Not long ago, Steven Spielberg took home a DVD of an unreleased movie that his company, DreamWorks, had acquired, planning to remake it with A-list stars. He sat down to watch Paranormal Activity, a no-budget thriller about a couple who suspect that restless spirits have invaded their house. When the picture was over, Spielberg went to the adjacent bathroom and found that the door was inexplicably locked. He thought the DVD was haunted!
O.K., that sounds more like the plot of The Ring, a Japanese horror film that DreamWorks actually did remake in 2002. But it's just one of the many curious phenomena attending Paranormal Activity. Shot in a week in 2006 by Israeli-born video-game designer Oren Peli for a ridiculously low $11,000, the movie is now the talk of fanboy blogs, Twitter and tout Hollywood. Not since The Blair Witch Project a decade ago has a movie come from nowhere, received a crucial spike from the Internet and become the film people have to see--if they dare.
Like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity presents itself as found footage from a video experiment gone awry. Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (the actors use their real names) sense strange vibrations soon after Katie moves into Micah's San Diego tract house. Micah totes around a video camera to record whatever happens and props the camera in the couple's bedroom while they sleep. That's it: two main characters, one house and a very slow fuse to a creepy payoff. No elaborate splatter effects either. Just a door moving a few inches ... a shadow slithering across the wall ... the ripple of an unseen form under the bedsheets.
There must be thousands of horror movies made each year in people's homes--and in most years, none of them make it out of the garage. But Paranormal Activity benefited from a marketing campaign that is an exemplar of the huckster's art. Paramount Pictures cagily opened PA as a midnight movie in 13 college towns on two early-autumn weekends. The screenings quickly sold out, sparking avid word of mouth and the all-important word of thumb. Paramount then told fans the movie would get a wide release only if a million "demands" were logged on the PA website. That took two weeks. With minimal expenditure and much ingenuity, the studio had a viral hit even before the movie opened the weekend of Oct. 9--11 on 160 screens. There it earned $7.9 million, setting a record for per-screen average. Now it's in 800 theaters, and most of America can see what the screaming's about.
There are plenty of well-marketed movies, but Paranormal Activity is more than just a business-school case study. It's a smartly revisionist suspense film. Peli, 39, follows a less-is-more strategy that suggests skills beyond mere frugality. He knows that waiting for the big, scary jolt does far more damage to the viewer's nervous system than receiving it. And he keeps the audience in his grip by never leaving the couple's haunted property. The claustrophobia is infectious: Katie and Micah can't escape, and neither can we.