Ghostly Gals and Thrilling Skippers
by Kristin Battestella
Another dreary, rainy day means another quartet of forgettable ghostly ladies and moody thrillers that ultimately don't quite foot the spooky bill.
Edgar Allan Poe's The Oval Portrait – Stormy nights, carriages, red velvet, and antiques accent this loose 1972 adaptation alongside candles, staircases, ominous housekeepers, late relatives, and ghostly piano playing. The titular painting, apparitions, and haunted house atmosphere come early with eerie music, lovelorn letters, and fainting ladies. However the inaccurate Civil War costumes, shabby uniforms, off kilter voices, and dark print make it difficult to tell who's Union or Confederate. The echoing overlays, visions of past couples, and angry artist can't overcome the lookalike characters, soap opera stylings, and rip off plots. Sure Poe's tale is thin, but here the new wife shocks everyone by coming down the stairs in Rebecca's clothes – and yes that's the late subject's name. More people keep arriving, but the ghostly possessions are put on hold for flashbacks with rally calls, cavalry, and a soldier on the lamb that look borrowed from another picture. If this scandal is where the story starts, why not begin there? Of course, there's also confusion between this movie and another with the same cast called One Minute Before Death, and the bookends make it seem like the two movies are combined into one on top of weak scripting, fly by night production, and jumpy flash cuts between the back and forth that never lets the forbidden love build. The muddled dialogue and stalling gothic romance feel like part of the story is missing – compromising the illicit, funerals, and grave robbing before more hysterics, wills, and tacked on ghosts. Though watchable – bemusing even thanks to the overlong, nonsensical dancing with the corpse finale that's probably followed by some good old fashioned necrophilia – this could have been a better, faithful adaptation of Poe's story instead of some kind of two for the price of one messy that doesn't go together.
House of Bones – The 1951 baseball nostalgia opening this 2010 ghost hunters yarn starring Charisma Carpenter (Buffy) is totally The Sandlot complete with a chubby redhead hitting dad's Babe Ruth autographed baseball over the ominous fence. Technicalities drag the arrivals as dude bros in a van with the latest gear are sure to announce themselves as the cameraman, the host, and the producer. Slow motion strobe and in your face television credits for the internal paranormal program parody such series while playing into all they do with annoying crescendos, false jumps, and cheesy bumpers. Every horror moment has to be a bad effect – a glance at gross apple worms has to be some herky jerky strobe when exploring the cluttered old house, skulls behind the plaster, roaches, suspicious ectoplasm, and disappearing assistants better build the eerie atmosphere. Black and white camera screens, creepy radios, and EVPs accent the attic artifacts and bloody toes yet the modern filming is too fast with no time for the haunted house mood or psychic sensations. The unlikable crew remain jerks trying to turn throwing up hair, shadows caught on camera, disturbing phone calls, and impaled police into a reality show angle rather than taking the danger seriously. Trying to be both a debunking paranormal show and a horror movie at the same time doesn't quite succeed when the out of place humor and handheld camera sarcasm jar with the scary glass mishaps and arms coming through the walls. The television production asinine should have been dropped sooner so all can fear this alive house that feeds on blood and plays psychological tricks with vintage visuals, power outages, mirror images, and gear hazards. However, the find the blueprints plan of action is silly – an overly serious and contrived resolution meandering with a thin script and useless psychic before running out of steam. While fine for a late night millennial audience, this ultimately has very little haunted house merit.
The Spiritualist – Staircases, ominous statues, shadows, vintage style, flickering lights, and varying hues accent this 2016 British agoraphobic tale with obligatory eerie opening credits, inspired by true events claims, and sexy times in the bathtub. Empty glasses filled when one's not looking and the feeling that something is in the room are better subtle fears than the false jump screams, and the sound is very uneven between the nighttime whispers and those loud shocks. Incest delusions and other unnecessary incidental scenes dampen superb scenery as well as deeper conversations on diagnosing an ill parent and still loving a sick spouse that isn't all there but won't leave the house. Of course, dad is caught in bed with the kinky maid, and confusing flashbacks and timeline foolery add to the disjointed crazy or grieving plot holes amid suicide letters and bereavement videos. Ghostly reflections on the laptop screen, strange noises, and tip toeing about the huge, dark house are simple yet effective, and letting the audience get creeped out is better than toying with us. Telling a friend about the family past is a much more succinct way to express character emotions and lead to the psychic invitations when all the unnecessarily cryptic makes it easy for viewers to tune out – we can't relate to the fear happening if we're confused by all the on the nose. A writer/director/more is once again wearing too many hats or trying to do too much with incoherent jumpy moments, character back and forths, and more overreaction screaming that quickly becomes obnoxious. It takes forty minutes to gather everyone for a proper séance with contortions, vomit, tears, and possessions, but a dang cell phone rings during the séance – wrongfully breaking the intense atmosphere by withdrawing audience immersion. It's no spoiler that the gay men are killed first while other lookalike jerks argue, and half the viewers probably stopped watching long before the power outages, killing sprees, and failed twists.
10x10 – Island scenery and quaint streets belie the stalking and kidnappers opening this 2018 thriller starring Kelly Reilly (Eden Lake) and Luke Evans (High-Rise). Guns, duck tape, a bag over the head, and wire ties complete the daylight parking lot abduction – cars and people abound yet no one sees or hears a thing. Unfortunately, the rug is pulled out from under such real world fear thanks to blatantly obvious L.A. Fitness storefronts, an ominous Dodge Charger, and Instagram as the latest form of communication product placements when any yoga class, vehicle, or phone number would do. Despite the elaborate concrete and soundproof construction of the titular room, our perpetrator makes mistakes as our victim easily fights her way out of the cell amid screams contrasting the quiet isolation and padded darkness versus the normal, bright kitchen. Rather than a slow burn tense, the back and forth, stilted pace becomes annoying with slow, time wasting snippets padding the piece itself. Dead family members and past malpractice revenge lack substance, leaving the audience wondering if the typical questions about his apparently sympathetic purpose and her suspicious real name are going anywhere we don't already know. Without their natural accents, the cast comes off as monotone or hoarse, and the surprisingly not thrilling or scary genre cliches are likewise dry. This should be a taut two-hander that never leaves the four walls, but the players – who have both done impressive horrors and chills – don't have enough to chew on alongside trite housekeeper intrusions and close calls with the cops. Home movies angst, adultery, and religious hypocrisy are on the nose and nothing new or edgy – it might have been interesting if the characters had been reversed, but the suspicion between who is good or bad never really delivers, leaving viewers waiting for something that doesn't happen. What tense there is gets a little silly by the finale, and by time a kid in peril is shoehorned in, it's tough to care anymore.