Why did the decidedly un-scary ‘Area 51’ terrify Paramount so much?

Paramount InSurge quietly dumped Oren Peli's “Area 51” onto Netflix this week, an ignoble end for a film that was apparently in production for the better part of a decade, and having finally seen it, my biggest question is this: why did Paramount bother with such a tortured post-production on such a slight and forgettable misfire?

Oren Peli's “Paranormal Activity” is one of the genuine miracles of recent indie cinema, a micro-budget horror film that not only spawned a hundred lesser rip-offs but helped turn Jason Blum into the only producer still apparently making horror films in all of Hollywood. While a series of “Paranormal Activity” sequels managed to do a solid job of building a mythology out of the fairly slight original film, with a series of different directors rotating through, Peli moved on to his next project and started production on the film in 2009.

Think about what it was that made “Paranormal Activity” so nimble and such an easy thing for audiences to absorb. It's a movie set in one house, largely in one room, with an invisible villain and two actors. I don't blame Peli for trying something more ambitious for his second film, but I can tell you what the first mistake he made was, and it sums up a problem with horror right now in general. The idea that he had to make his next film a found-footage movie just because his breakthrough hit was a found footage movie is, frankly, insane.

“But there's a strong organic character reason for it in this one,” you say. “The main character is obsessed with UFOs and wants to break into Area 51 and find proof that they exist. Of course he keeps shooting everything!” But so much time and energy is spent on justifying how and why things are being shot that it feels like we're sitting through pre-production meetings, not part of the actual film.

The film went through several major stages of post-production. Chris Denham was brought in to do some rewrites in 2011. They filmed another round of reshoots in 2013. By that point, don't you think they had a general idea of whether or not any of the film worked? In late 2013, Blum said the director was just “tinkering” with the cut of the film. We're talking about a found-footage horror movie largely shot in boring stairwells and hallways in which a bunch of unlikeable and unmemorable characters run around with video cameras and curse and crouch in shadows while we see nothing of any importance. What could take four years? And then another two years of post-production after that?

When the Alamo Drafthouse gave the film an exclusive theatrical run in May of this year, it felt like the most bare-bones way to satisfy some sort of contractual obligation, playing for a long weekend at the same time that it snuck out via on-demand. I didn't pay for the film at that point, curious to see how long it would take to finally just land in its perfect final home, Netflix.

Watching it yesterday, it felt like a task. It's a complete drag. I couldn't tell you anything about the characters. There's nothing scary or suspenseful about any of the running around. It's forgettable, but it's not offensive. It's just dull. And despite using a larger set and some location shooting, there's nothing here that looks like it cost any “real” money. When you're making something like this and it doesn't work, what would possibly possess you to spend six years working on it? When does it become a complete waste of resources to try to save something that simply can't be saved?

If you're curious, check the film out, but I”ll be honest… after how long I've waited to see it, the overwhelming feeling is indifference. It's the worst kind of failure. It's a film that no one will remember. No one except the people who were forced carry it around like an albatross for the better part of a decade. That's the scariest thing about the entire movie.

“Area 51” is on Netflix Streaming now.