It’s the thingsgs you don’t see that make Oren Peli’s hor­rorh llm so fright­en­ingf i h i – and a box of ce hit.

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - ARTS - WORDS AN­DREW FENTON

LONG AFRAID OF ghosts and demons, di­rec­tor Oren Peli found his fears start­ing to con­sume him as he lay alone in the dark in his new home. “I’d never lived in a sin­gle de­tached home and I started notic­ing there were all th­ese noises in the mid­dle of the night: creaks from the house set­tling,” he says. “That’s what got me think­ing about set­ting up a video cam­era and let­ting it run through the night.” The idea was to re­as­sure him­self there was noth­ing lurk­ing in the shad­ows – but he started to won­der: what if? “I thought: ‘how scary would it be if the cam­era ac­tu­ally caught some­thing on tape that’s not sup­posed to be there?’”

If the screams at re­cent preview screen­ings of his movie Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity are any­thing to go by the an­swer is: very scary in­deed. Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity isn’t the usual Hol­ly­wood ex­er­cise in man­u­fac­tured thrills. In fact, it doesn’t even have a screen­play. Peli just jot­ted down a story out­line that was in­spired by those dark fears. “My only cri­te­ria was: what would scare me if it was some­body else’s movie?” he says.

Nor does it have much of a bud­get. It cost $15,000 to make – which is al­most noth­ing in com­par­i­son with the tens of mil­lions spent on most main­stream re­leases – but is so ef­fec­tive at con­vinc­ing peo­ple some­thing evil and danger­ous is lurk­ing just out of sight that it has al­ready taken more than $100 mil­lion at the US box of­fice.

The events of Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity take place in the dead of night as a young cou­ple (Katie Feather­ston and Micah Sloat) haunted by a su­per­nat­u­ral pres­ence de­cide to use a cam­era to doc­u­ment their ex­pe­ri­ences. The film ex­ploits ba­sic hu­man fears about how vul­ner­a­ble we are as we lie sleep­ing. And of course night­mares – and those height­ened fears that emerge in the dark when we’re half asleep – are as close as many of us get to real dan­ger.

Un­like most hor­ror films made in the wake of The Night of the Liv­ing Dead and The Texas Chain­saw Mas­sacre, the film doesn’t con­tain gore. In a move re­call­ing Steven Spiel­berg’s in­spired de­ci­sion to avoid any­thing more than glimpses of the fake rub­ber shark in Jaws, Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity makes a virtue out of its in­abil­ity to af­ford spe­cial ef­fects and make-up. Barely a drop of blood is spilt – this is a movie where doors slam­ming on their own and Ouija boards spon­ta­neously com­bust­ing in­spire omi­nous dread.

Peli says it’s the un­seen threats that are the most ter­ri­fy­ing. “Usu­ally the things that are the most fright­en­ing are the things that you don’t see and you leave the au­di­ence’s own imag­i­na­tions to fill in the blanks,” he says. “That’s the kind of movie I’ve found to be the most ef­fec­tive on me.”

At heart, Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity is a ghost story, al­beit one that touches on the oc­cult and hu­man pos­ses­sion. It’s cer­tainly made more be­liev­able by the use of a hand­held cam­era – but what re­ally sells it are the au­then­tic re­ac­tions of the two young leads who were paid just $500 for their week’s work. Feather­ston and Sloat are ab­so­lutely cred­i­ble as a bick­er­ing, but loving cou­ple, deal­ing with events they don’t re­ally un­der­stand. The im­pro­vised di­a­logue seems re­al­is­tic – even re­al­is­ti­cally ba­nal at times – and their abil­ity to feign white-hot ter­ror helps con­vince the au­di­ence that some­thing truly ter­ri­fy­ing is go­ing on just out­side the frame.

“I hon­estly be­lieve the main rea­son the movie is so suc­cess­ful is be­cause of their per­for­mances,” Peli says. “It’s not just that the ac­tors h have to j just b be good d ac­tors, they h h have to b be so good that you can’t tell that they’re act­ing and it looks like reg­u­lar home video. When the bar is so high it’s re­ally hard to find peo­ple who can pull it off.”

Peli is happy to ad­mit he nicked the con­cept of “found home-video footage” from The Blair Witch Project, which stole the idea from 1980’s Can­ni­bal Holo­caust. That film ap­peared so au­then­tic its mak­ers were pros­e­cuted for mak­ing a snuff film.

“ Blair Witch was very cheap and in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful and it def­i­nitely got me think­ing that if a movie is done well in that way, it has the po­ten­tial to go some­where,” Peli says. “I started think­ing that if I got a good idea I could get a video cam­era, shoot a movie on my own and if it turned out well, maybe there would be some pos­si­bil­ity of it get­ting a release.”

An early and less pol­ished ver­sion of the movie ended up in the hands of pro­ducer Ja­son Blum, who man­aged to con­vince DreamWorks that Peli had some­thing. DreamWorks wasn’t ex­actly sure what that some­thing was, so it ap­proved a large bud­get re­make. But as part of his con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions, Peli ar­ranged for the Dreamworks ex­ec­u­tives to at­tend a sin­gle pub­lic screen­ing to show how ef­fec­tive the film was at scar­ing peo­ple. It worked: some peo­ple screamed, oth­ers jumped in their seats and a few left, too ter­ri­fied to stay. DreamWorks im­me­di­ately de­cided to release the orig­i­nal. To sell the film around

the world world, a sim­i­lar pub­lic demon­stra­tion of the movie’s a abil­ity to scare was held for in­ter­na­tional dis­trib­uto dis­trib­u­tors in Santa Mon­ica – and again the au­di­ence freaked frea out. Within 48 hours the film had been sold to 52 coun­tries.

Con­trary to ru­mour, Steven Spiel­berg didn’t come on board b un­til af­ter the de­ci­sion had been taken to release re the orig­i­nal – how­ever, he was cer­tainly re­spon­si­ble re for dream­ing up the cur­rent end­ing. Per­haps Pe be­cause of the film’s lack of ar­ti­fice, Spiel­berg Spielb seemed as scared by Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity Ac­tiv­i­tyy as ev­ery­body e else. The oft-told tale is that af­ter he watched wat the film, his bed­room door locked it­self from the th in­side, and he was so freaked out he re­turned the movie to DreamWorks in a plas­tic rub­bish bag, bag ap­par­ently be­liev­ing it to be evil. Peli swears the story st is true. “I heard it from him and from the Dreamworks Dreamwo ex­ec­u­tives I was in touch with back then, and the story was told a long time ago be­fore any mar­ket­ing peo­ple were in­volved,” he says.

Peli is work­ing worki on a se­quel and he’s al­ready mak­ing his sec­ond fea­ture – Area 51, about three teenagers whose cu­rios­ity leads them to the leg­endary and mys­te­ri­ous Area 51 Air Force base deep in the Ne­vada desert. Or so ru­mour has it – Peli re­fuses to talk about it. “As a pol­icy I don’t like to say any­thing about any­thing un­til it’s done,” he says.

Peli still lives in the very same house where Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity was made. “If I bring new peo­ple who have seen the house in the movie some­times they get a bit creeped out,” he says.

Main: Katie Feather­ston and Micah Sloat in a scene from Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity. Above: Oren Peli.

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