Hello again, and welcome to the fourth installment of Garland’s Movements in the Dark, a (mostly) weekly essay series where you and I take a deep dive into a movement within horror cinema. With every installment, we will take a look at key films and moments within the selected movement, and how the movement itself rippled throughout horror cinema at large. This week we will be taking a hard look at the modern horror renaissance brought upon us by Jason Blum and his studio Blumhouse.
What is it?-
Beginning in 2007, Jason Blum’s production company Blumhouse began an experiment in studio theatrical distribution. The idea was to give filmmakers a microbudget in exchange for no studio oversight and complete creative dictation over the film, which would then be released in wide theatrical distribution. It’s a low financial risk that has often paid off for the studio, raking them in millions and millions in gross profit from the box office. Since their first trial with the method with Paranormal Activity, Blum and his company have carved out an indie horror empire that is only rivaled these days by A24. Though films under the Blumhouse umbrella are often hit-or-miss in terms of quality, some of their releases have become massively popular hits as well as influential pieces of horror filmmaking. Among them are the Insidious films, the Sinister films, The Purge franchise, Split, and many many more.
Jason Blum at Comic-Con
Blumhouse has been responsible for launching the careers of some of modern horror’s most exciting auteurs as well as starting new trends in the genre, with Paranormal Activity launching a complete revival of the found footage format. The innovative business strategies have allowed them to continue to operate and produce a frequent output of mostly horror films, though they have notably crossed into dramatic territory with efforts like Whiplash and Blackkklansmen both going on to win numerous laurels and awards.
In terms of this week’s key films segments, instead of looking at the most influential films from the movement, as this movement is unique to a studio’s output and general business trends as opposed to similar motifs or styles, we’re going to look at the three films that most mark the studio’s rise in acclaim, notoriety, and acumen over its relatively short but influential lifespan.
Paranormal Activity (2007/2009) —
Paranormal Activity is the main reason for that disclaimer. The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of both horror and general film fans/critics alike who enjoy Paranormal Activity, both as an overall franchise and this inaugural installment. However, there are also a lot of people, this writer included for the record, who either just didn’t get it or loathed the hell out of it. Terrifying or tedious, the film did two things universally correct–it made a boatload of profit and it single-handedly revived the “found footage horror film” aesthetic that had been M.I.A. in the years since The Blair Witch Project, and it’s because of those two facts that Blumhouse was able to truly get their foot in the door and see some real results for their business plan.
A spooky door from Paranormal Activity
The film’s cheap-as-dirt production value is part of why the film works for so many, and why it became a minor sensation when first released in wide distribution during 2009. The film had actually been made in 2007 on a shoestring budget and home video camera. After a successful showing at several festivals, the film was picked up by several high-profile producers, including Jason Blum. After a test screening for the film ended with people allegedly walking out due to unbearable fear, the film and the team behind it began a roadshow/viral marketing two-punch, which was a great success. The trailers of the film heavily featured supposed audience reactions to the film, night vision styled candid shots of people screaming in terror while yet another door slams on its own or a stool mysteriously moves a few inches to the left.
The rest is history. A series of immediate follow-ups and mythology building sequels were released on a yearly basis to diminishing critical reception, but reliably profitable box office returns, which Blumhouse would go on to repeat with series like Insidious and The Purge. From this film onwards, Blumhouse would apply their successful financial template to the rest of their output, which would also be very heavy on the horror side of things. So regardless of one’s opinion of Paranormal Activity or the sudden boom of found footage schlock that would follow in the film’s footsteps, it was an instrumental asset in the evolution of what is now one of horror films’ foremost production companies.
Whiplash (2014) —
While not technically a horror film in a way that a traditionalist would define it, there are scenes in the film that hit many of the same psychological notes as the classic Bergman chamber dramas that straddled the line of drama and horror in ways that were both artfully expressive and widely accessible to a mainstream audience. The creative freedom allowed to the filmmakers from a studio like Blumhouse means a lot of the output can be hit or miss in terms of quality, but largely consistent in ambition or vision. However, with Whiplash, Blumhouse played a hand in the world of widespread critical acclaim beyond the genre confines and taboos for the first time. The result was several Academy Award wins the film took home and a general upgrade in notability and industry clout.
J.K. Simmons being scarier than any door in Whiplash.
The musical thriller launched the career of writer/director Damien Chazelle and proved that Blum’s template could be applied successfully to a prestige drama with horror elements, with Chazelle’s innovative creative prowess being one of the film’s biggest breaths of fresh air. That is of course, second to the towering performance from J.K. Simmons in an antagonist role that is more menacing than any recent slasher invention. Alongside elevating the studio’s status, it opened the door for them to experiment further with supporting projects that mix the intellectual and the visceral.
Which, of course, has to bring us to…
Get Out (2017) —
Without a doubt the best thing Blumhouse has done and one of the reasons why they have such a beloved brand at the current moment is Get Out. The film not only raked in a vast amount of Oscar nominations, popular acclaim, and a bevvy of critical adoration, but it represents the perfect exhibition for why and how Blumhouse’s style of producing films is a stroke of genius.
It’s a bit hard to think about now in the wake of how popular and revered the film was when it was first released, and in the resulting skyrocket that Peele’s career undertook, but when the film was initially announced, it was not ridiculous to be skeptical of the project. Peele? That guy from the sketch show with all the sketches about people mispronouncing shit? Doing a horror film? And so on. It was a reaction that fueled speculation and curiosity but it was only when the buzz from the festivals was coming back alight with borderline worship for the film that the tides turned to excited anticipation. But again, the decision to produce the film in the first place–that is, a high concept social commentary horror-comedy from a comedian and first-time director–was a risk for even a company like Blumhouse.
Jordan Peele on set of Get Out
Of course, we now know that the gamble paid off and the film was a genuine confident stroke of total genius on Peele’s behalf. A simultaneously timely and timeless piece of socially conscious discourse wrapped in a darkly comedic skin that works on every single level. The film’s incredible and holistic success marks Blumhouse’s current peak, and one of the best horror debuts of all time, exceeding almost all expectations and therefore also creating a compelling real-life underdog narrative.
If this installment seemed a bit thinner than the last few, well that’s because it is. For one thing, the Blumhouse machine is still in full swing in producing films under their umbrella. More importantly, this is a two-part story. In truth, as I was working through this week’s material to write this essay, it became more and more apparent that while the Blumhouse canon does constitute a major niche and business movement in the horror world, it also plays a hand in the much bigger picture of the current horror renaissance that’s underway in the genre. Of course, as I alluded to earlier, the other major player in this overhaul is fellow indie production studio A24. So next week, we’re going to be talking about A24’s half of this overhaul of the cinematic horror landscape.
Thanks again for reading another installment of the series. Be back next week with more freaky delights.