The terror du jour is "Paranormal Activity," but it's following the recipe set out by the made-in-Maryland "Blair Witch Project" a decade ago.
It's a haunted-house movie, not a haunted forest film like "Blair Witch." But the catch-as-catch-can style, the mood of growing dread, and the conceit that audiences are seeing footage found after the demise of the characters are straight from the "Blair Witch" game plan.
No one recognizes the similarities more acutely than Montgomery County native and Frederick resident Eduardo Sanchez, who co-directed "The Blair Witch Project" (with Daniel Myrick).
Sanchez applauds the new film's success - "It was very scary at times," he says with an admiring chuckle. He also understands what the writer-producer-director, Oren Peli, must be going through. "It's not to denigrate them, but 'Paranormal Activity' is one of those films that I watch and say to myself, 'Man, I could have done this. It might have turned out differently, maybe not as good, but I could have done this.' " Sanchez encountered that reaction from the opposite side on "Blair Witch": "A lot of people I met were angry at me after 'Blair Witch' - angry, they explained, because they didn't think of the idea. 'Paranormal Activity' might be the kind of movie I should have made after 'Blair Witch.' "
Let him elaborate.
Sanchez refers to "Blair Witch" and "Paranormal Activity" as "first-person movies," meaning they're told from the visual perspective of the characters - in "Paranormal" the camera-crazy day-trader boyfriend of a haunted college English major, in "Blair" three film students attempting to make a documentary about a supernatural legend in Burkittsville, Md.
"It's a gimmick and it's effective, whether in horror or in comedies like Christopher Guest's 'documentaries.' But especially in horror movies, you're constantly trying to come up with reasons why these people are continuing to shoot! 'Paranormal Activity' also has the problem of all haunted house movies. At certain times you think, 'Just leave the house!' "
Of course, I interrupt, Peli does continually remind us that the girl is haunted, not the house. "Oh, I thought he handled it well," says Sanchez. "But if he went to another location and weird stuff happened, and then the characters said they might as well go back home - I might have added that additional beat."
To me, "Paranormal Activity" plays more like an audience-participation game than "Blair Witch" did. Because it restricts itself to the couple's suburban San Diego house and remains low-key for so long, the audience stays rapt to hear every little night sound or observe every rustle of a sheet. Sanchez accepts the point.
"It's not supposed to look like a film, which is what makes it scary. But it is a movie, with actors, so you can't truly believe it. 'Blair Witch' actually fooled a lot of people, because it was the first time they'd seen anything like it.
"On the other hand, 'Blair Witch' was less sensationalistic, even more reality-based. In 'Paranormal,' you see stuff that is obviously the work of some kind of supernatural force. In 'Blair Witch' you don't see anything like that and you still have this frightening horror because you don't know what's going on. In the end you think there probably was some kind of supernatural entity, but it could have been rednecks messing with the film students or them messing with each other."
What does Sanchez like the most about "Paranormal Activity"? "The director kept things in control, and kept them simple. ... he milked reality enough so you get into the moment of what you're seeing on video."
And why was "Paranormal Activity" the kind of movie he should have shot after "Blair Witch"? "I didn't want to do another first-person movie. We turned down a lot of films from the studios. We set up a comedy called 'Heart of Love,' but that fell apart before we shot it, then after 9/11 everything exploded." Sanchez, who had gone to film school in Orlando, moved back to his beloved home state of Maryland, where he and his wife are raising three kids. He has directed two other horror films, "Altered" and "Seventh Moon" (both available on DVD, the latter from Sam Raimi's company, Ghost House), as well as a Web series called "ParaAbnormal" (cowritten with Jamie Nash), which parodies ghost-hunter adventures, and Sanchez's first comic book, "Blackbeard: Legend of the Pirate King," a six-issue series from Dynamite Comics.
These days he's not so sure about shying away from another first-person movie. Long before "Paranormal Activity," he and Nash were working on a film called "Possession" that bears some resemblance to Peli's current smash. "Now when we're working on it, I'm thinking at times, 'We can't go there, because 'Paranormal' got there first, but it's cool to think we're working on ideas that are hitting the public eye."