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The ‘Magical Elixir’ for a Horror Film

Is it true?

That's the question making the haunted-house film Paranormal Activity a nationwide sensation, raising bumps on moviegoers' skin with its home-video-style story of a young man and woman trying to capture evidence of a malevolent force that is menacing them in the night.

"You'd have to think most people 10 years after The Blair Witch Project would be savvy enough to know it's not really found footage, but the whole idea of the documentary style is to get sucked into the story," says director Oren Peli. "Some part of your brain may be saying, 'It's just a movie . . . It's just a movie . . .' but everything we show you seems real."

The spooky film is building box-office momentum. After years of horror-genre domination by blood-spattered grotesqueries, Paranormal Activity's success may mark a pendulum shift back toward campfire-tale creepiness.

Jeff Goldsmith, senior editor of Creative Screenwriting magazine, says the niche of low-budget horror films depends entirely on relatable heroes, such as this story's cohabitating suburban couple, actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, who are playing people remarkable only for their ordinariness.

"Bigger-budgeted horror films often fail in the marketplace when they forget this simple character-driven step and go straight for the gore," Goldsmith says. "As our heroes go from scoffing at the paranormal to finally dreading each new sunset, you'd be hard-pressed to find a member in the audience not nervously wondering just what exactly that noise was they think they heard in their home the night before."

The night-cam footage captures chilling subtleties that gradually build the sense of dread - audio of a distant groan, the sound of footsteps, the flicking on of a light in an empty hallway, and the slow pulling away of the sheets from the sleeping pair. Then it gets much worse.

"We spent months perfecting those shots, making sure to have enough places for you to look so you never knew where it would come from," Peli says. "I love watching the audience when the big scares happen, but the stuff that makes me most feel like the movie is working is when nothing is happening, and people are saying things at the screen and groaning and shifting in the their seats when each new night comes in the story."

It draws obvious comparisons to Blair Witch, but Goldsmith describes Paranormal Activity as a cinema verite version of 1982's Steven Spielberg-produced thriller Poltergeist. "(It) ditched the cobwebs and dingy cellars usually associated with horror films to prove, yet again, that a contemporary suburban home offers no sanctuary against dark forces," Goldsmith says.

The invoking of Spielberg's name brings up another instance of "Is it true?" Rumors are abounding in Hollywood that Spielberg played a pivotal role in advocating the film's release to theaters - and even suggested a change to the ending.

Confirmation comes from the man himself. "I love a good ghost story," Spielberg says. "What Oren does so brilliantly - and sadistically - to audiences with this film is its accumulation of small events. That creates a slow burn, so that when something occurs that is shocking, it multiplies the impact on the audience. He doesn't rush the scares and really takes his time with it. That's the magical elixir that makes this film so frightening."

His DreamWorks Studios had picked up the film with the hope of remaking it with famous actors, but Spielberg and his partners liked the original so much they decided it should go out as is, and their former distribution partner Paramount devised an innovative word-of-mouth publicity campaign.

Peli, who made the project for less than the cost of the average compact car, had already considered Spielberg's Jaws a major influence - especially since budget constraints famously led that earlier film to use more innovative point-of-view tricks, turning the camera into the predator since the mechanical shark broke down constantly. In Paranormal Activity, Spielberg says the camera is like the moviegoer, trapped in the house with the couple - and whatever else is there.

The newbie filmmaker doesn't take the acclaimed veteran's attention lightly. "One of the biggest honors of my life was when Mr. Spielberg suggested the new ending," he says. "We shot it quickly and tested it soon thereafter, and the audience went wild. As soon as the movie cuts to black after Spielberg's ending, the audience screams, and then they either applaud or sit there in a state of shock."

Peli says he also heard that when Spielberg first saw the film, he "started watching the movie at night and was so frightened by it that he ended up quitting halfway through. He had to finish it the next day during daylight."

So . . . is that true?

Spielberg laughs and admits: "I had to wait until the sun came up and put it on at 8:30 in the morning. Then I watched it in its entirety."

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