At the center of the scenario in The Apparition is an experiment that unleashes a power hungry spirit into our world. In fact, the film itself seems to be a technical experiment in genre filmmaking more than it is a compelling or coherent narrative. The thesis seems to have been something like “If we have enough scenes where inanimate objects move by themselves and characters discover icky, slimy things around the house, nobody will notice that we have a really stupid story. Also, if we throw in a lot of technical jargon and electronic gadgets, everyone will still love our movie. Hooray!”
Watching The Apparition, I thought to myself, “What if Ghostbusters had not been a comedy?” What if there were people like Drs. Venkman, Stanz and Spengler who were conducting studies on the supernatural and the paranormal? Then I thought to myself, “It was a really good thing that Ghostbusters was a comedy because playing it straight would have been really hard to pull off.” So, in the case of The Apparition, a group of college students conduct a high tech experiment and are successful in contacting a spirit but this is one case where “success” is relative.
The film then picks up a couple of years later as a cute couple Ben (Sebastian Stan) and Kelly (Ashley Green) move into a spiffy new home in a mostly deserted suburban housing development and Strange Things start to happen. If the film explained why these things happen to them and why they happen in this house, I must have missed it or been distracted by the running commentary provided by the two gentleman sitting next to me —- “I think something scary is going to happen.”
The student who was in charge of the experiment that let the spirit loose, Patrick, (Tom Felton, best known for his role as Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series) shows up to offer some help. However, for the most part, his character emerges so that it can be established that he kept a journal of his musings and observations on the nature of his work. It is this diegetic audio that is inexplicably playing when Ben and Kelly enter his empty house and then becomes non-diegetic during the climatic chase scene in what has to be some of the clumsiest if not downright nonsensical exposition in recent movie history. Essentially, a major character runs through the woods as this ridiculous voice-over Explains It All.
The commercial and, yes, from my point of view, critical success of the Paranormal Activity series comes from underplaying things and, dare I say, subtlety. Those films succeed improbably because, for so much of the time, very little happens and that creates a much more heightened, effective response when something actually does happen. It was a daring experiment on the producers part and it paid off. In the case of The Apparition, they try to bludgeon us with thrills and chills, none of which are particularly effective.
The big question is, what’s up with all of the moving furniture, clothes tied up into knots and moldy patches throughout the house, what does any of this stuff have to do with a spirit? I know that it would be asking a lot of these filmmakers to employ a little logic now and then. The recent Sundance hit, The Pact, which also features a needy spirit similarly wilts under scrutiny If one is to get right down to it and, let’s face it, the typical movie audience is not likely to get right down to it – people just want to be creeped out and I get that. The Apparition, and for that matter, most movies like it, are about abnormal things happening in particularly normal settings. Our homes are our sanctuaries, our safe zones, the places where we can let our guard down and there are few things worse than having that environment compromised by things like lights turning off and on when they are not supposed to so, or the floors of a new construction starting to rot. At one point or another, all homeowners face all kinds of challenges with their property and, in the end, I think these films take those fears and expand upon them. Do these movies ever take place in a low-income housing development?
The Apparition opens today in Philly-area theaters.
Author: David J. Greenberg
David J. Greenberg teaches screenwriting at University of the Arts and Arcadia University. He has been hired to write or doctor over 30 feature film screenplays. His film “The True Meaning of Cool” won an award from the American Film Institute. davidjgreenberg.com