if there was ghostly activity inside a fictional house and that it could really happen, using only a couple of actors and a few cameras.

The movie introduces us to Katie and Micah, a seemingly happy couple co-habitating amidst Paranormal Activity. Katie has had this sort of thing happen before during her childhood years, but Micah isn’t convinced- so he buys a camera to set up at night in an effort to ‘capture’ the activity in their home. As one night progresses into the next, the camera proves that Katie might be right- and that it isn’t the house that’s haunted. “Our goal with [Paranormal Activity] was to create a movie that would get audiences imaginations rolling, get under their skin and stick with them- scaring them not only the theater but hopefully later on that night when they got home,” said Katie Featherston, Paranormal‘s leading lady. “We were dedicated to creating the highest quality film that we could with what we had. We didn’t take short cuts, we talked through plot holes, and tried to create characters people could relate to and tried to make it as believable as possible. To Oren’s credit, thought, it was clearly his vision.”

Paranormal Activity went on to gross over $180 million and led to a sequel in 2010; another low budget flick that was filmed at under $3 million and came back with a similar return. This Halloween audiences will be treated to the third installment, which continues the story of Katie, her sister, and the demon-ghosts that follow them.

“I am humbled by the effect that Paranormal Activity has had on horror fans and the movie industry,” continued Katie. “I think it’s a great reminder that creativity, ingenuity, and collaboration can sometimes be more effective than a big budget. I also hope that it encourages young filmmakers to keep making their films and putting their own stuff out there.”

I know one thing- it’s made me wonder if putting powder down on my bedroom floor would be an effective ghost trap. And that says a lot.

Dalton scares me when he gets up and walks around at night.” ~Foster Lambert, Insidious (2011)

I’m starting to think that Wan and Whannell must have one hell of a savings account- they know how to stretch a budget and make themselves a pretty penny in the process. When Insidious hit theaters, many had their doubts- but after the film’s release and the support of even the most critical of reviewers, the film has become one of the most successful of 2011. Originally filmed on a $1.5 million budget, the film has since earned well over $50 million domestically.

Talk about deja vu.

With the success of SAW behind them, both Wan and Whannell had worked on several projects since the Jigsaw phenomena had begun. Whannell worked with the SAW franchise briefly and reunited with Wan on Dead Silence, only to hit a brick wall with the film’s box office failure. That’s why, prior to the release of Insidious, skeptics were concerned that this was another attempt at puppetry- when, in fact, the duo was about to strike gold.

Insidious tells the story of a family that moves into a home and one of their children succumbs to a mysterious coma. After the mother experiences ghostly activity inside the home, she forces her family to up and move, all while the child sleeps. It’s not until later that the family discovers their son is not in a coma- he’s actually in a sleep induced state brought on by the child’s ability to disappear into a realm called The Further. But it doesn’t end there- evil spirits, a red-faced demon in particular, are after the child- and it’s up to his family, specifically his father, to save him.

Really great concept. Really scary visuals. In all, Insidious is just a really good movie- period. And it was yet another success story of a little bit of money going a long way.

It’s About the Concept, Not the Budget.

When it comes to horror- it’s never about the budget. Sure, an inflated budget could add a bit more gore, maybe a couple of extra actors, a larger set and a few more stunts- but what then? Does the movie gain something more? The answer: no. It’s the concept- it’s the idea that the filmmakers take from the script to the screen and turn it into a phenomena that frightens audiences, that turns stomachs and pulls out reactions that those of us watching might not have known existed. It’s the intensity that horror brings to us- the fear of the unknown, those images that conjure up our inner most fears, bringing them to the surface for the world to see. It’s about the talent behind the movie that makes a film good. Just because it wasn’t made on a Michael Bay budget doesn’t mean that the quality is sacrificed- it just means that the audience is going to have to deal without a few explosions and a couple of known actors. I’d say that’s a good price to pay for a film that leaves you breathless- or scared of the dark.




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