I realize how trite this sounds – like the inevitable dog in the ghost story, which always growls before his master sees the sheeted figure…
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Rats In The Walls, 1923
As longtime, regular readers of the blog know—and I don’t know why I use that phrase so much, since there’s, like, three of you, but cut me some slack—The Boy and I are somewhat aficionados of the horror film.
The Boy is, just because I’ve dragged him to a lot of horror films. That’s what a weakness for popcorn will do to you.
And me? Well, I just am. There’s no explanation for it. I attended all four of the After Dark Horror Festivals and saw 29 of the 32 movies. And I’d do it again, if those bastards put up another one. (Actually, I walk by their address pretty regularly and I think it’s a vacant lot.)
Anyway, I got to jonesin’ for a bad horror flick after watching 2016, which is sort of a documentary on the bad horror flick we live in, and fortunately, I guess, there weren’t any good horror flicks. So, between The Possession, The Apparition and The Tall Man (which I think is more of a thriller anyway), I got confused and picked The Apparition.
This movie is the brain child of writer/director Todd Lincoln, and it is relentlessly mediocre. There were a million ways it could have provoked interest but it stayed the course, refusing at every turn to do something unpredictable. It’s beating on the already hoary clichés of the Paranormal series, mixed with a few elements that were old in 1923 when H. P. Lovecraft had the decency to use an agitated cat, instead of a dog (as is done in this movie).
This doesn’t have to suck. Woman In Black touched on almost every cliché and built up slowly. But the atmosphere worked and the characterization, while similarly clichéd—well, it existed.
The premise is this: There’s a seance in 1972 where some bad stuff goes down. The seance is repeated with some Ghostbusters style technology in current day and really bad stuff goes down, i.e., a girl is sucked into the impenetrable void, never to be seen again.
Then we cut to our two leads, Kelly and Ben (Ashley Greene and Sebastien Stan) who are a couple of kids moving into Kelly’s mom’s “investment house” in Palmdale (an exurb 40 miles north of Los Angeles). Level 1 Poltergeist activity starts happening immediately.
Weird mold appears all over the place. A brand new saguaro cactus abruptly dies.
At that point, I’m thinking: “Ghosts? There’s some kind of deadly mold issue (or maybe radon gas, remember that?) or something that kills cactii, the very plant you were just referring to as indestructible. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the two fall asleep on the couch and wake up in the middle of the night with every single door opened (though still locked) and the alarm not triggered (though still armed).
Maybe the most ironic thing here is that they’re surrounded by unsold and abandoned houses. People left their houses because they were slightly underwater, so ghost? Yeah, let’s stick around, maybe it improves the curb appeal.
Anyway, while this escalates in the predictable way, Ben decides it’d be best to keep his previous activities on the down-low, ‘cause, you know, why scare your girlfriend with the information that her continued association with you might get her killed. Even when your old seance pal Patrick (Harry Potter’s Tom Felton looking less like Malfoy than Harry here) keeps calling you and emailing you with subject headers like "YOU’RE TOTALLY SCREWED”!
Yeah, so Ben’s a complete tool. Even before it was clear he was being a tool, it wasn’t clear what Kelly, aspiring veterinarian, was doing with Ben, who’s basically on the Geek Squad and not doing a good job at that. He’s also a mope, and—did I mention that he opts for NOT saying, “Hey, honey, if you see anything strange, that might be due to the evil spirit I conjured a year or two back. You know, the one that took my LAST girlfriend”?
Kelly, on the other hand, is a go-getter and a hottie. In fact, it’s really clear early on that the filmmakers realized that their best assets are her best assets. She’s clad in tight clothes, or scant clothes, or (at the movie’s high point) scant, tight clothes.
I don’t like to rag on horror films, at least not new ones and especially not first efforts, but I felt sorry for the actors at times. At one point, after it’s clear that Patrick has screwed up again and made things worse, the naturally call him for help, and his plan is to reverse the polarity. That dead look Sebastien Stan had when he actually said those words (or something very close) in his eyes was in character, but I couldn’t help feeling that might have been the actor himself feeling that way.
The movie, presumably unintentionally, evokes Ghostbusters a lot. And Poltergeist. And a whole bunch of low-budget ’80s flicks filmed in the exurbs of L.A., where the music was one guy sitting on a Moog.
I think, like a lot of horror movie makers, Lincoln had a few good images he wanted to put on-screen. One is fairly original and a few of the others, while not original, are well-enough presented. But it’s not nearly enough to sustain the 80 minutes. (The Boy agreed with my “relenetlessly mediocre” sentiment but credited it for at least not being overlong.)
It also doesn’t make any sense. One schlocky scare comes when a little girl says “Your house killed my dog!” There’s absolutely no reason or justification for her to know that. We’ve never seen her before and we never see her again. And it’s also not true. (This movie borrows the conceit most recently seen in Insidious, that it’s not the house but the person.)
(The schlocky thing isn’t meant as an insult. It’s not great, but it wakes you up. A lot of horror movies, when they have no point, message or structure, go for that fun-house approach of throwing a lot of inexplicable shocks and weird visuals at you. It can work.)
Then there’s the whole premise of the thing, which is that these people in the ’70s are trying to contact a recently deceased colleague and succeed. And then the later kids try, and succeed. Twice. And it seems to be the dead guy, though there’s no explanation of why he’s so pissed and according to Patrick, the expert, it’s actually a being “older than any ghost or demon” that they’ve actually dragged to this plane of existence.
Wait, what? So…was this their colleague then? He was a demon? And we do see the guy. So…huh?
As boring and nonsensical as it is, it goes completely to hell when Malfoy shows up like Egon Spengler and starts trying to convince us that there’s a logic and sense to it all. The exposition is painful. And even the fake-end is so thoroughly unconvincing and desultory, you just feel bad that you know the movie’s gonna have another ten minutes.
I have cracked the code on this movie, however: The main character is The Apparition itself. After all, in the traditional narrative arc, act one introduces the character and the element that disrupts the equilibrium while act two presents an insurmountable problem and act three shows the character’s growth and story resolution.
From the perspective of the living, human characters, that doesn’t really happen. It’s all act two. They never change.
From The Apparition’s perspective, the first act is when the two seances occur, which are aborted quickly after getting its attention. Kind of like a game of ding-dong ditch. In the second act, Malfoy—who has the capacity, apparently to create devices that are amplifiers of dickitude to the paranormal—tries to capture it, then (later on) tries to abjure it. In the final act, the Apparition learns to deal with his tormentors, and changes and grows as a spiritual entity.
This, by the way, is a way more interesting idea than the one they actually filmed.