Paranormal Activity isn’t a great film. But it is a brilliant indie filmmaking strategy. In my article “10 Story Techniques You Must Use to Sell Your Script” (see below) I state that “if you’re writing a screenplay for an indie film, write horror, thriller, or love.” Horror is the most consistently popular genre around the world after myth. But unlike the epic-scale myth, horror can be made for very little money.
So why doesn’t everyone just go out and make their own indie horror film? Almost everyone trying to break in does. But they don’t succeed because they don’t know the horror genre well enough to do it in a unique way, especially within the form’s extremely confining budget limitations.
Writer-director Orin Peli succeeded where most others fail because he adapted the special horror story beats to a low budget and turned the lack of money into a strength. The strategy is not new; The Blair Witch Project pioneered it back in 1999. Essentially, you make the horror come out of the real and the everyday. Instead of jamming blood and gore (and expensive special effects) in the audience’s face, you highlight the contrast between normal people and extraordinary circumstances.
By first establishing normal characters (played by unknown actors), you intensify the audience’s identification up front. Then you build the attacks from the small and the believable to the big and the outrageous, all within the tightest space you can find. Because you start with real characters the audience identifies with, the audience experiences the attacks in a more personal and intense way.
At least that’s the theory. But you may have noticed a huge structural flaw in this approach. The less money you have, and the smaller the space of your horror world, the less plot you have. The hero cowers in a room and the monster attacks again and again. That’s the same beat, folks. The audience gets bored quickly, not to mention exasperated by the fact that the hero doesn’t just get out of the damn room.
Peli doesn’t completely overcome this basic weakness in the structural foundation of the horror form. But he uses two techniques that make Paranormal Activity a big hit. First, he establishes the everyday reality of his couple with great skill. He strings together a number of short scenes in the beginning of the story with no structural value except to show that these two actors are a real couple living in a real house. They have a believable chemistry and argue about the things real couples fight about.
Any director will tell you that 80% of his or her job is the casting, and these two lead actors prove that in spades. We tend to forget that one of the biggest obstacles stars must overcome is getting the audience to forget that they are famous actors playing a part. The job here was the opposite. The actors had to play the early scenes in the flat, non-dramatic way real people are in real life. But they also had to be adept at the extremely dramatic acting required in the later scenes when the supernatural attacks attain life-and-death stakes. These actors excel at both, and the performance by Katie Featherston is superb.
The second technique Peli uses to overcome the lack of plot in the horror form is his subtle weaving of the horror story beats (events) into the realistic world he sets up. Horror has more specialized beats than any other genre, a whopping 15. Why? It’s because horror is so narrow a form, with so little natural plot, that it must have that many unique beats to carry it. Those specialized beats represent the superstructure, the horror mythology if you will, that prevents a plot with normally one beat, repeated ad infinitum, from sinking like a stone. Beats like the “sins of the parents” and “crossing the threshold” aren’t just a natural outgrowth of the unique theme of horror. They create the plot complexity and character depth that this form desperately needs to last on the big screen for 90 + minutes.
Peli includes every one of the 15 unique beats in Paranormal Activity, but he sets the realistic base of the film so well that you don’t notice them. I would argue he could have pushed the horror beats even further and thereby avoided a long stretch of sloooowwww that plagues the middle of his film. But that was a choice he consciously made, believing I suspect that he would lose the realism that was the heart of his storytelling strategy. In this he also borrowed from the strategy of the short film: focus everything to one big punch at the end of the story. It’s one helluva punch.
Ironically, Peli’s low-budget, realistic approach highlighted for me the idea that horror is fundamentally about dying. He simply sets his camera in the corner of a single room and then builds the assault. When all is said and done, great horror storytelling is about pushing you into a smaller and smaller box until your box is in the ground.