Why this might not seem so easy
Jason Blum started out in the business helping ex-college roommate Noah Baumbach get his debut Kicking and Screaming (1995) off the ground. Until Paranormal Activity (2007) provided a lightbulb flash of inspiration, he spent the noughties producing forgettable indie fare. Yet these ropey beginnings, the several false starts, are part of Blumhouse history.
After hitting pay dirt with a humbly-made found-footage chiller, micro-budgeted scary movies became Blumhouse’s bread and butter. Blum’s reputation was soon established as a mogul willing to give talent a chance and an executive/producer who can expertly package and market pictures in a way that grabs the attention of major distributors and a global demographic hungry for the latest in chills and thrills.
He’s a little bit Roger Corman, a little bit William Castle, while recognising and embracing the changing nature of distribution in the 21st century. A first-look deal with Universal means a select few Blumhouse productions get wide releases, while others rely on VOD and streaming services such as Netflix (the brilliant mumblecore-esque Creep and Creep 2, for example).
Blum has been instrumental in helping launch the directorial careers of Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush) and Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade), while collaborating on projects outside horror cinema such as BlacKkKlansman (2018), Whiplash (2014) and The Gift (2015). His company has also led M. Night Shyamalan in from the cold, producing The Visit (2015), Split (2017) and Glass (2019), ensuring not only a creative revival after several blockbuster-sized duds, but renewed interest in Shyamalan’s work from critics and genre fans.
Today, Blumhouse is a multimedia empire with a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, including television, digital media and publishing, presenting a bit of a mountain to climb for anybody wishing to explore its enormous output to date.
The best place to start – Paranormal Activity
Famously made for $15,000 dollars, Paranormal Activity was initially shot in just seven days (reshoots, re-edits and multiple endings were filmed before its eventual release). Blum got involved with director Oren Peli’s film early on and helped orchestrate a genuine horror phenomenon. He’d passed on The Blair Witch Project (1999) while earning his stripes as an exec at Miramax, and that was a mistake he wouldn’t be making twice.
Paranormal Activity is the urtext for Blumhouse’s pet obsessions: technology and voyeurism. Blum is a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s easy enough to see how Hitch’s voyeuristic tendencies live on in movies Blum selects and mines for commercial gold. It features young, good-looking people living in a haunted house located in a middle-class suburban idyll. They attempt to investigate strange goings-on (ghosts are substituted for the far more terrifying concept of demons) and there’s a potent voyeuristic thread running throughout, amplified tenfold in scenes of the couple sleeping soundly.
A decade on, Paranormal Activity remains a first-class frightener with an excellent, down-to-earth lead performance by Katie Featherston. Its success is derived from nerve-shredding suspense rather than throwing continuous ghost-train frights at us. Empty frames, stillness and absolute quiet prove as unsettling and memorable as any jump scare or diabolic image. The blue-hued night-time bedroom scenes especially crackle with dread, as we eagerly await signs of otherworldly menace.
What to watch next
Sinister (2012), Unfriended (2014) and Cam (2018) all continue with technology-themed supernatural premises, either incorporating found footage or the current vogue for desktop terrors (films entirely or largely played out in computer screens, Skype or FaceTime).
Watch the Unfriended trailer
In the masterful Sinister, it’s Super 8 home movies that unleash a child-eating demon. Unfriended is a fiendish revenge tale about a group of social media-addicted teens harassed by the spirit of deceased student, who committed suicide after a humiliating video of her drunk and passed-out at a party went viral. A techno-terror spin on J.B. Priestley’s morality play, An Inspector Calls, Unfriended boasts a refreshing twist: the ‘final girl’ is also a callous quasi-villain forced to confront her pivotal role in the run up to the girl’s death. Cam takes place in the world of online sex services and involves the existential threat of identity theft. It earned plaudits for its non-judgemental portrait of a sex worker.
Away from the world of webcams and snuff reels, Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) is an ingenious The Twilight Zone meets Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? satire. A zeitgeist-defining nightmare ordeal primed by racial tensions, questions of cultural appropriation and liberal America’s penchant for virtue-signalling (the father claims he’d have voted for Obama three times, if the constitution allowed), it isn’t the first time Blumhouse explored such powder-keg topics. Although more generic (it’s a ghost story with the de rigueur found-footage angle), 2015’s Jessabelle also poignantly explores America’s segregated past and its grotesque crimes. Set in a bayou, this Southern Gothic murder mystery sees Sarah Snook’s heroine investigate (upon discovering a box of videotapes) a conspiracy hinged on anti-miscegenation fears and the forgotten murder of a mixed-race child.
Where not to start
Occasional forays into non-genre productions means if you started out watching, say, the Benji remake (a kid’s flick) or Jem and the Holograms (a musical), Whiplash (a drama about a jazz drummer and his maniacal tutor), Birth of the Dragon (a fictionalised biography of Bruce Lee) or Lowriders (a Hispanic coming-of-age tale), you’d get the wrong end of the stick about Blumhouse entirely.
The Blum imprint has also dipped its toe into the waters of cult or classic properties with built-in brand awareness – not always with the success of their 2018 Halloween redo. Their Amityville: The Awakening (2017) was beset by so many delays the film threatened to enter myth. When it arrived, the long-awaited awakening of a dormant franchise proved a rare misfire, any further potential killed off. The Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa penned The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), both a remake and sequel to Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 grindhouse proto-slasher, is superior to the original but haunted by the postmodernist spectre of the Scream series.
Next up Blumhouse will tackle a new era of gods and monsters, with Universal Pictures gifting them the Universal monsters to revive.