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.
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.