Things That Go Bump in the Blumhouse
If there's one constant in Blumhouse films like Paranormal Activity and Sinister, it's this: Never move into a new house. "That's not true," barks distributor chief Jason Blum. "Insidious. I've broken my golden rule. It's my favorite thing. Rose says, 'let's get the hell out of this house,' and they move."
Unlikely as it seems, this tall, hyper-enthusiastic, preppy-looking guy is the modern William G. Castle: Master of the crowd-pleasing horror. He started as a stage director, working with Ethan Hawke's Malaparte theater company (partially explaining why the genre-loving Hawke has turned up in two Blumhouse franchises, Sinister and The Purge. A former co-head of acquisitions at Miramax, in 2000 he set out his own shingle as Blumhouse, and the rest is a multi-billion dollar piece of cinema history.
The morning we spoke, he was fresh out of his SXSW keynote and bouncing. "So far, no controversy," he grinned. His latest release, haunted mirror shocker Oculus, written and directed by Mike Flanagan, had just debuted, and now opens this weekend. Like most of his successful films, it makes the suburban house the modern version of the old gothic mansion. For Blum, it's all about the terror of isolation. He said, "It's inherently scary when you're in a house alone and you don't have any neighbors. Like I love Tower Block, I would have loved to make that movie or distribute that movie, and it takes place in an apartment building, but generally, any kind of urban environment is less scary than a suburban one. You're most scared when you're alone, but when your neighbor lives above you, below you, either side of you, it's just less scary." For Blum, the only environment that matches tract housing for chills are the equally isolated woods. He sighed. "Nature's become scary, sadly."
The core of his films are about some kind of intrusion, some external force, that batters down the dream of domestic bliss. But whether it's demons, alien abductions or vigilantes, he said, "you always have to think about the audience asking after 20 minutes, 'why the hell don't they get the hell out of the house?' So we do talk about that a lot. Maybe there's a sick kid who can't be moved, or I read one recently where the woman can't afford to move." In Oculus, the motivation is that heroine Kaylee (former Dr. Who companion Karen Gillan) is deliberately going back to the scene of the supernatural crime: The possessed mirror that caused the deaths of her parents. Blum said, "She's chasing the haunt."
It's hard to talk about modern mainstream horror without mentioning Blumhouse. After a run of moderately successful comedies like The Darwin Awards and forgettable Uma Thurman rom-com The Accidental Husband, Blumhouse hit on the perfect business model with a forgotten project called Paranormal Activity. Left on the shelf for two years after a string of 2007 festival screenings, Blumhouse turned Paramount's $350,000 investment into a $108 million box office return. They followed that up with a series of smart acquisitions that fall into two camps: Micro-indies with good buzz that basically can't make a loss (case in point: The whole Paranormal Activity franchise), and $3 million pictures with one recognizable name attached, like Dark Skies starring Keri Russell, and The Purge, headlined by Hawke. In the process, Blum and company started to dominate horror.
Blum is also a firm believer in another horror mainstay, and that's sequels. So far the Blumhouse slate sounds like soccer scores: Paranormal Activity 5, Insidious: Chapter 2, plus a second entry in the Purge series, Anarchy, due in July. This week, he announced his second series with an Austin connection: With Sinister (penned by local author/screenwriter C. Robert Cargill) getting its first sequel this year, this week Blum confirmed that Mark Duplass' Creep, which screened alongside Oculus at SXSW, will become a trilogy. As for Oculus, he told the audience during its SXSW premier, "Sequels are always possible."
If there's another constant in Blumhouse movies, it's that there's no third act bait and switch. Scooby and the gang don't suddenly pull the mask off old man Johnson, Freddy doesn't mysteriously become dumber than a bunch of exhausted frat boys. "I hate that," said Blum.
So does Oculus creator Flanagan. "It drives me nuts," the director said. "You have this ancient, almost omniscient force that's suddenly bested by a teenager." But the challenge then is giving the audience a reason to believe that the heroic characters have at least a passing chance of victory. "The hope in our story comes from who Kaylee is as a character. It's her level of determination and preparation. That she's very intelligent, she's very methodical, she's very scientific, I think that's where we can glean hope. But then I love balancing that with, when you're dealing with true evil, victory may never really be possible, and certainly not guaranteed."
It's not just film makers who hate the bait-and-switch: Blum believes that the audience despise it too. "One of the things that I like about horror fans is that they can tell the difference between a money grab movie that's very derivative, and someone that loves it. Mike loves it, Cargill and (Sinister director) Scott Derrickson love it. James Wan and Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 2) love it. And when you get fan boys like that making horror, whether it's commercially successful or not is a different part of the question, but it's always interesting to watch."
While Blum readily admits to being a fan boy, he's also a businessman, and the market Blumhouse dominates is changing by the week. Paranormal Activity was the test case for social media marketing for movies, with Blum pioneering the "if you demand it, we'll bring it" model for screenings. Now with theatrical-on-demand firms like Tugg and Gathr becoming increasingly mainstream, the whole cinema model – especially for smaller and indie projects – faces another revolution. When Blum started releasing, day-and-date cross platform releases were a bold experiment for auteurs like Steven Soderbergh. Now they're the norm, and Blum is OK with that. "I think it's a losing proposition to control how the consumer consumes content, and it drives me crazy when people try it," Blum said. "I'm a big fan of letting tyhe consumer watch it when they want to watch it. Kids will always go to the theater and see movies, particularly horror movies and comedies, because they want to be scared and laugh together, but let them see it on their watch, let them see it on their phone, let them see it on their iPad, let them see it on their TV."