Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Monday, 23 November 2009

Is Paranormal Activity the scariest film ever?

Katie Featherston in a scene from the film
The film was shot in the director's house in San Diego

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

This interview may contain minor spoilers

For someone who has made what has been touted as the "scariest movie of all time", Oren Peli comes across as one of the most un-scary people on the planet.

As the quietly-spoken director relaxes on a voluminous sofa in a London hotel, you would be hard-pressed to guess that here is a man whose movie has become one of the most profitable in cinematic history.

Peli's ghost story, filmed on a video camera in his own house in San Diego for just $15,000 (£9,000), follows a young couple coping with supernatural phenomena in their home.

Oren Peli
It's much scarier than the concept of the haunted house
Director Oren Peli

"When I watched The Exorcist I was not a believer, and I still don't think I am, but it still terrified me," says Peli.

"I had nightmares and couldn't sleep well for a long time, and we are hearing the same thing about Paranormal Activity among people who are very logical and sceptical."

Paranormal Activity is one of those films that has split audiences in the US.

There is the camp that says it is over-rated and over-hyped. And there are those who have had trouble sleeping for nights afterwards.

Here are a few reactions from the IMDb website:

"Scariest movie??? Have you seen the original Shutter, The Eye, The Ring or The Grudge? These are scary!"

"Not one part of the movie scared me. Production values are obviously not there on purpose, and the movie feels cheap the entire way through."

"After watching Paranormal Activity, I noticed that the nightly sounds of my 200-years-old house were louder and creepier than ever."

"I found myself covering my eyes and plugging my ears like a little girl."

Budget horror film is US smash

Paranormal Activity opened in the US in September with midnight screenings in just 12 college towns, but quickly developed a nationwide buzz with the help of a viral online campaign.

The film has taken more than $100m (£60m) in North America, though its marketing budget will have far exceeded the actual cost of making the film.

First-time director Peli says he had no idea Paranormal Activity would become so successful when he shot the film over seven days in 2006.

"I didn't really know until I saw the movie being shown to people in test screenings, and saw how they were reacting, that I started to think maybe it could have a future in theatrical distribution," he said.

Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg reportedly didn't want the film to stay in his house

One of the main thrusts of the marketing campaign has been Steven Spielberg's apparent paranormal experience after viewing the film at home.

I ask Peli for the true story as he understands it:

"We did a test screening for the Dreamworks executives and they immediately decided let's forget about a remake, let's release the original movie.

"They delivered it to Spielberg to give his authorisation because he owns the studio... he started watching the movie and he got so unnerved by it that he turned it off halfway and finished watching it the next day during daylight.

"The next day he tried to get back to his bedroom, and it was somehow locked from the inside. So he got a locksmith who tried to unlock the door and he couldn't, so they had to cut the door open with a saw."

Still from Paranormal Activity
Most of the night scenes are viewed through a camera set up in the bedroom

Peli admits he doesn't believe in ghosts or demons.

"Logically I do not, but I'm still scared by them. I am somewhere between curious and sceptic, once I see proof I'll believe in it - until then I don't know what to believe."

But he is clear about the reasons for the film's success.

"One of the reasons it's effective is the concept of something being around you and possibly attacking you while you are asleep. That's a primal fear. Even if you don't believe in ghosts or demons, that's something that a lot of people can relate to."

Scariest film lists
1. Psycho
2. Alien
3. The Shining
4. Aliens
5. Les diaboliques
Source: IMDb

1. The Shining
2. The Exorcist
3. Jaws
4. Alien
5. The Blair Witch Project
Source: Channel 4 Film

1. The Shining
2. Rosemary's Baby
3. The Wicker Man
4. Bride of Frankenstein
5. Psycho
Source: Total Sci-Fi

In keeping with its micro-budget credentials, Peli cast two unknowns to play the couple at the centre of the story - Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. He also kept the plot to himself during the shoot.

"They didn't know how the story was going to go. All the dialogue was improvised by them."

During the early part of the filming, the crew played some tricks on the couple.

"We told them goodnight and then we did something to surprise them," says Peli.

"The first loud bang - the one where they go and explore the house and the chandelier is doing something - that is something they didn't know was going to happen.

"I knew I wanted it to be an invisible entity that has the potential for violence."

At a time when cinema thrills are often delivered via 3D or CGI, many of Paranormal Activity's shocks come from its soundtrack and the things you don't see on camera.

Creepy sequences

One of the creepiest sequences simply involves the character of Katie getting up in the night and standing by the bed.

"I'm pleased that something subtle like that can get a huge reaction without having to show a lot of gore and blood and guts," says Peli.

"That's actually one of my favourite scenes in the movie."

The fact that Peli still lives - and sleeps - in the house where he shot his film suggests he is not one to have nightmares.

While he remains tight-lipped about rumours of a sequel, the box office takings for Paranormal Activity suggest that Peli will be able to move up the property ladder scarily quickly.

Paranormal Activity is released in the UK on 25 November.

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