Two years ago, as I was writing for the Weekly about the Screamfest Horror Film Festival, an unhyped, unknown movie without familiar names caught my eye. Simply shot with two lead actors and a single location, it was not only the most economical movie of that year but also the scariest by far, depicting a haunting in ways the viewer could actually believe: odd noises, the movement of inanimate objects, and people behaving strangely in the dead of night. It’s taken a while, but now Paranormal Activity has finally caught on with the rest of America — and in 2009, it is once again the scariest movie of the year.
“Two years? It feels longer!” laughs the film’s Israeli-born director, Oren Peli, speaking by phone from the set of his latest movie, Area 51, about which he will say nothing except that it isn’t based on the video game of the same name. Though Peli’s $15,000 debut was quickly snatched up by DreamWorks after being recommended by producer Jason Blum and DreamWorks executive Ashley Brucks, the merger of that studio with Paramount left everyone wondering whether the movie would see the light of day again. “They didn’t know what to do with it,” says Peli, although he brushes off the talk that a big-budget remake was in the offing, saying, “I don’t know if that was ever serious.” In the end, the only evidence of studio tampering is in a few minor edits and a reshot ending, but, Peli says, he thinks these tweaks actually improved the movie. “More people like the new ending.”
Ultimately, Paranormal Activity benefited from an unorthodox marketing strategy that Peli credits entirely to the studio. Paramount first released the movie the weekend of September 25 as a midnight show in 10 college towns, with additional, free screenings in some major cities (one in New York threatened to backfire when an angry crowd was left waiting for hours before being told there was no more room in the theater). After audience response proved positive, the studio, utilizing a Web site called Eventful, which is often used to gauge interest for rock bands in particular towns, asked that fans in other cities demand the movie come to a theater near them. Following an October 2 expansion of the midnight shows, which grossed more than $500,000 from just 33 locations, the studio promised a full, wide release if the film received a million demands. It’s not clear if the math was exactly on the level — an e-mail from Eventful stated that the million-demand level had been met even as the movie’s Facebook page continued to say that it hadn’t — regardless, on October 16 Paramount further expanded Peli’s film to round-the-clock showings in 159 theaters for a whopping $7 million weekend gross. Now horror fans across the country can enjoy what many are calling the next The Blair Witch Project, though Peli points out, “We definitely wanted to differentiate from Blair Witch by having a steady camera.”
Despite having recorded an online video on which he personally thanks the fans, Peli isn’t fond of doing publicity and would rather remain as enigmatic as the unseen spirits that haunt his movie. “We’ve found that the less people know about the movie, the more they enjoy it,” he says. Asked how he made various objects move onscreen, seemingly by themselves, he’ll say only, “At this stage we don’t want to reveal our tricks, but it was mostly practical effects.” Some computer enhancement was involved, but “it’s invisible CG, you don’t know it’s there. You don’t want effects to look like effects.”
Peli does, however, admit that not all of the movie’s time-lapse shots of the haunted couple’s bedroom are exactly as they seem. “Some of it’s real, and there are some tricks.”
Information about Peli himself is equally hard to come by — in an information-age rarity, he doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, and his IMDB page is absent any biographical information, though it does state that he worked on a video game called NFL Xtreme. Of his background in video games, Peli says he prefers not to talk about it, but that, when it comes to filmmaking, his prior career “definitely helps. I worked with extras casting and learned camera angles, and working with digital effects really helped me in the editing.”
Almost every article written about him takes pains to point out that Peli has no “formal” filmmaking training, but as usual, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of video games by the Hollywood media. Peli himself thinks that the video-game industry is “the closest thing” to moviemaking.
Asked to name some of his favorite films, Peli quickly rattles off Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption. A Stephen King fan, eh? “Yes, definitely, but strangely, it’s mostly his nonhorror stuff, and Misery,” he says. “Some would say that was horror, but it’s also [like ParanormalActivity] a story that keeps the perspective confined to one place.”
So is it safe to assume that his next movie will be of a similar vein? “I would prefer not to say. I would prefer that nobody knows I am working on another project until I am done.”