Peli's "Paranormal Activity," which will be shown today at the Slamdance Film Festival (the parallel festival to Sundance that's gaining increasing attention), represents the promised future of digital filmmaking: a storyteller with no training and hardly any resources who nevertheless crafts a movie that might attract as much buyer interest as many movies at Sundance.
But "Paranormal Activity" is also the tale of how a project that could have been lost in the annual tsunami of independent films caught enough people's interest to be noticed.
Born in Israel, Peli started his own software company at age 16. "I just wrote [an animation] program with a couple of friends -- no one knew we were doing it -- and then we found someone to go sell it," he says.
That same model would be repeated on "Paranormal Activity" several years later. Over the course of just a week -- with a crew that included his girlfriend, his best friend and a makeup artist -- Peli shot the film in 2006 with a $3,000 Sony camera.
The idea was simple: A young couple believe their house is being visited at night by some spectral force. A psychic is unable to deter the unfriendly intruder, so Katie and Micah start videotaping themselves sleeping. At first, the camera records a few unexplained noises, but before long, doors start slamming, shadows begin appearing and Katie and Micah begin freaking out. What they hope is just their imaginations working overtime is actually something much worse. And even though the entire movie unfolds inside a small house, the sense of impending doom feels much larger.
And like "Cloverfield," the film begins with a disclaimer suggesting that it's an artifact from an early, unexplained incident.
Comparisons to "The Blair Witch Project," especially since all of "Paranormal Activity" was shot on a hand-held camera, are inevitable. Yet the film is also reminiscent of "The Haunting," "The Amityville Horror" and, yes, "The Exorcist."
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"Almost any movie, no matter how original, is borrowing from some other movies," Peli says. "There were a lot of scenes that we wanted to do, but they felt too familiar. But everything in the film is based on true accounts that people have experienced."
After completing filming, Peli spent a year editing "Paranormal," creating its website -- www.paranormalactivity-movie.com -- and crafting a trailer. He sent DVDs to sales agents and submitted the film to Los Angeles Screamfest, where it was received last fall with enthusiastic reviews from horror websites.
It easily could have vanished after that. But the movie made its way to the Creative Artists Agency, which submitted the film to producer Steven Schneider as a directing sample, who then showed the film to producing partner Jason Blum. "We together thought that the movie was great, and rather than focus our energy on Oren's next movie, we decided to focus on selling this," Blum says.
"Paranormal Activity" was recut and trimmed (it's now just 94 minutes long). Now it's looking for a theatrical home.
"I am often grossed out but almost never scared," Blum says of the film. "And it worked on me later in the night, when I was creeped out by a dishwasher noise. And the other thing I love about it is that it's a low-budget, high-concept idea: What's one of your worst fears? What may or not occur around you when you're sleeping."