When Oren Peli decided to turn his home into a micro-budget movie set, little did he know that he was at the helm of what would eventually become one of the most fiscally successful horror franchises in film history. Five years and over $800 million box office dollars later, Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” has grown from one simple idea into a series of six films.
“With the first film, I would have just been thrilled to have that movie have some sort of theatrical distribution. The first film being successful was all I ever wanted. Having one sequel was mind-blowing for me and to be at number six now, that’s beyond anything I think anyone could have anticipated, especially me.”
The first time I interviewed Peli, he was well into his filmmaking career after making a swift occupation change from programmer to producer. Paramount had taken over the “Paranormal” franchise and the third installment was about to earn a whopping $200 million plus.
With Halloween around the corner and the release of Peli’s grand finale, “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” it was once again time I caught up with the horror producer. Peli explained that what once was a one-man show with a camera in the comfort of his own home, is now a big-scale studio production.
“When I was making the first movie, it was basically all me – I wrote, produced, directed, edited and did the visual effects. It was a very small crew. There’s a strong influence with other directors and other writers. So you’re part of a larger team,” he told me.
“I’m just one of the voices and I can contribute my input. Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don’t, which is totally fine.”
But while the film crew has grown and the production budget has increased, one thing hasn’t changed: they have kept the scare-factor intact. Comparatively speaking; there seems to be little difference in the quality of supernatural scares from a $15,000 micro-budget, to a $5 million budget film. Naturally the special effects have evolved, but, for the most part, the fifth film is just as frightening as the first.
He may make movies that scare the masses, but that doesn’t mean they scare him. Peli said, “Sometimes when I watch a new version of the movie and there is a jump scare that I haven’t seen fully edited yet [I’m scared.] Only because I know what the movie is about and I’ve seen it evolve, they don’t personally scare me.”
For filmmakers like Peli, scaring movie-goers is an art. In our first interview he said, “It’s all about building a sense of dread, building a sense of anticipation, and making the audience relate to the characters. It’s important for them to anticipate what is going to happen to them, which is why I think “Paranormal Activity” touched a nerve. A really good horror movie creates intrigue and suspense. You think of movies like “Psycho” and “The Blair Witch Project,” which made an imprint on society. Those movies really scared me. After watching “Psycho,” some people said that they were never going to take a shower again. After “Jaws,” people said they wouldn’t go into the ocean again. And after “The Blair Witch Project,” some people said that they were never going to go camping in the woods again. In “Paranormal Activity,” everything happens in your own home and in your own bed, while you are asleep.”
As someone who has lost hours of sleep over Peli’s films, but still continues to watch them, I can confidently say that he succeeded in his goal to make audiences scared of the creaks and clangs in their very own homes.
“I would like to think that if I weren’t close to the production, it would definitely scare me. I wish I had a great story about something supernatural that happened to me, that would be great for marketing purposes,” Peli said.
But while his own films might not make him jump, there are a couple that shook Peli to his core.
“Out of all the horrors films that I have seen throughout my life, there are two that I can point out that had the most effect on me. One is ‘The Exorcist,” which I saw when I was eleven. It was a really bad idea because it totally terrified and traumatized me. And much later, “The Blair Witch” project, which both really scared me and opened my eyes to found-footage. It was the direct inspiration for me to make “Paranormal Activity.”
In asking Peli about his thoughts on supernatural versus slasher films, he said, “I’m definitely more affected by the more low-key suspenseful stuff. The gore can have a shock-value that is visually disgusting, but it doesn’t affect me in a sense of scaring me.”
Peli, Blumhouse Productions and the Paramount team have perfected the craft of unseen demons. Rather than a masked murderer with a knife, the anticipation and fear is heightened with creaking doors and moving objects. One scene in particular in the 4th installment will go down as one of the best visual effects in my horror film history book. A rotating camera moves from a view of the kitchen to the dining room. It goes back and forth until, in the final shot of the kitchen, every single item on the counter (tables and chairs included) are on the ceiling.
With every sequel, Paranormal fans are hoping for bigger and better effects. While Peli couldn’t give anything away, he was able to reveal something about the final “Paranormal” film.
“I don’t want to spoil any plot points, but as far as what’s really different compared to the previous movies in the franchise: For the first time you’re actually going to see stuff happen. Before you and the characters would hear and sense things. And a lot of that still goes on with the spooky elements and a presence in the house, but also on many occasions you will see it evolve from a more abstract form into what the demon actually looks like. We came up with this tool, which through the camera, allows them to see things that the naked eye cannot see.”
The camera has indeed become a star of all of the Paranormal movies. With “Blair Witch Project” and Peli’s franchise, the popular found-footage medium has saturated the horror genre. For the Paranormal producer, he has no problem with found-footage, as long as it’s “done well.”
“I hope it will continue. I think when found footage is done well, it allows you to connect to the film in a different way than when you watch a more traditionally shot movie, whether it’s horror or any other genre. It’s as if, you know it’s not real but it feels real. As long as the found footage formula is being respected.”
With another projected box office success for Peli’s final Paranormal film, it’s important to remember where it all started. “Found footage also allows a lot of filmmakers who may not have access to a lot of funding or to studios, to do what I did – which is buy a video camera and just start shooting. A lot of times it may not work, but a lot of times it might and you have an opportunity for filmmakers to make a movie who otherwise might have been unable to.”
Although Peli could not reveal whether or not he was working on a new project, he promises that once he decides to talk about it, he will let us know the details!
“Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension” opens in theaters October 23, 2015.