On The Aisle
By Tony Macklin
‘A Hellish Delight’
God created the world in six days. It took indie director/producer Oren Peli one day more — seven days — to create his blockbuster movie, “Paranormal Activity.”
The world is a heavenly creation; the movie is a hellish delight.
Once in a full moon, a movie comes along that ignores all the established rules and yet somehow captivates a large, enthusiastic following. “Paranormal Activity” is such a phenomenon. It was made for a production budget of less than $15,000. But the things that go bump in the night are ringing cash registers. Crowds, especially young people, love the movie.
“Paranormal Activity” is the absorbing story of a young couple who have moved into a house in suburban San Diego. The young woman Katie (Katie Featherston) is disturbed by strange things that go on in the house. Is it haunted?
Micah (Micah Sloat) buys a new camera and shoots almost everything in their life, even the trivial things. He sets up a video recorder attached to a laptop to record the nightly mysterious occurrences.
He and Katie always have a handheld camera to record events during the day. As days and nights pass, dread increases, and the haunting escalates until one fateful night.
The film should never work. The budget is tip money for the Hollywood moguls. Their industry depends on mega-million dollar productions. Given its ungodly restraints, “Paranormal Activity” has to be a self-indulgent mess, right? Hardly. It has control, creativity and humanity.
It must have had a large crew. No, Peli was director, producer, writer and editor. Obviously he also was director of photography, although one is not credited. It appears that Peli used just two cameras.
“Paranormal Activity” must have CGI. No CGI. Was it the set? No. Peli shot the film in his own house in San Diego, which he remodeled to fulfill the movie’s needs. It’s a normal suburban home.
The actors, since they’re novices, have to be amateurish, don’t they? They aren’t; they’re very effective. One of the elements that works best for Peli is his two leads. They’re likable and believable. Credibility is crucial when suspension of disbelief hovers everywhere.
In one sequence the camera follows Micah into the hallway when Katie, in panic, wouldn’t take it with her in the throes of fear. Especially since she resists the camera. It’s one of Peli’s few lapses in credibility. The audience can relate to Katie and Micah as real people.
“Paranormal Activity” has to have a lot of gore, doesn’t it? Nope. One of the three endings Peli shot is gory, but he settled on another. Steven Spielberg suggested the new ending after he saw the original film, and it is potent. “Paranormal Activity” is more mainstream than bloodstream.
The backstory of the making and marketing of “Paranormal Activity” is a doozy. You have to suspend your disbelief a lot more than when you see the film.
The film premiered at the 2007 Screamfest Film Festival in Los Angeles. DVDs were sent to potential backers, but it got no distributors. Eventually Jason Blum, formerly of Miramax and since 2000 head of Blumhouse Productions, got interested and helped Peli edit and polish it. Still no distributor.
It was rejected by the “prestigious” Sundance Film Festival. In 2008, it was screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, and in 2009 it made the Telluride Film Festival.
Along the way Spielberg got involved. A production executive at Dreamworks saw “Paranormal Activity,” loved it, and with enthusiasm got it passed up the chain of command, until Saint Steven viewed it and blessed it.
“Paranormal Activity” must have reminded him of his first major film “Duel” (1971). It was made for TV and not released to American theaters until years later. “Duel” and “Paranormal Activity” share the compelling theme of the unknown.
Dreamworks bought the property from Peli with plans to remake it into a movie with well-known actors, but something unplanned happened. The original — like an uncontrollable spirit — had a life of its own.
The indie film had a screening which was dynamite, and eventually the idea of a remake was canceled. Word of mouth, midnight screenings, Internet support and increased venues resulted in a wide distribution by Paramount Pictures.
“Paranormal Activity” shouldn’t work, but it does. Fabulously. There will be a backlash to its success, but people should never forget the meager budget and how it used its budget.
Whatever one’s reaction to seeing the film, “Paranormal Activity” is a phenomenal achievement.