It was shot in one intense week without a crew or script, using a high-def digital camera, in the first-time writer-director's house, at a cost of just $US11,000.
Yet Paranormal Activity is getting a nationwide release in the US on September 25 via Paramount, and it's been lavishly praised by the critics; Icon will launch the movie here on December 3.
Oren Peli, an Israeli-born filmmaker and former video programmer who migrated to the US when he was 19, got the idea when he and his wife moved into a home in San Diego and were frightened by strange noises. “What if a video camera filmed the house at night?" Peli wondered. "Then we would know what was happening."
The movie follows a young couple (Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat) who become convinced their home is haunted by demonic spirits and set up a surveillance camera to record the nocturnal disturbances. Sloat manipulated the camera and Peli hired a make-up artist as the only outside help.
Peli gave his actors a bare outline of the story, telling them only that it concerned a couple in a haunted house: there never was a script. “Basically they discovered everything as they were shooting. There were no lines for them to follow. Everything was spontaneous,” he said.
Paramount's subsidiary DreamWorks acquired the rights after the movie screened at the Slamdance festival in 2008, initially intending to remake it as a special-effects laden Hollywood horror film. Studio executives changed their minds after test screenings.
“The movie tested so well, they decided that it would be the height of folly to remake a mock-doc-type film with unknown actors," producer Steve Schneider told Variety.
Among the glowing reviews, Variety enthused, “Orin Peli's crew-less debut feature is one of the best genre spins on the pseudo-nonfiction 1st-person-cam since The Blair Witch Project, with which it shares improvised performances, no explicit violence or solution, and a gradual escalation of chills.”
Indie Wire noted. “Despite its miniscule production values and somewhat rudimentary concept, this intelligently paced ghost story creates a stripped-down intensity that the horror genre often sorely lacks.”
Bloody Disgusting's critic declared, “Paranormal Activity managed to do something that almost no other haunted house movie in the past 25 years has managed to do: actually be scary. Like Blair Witch, it's presented entirely through self-shot footage (or from a fixed tripod in their bedroom), and ramps up from simple noises to truly freaky 'violent' acts.”
Aussie audiences generally aren't huge fans of horror movies, so it'll be interesting to see whether Paranormal Activity can break through that barrier.