REVIEW: The Apparition Cribs From Horror Classics, Is Still A Frightful Mess
Like the Paranormal Activity films and their cinematic ancestor Poltergeist, The Apparition takes place in what may be the least naturally atmospheric setting out there — suburban California. There's something welcomingly off-kilter about dropping a supernatural tale in a location so inherently mundane. It's straightforward enough to spin scares out of creaky mansions in remote areas, cavernously empty hotels and abandoned asylums, but sunny tract housing doesn't naturally lend itself to spookiness, which makes it all the more immediate and unsettling when a movie manages to make such a thing work.
It doesn't, unfortunately, work in The Apparition, an incomprehensibly garbled, derivative attempt at a horror flick from first-time writer-director Todd Lincoln. The setting may actually be the most interesting aspect of the film, a sparsely occupied, recently constructed planned community in the Los Angeles suburb of Palmdale, where young couple Kelly (Twilight-er Ashley Greene) and Ben (Sebastian Stan) have just taken up residence in a new house purchased as an investment by Kelly's mother. With its shiny appliances, pre-installed flatscreen and near-identical exterior to neighboring buildings on the block, the Overlook Hotel it is not, but then it needn't be, because the pair may have brought their haunting with them.
The Apparition is inspired by the Philip Experiment, in which a group of Canadian parapsychologists in the '70s invented a ghost, gave it a history and tried to imagine it into being by the force of their combined will and thoughts. The film presents a version of this experiment, done in faux aged stock, at its outset before skipping ahead to more modern footage of a recent, disastrous attempt to recreate the deed with scientific equipment, led by college student Patrick (Tom Felton — Draco Malfoy himself). The double framing story presents a captivating concept, of a spirit birthed entirely out of human belief, a self-reinforcing thing once it came into being and started scaring people. But the film essentially drops this idea after introducing it, as it does most of the elements it introduces. Whatever other problems The Apparition's apparition has, bewildering inconsistency is its foremost.
At first the spirit is flinging open doors and making banging sounds a la the aforementioned Paranormal Activity, then it's causing dark stains to appear on the ceiling like Dark Water, then it's sucking people into walls like Pulse, then it's taking the form a jerkily crawling ghost woman right out of The Grudge. The apparition, it would seem, has no clear motivation and is of fuzzy origin, but it's definitely a movie buff, especially when it comes to J-horror. That last scene in particular is such a carbon copy of Kayako, the ghost in Takashi Shimizu's franchise, and so unlike what's happened in the haunting thus far (everything has suggested it take the form of a tall, thin man) that it's almost laughable, as if, having given up on more traditional scares, the apparition has decided to go international.
Greene and Stan are both very pretty, and they're fine actors who are required for the sake of the movie to do extremely silly things. Stan's character, for instance, keeps his past connection to the spirit secret for no sensical reason, and tries to pretend the paranormal force that's growing ghost mold on their ceiling and tying their clothes in knots has no interest in them. Greene's character uncovers her boyfriend's keepsake trove of videos and other evidence of the experiment gone wrong, and the first thing she asks him about is not why he helped summon some apparent demon thing but who the girl is in the photos with him — were they together?
The primary frightening scene in the film is also its biggest headshaker, in which Kelly is left alone in the house as the lights are shutting off by themselves, and rather than run outside or shriek for help, she uses a thermal imager to peer around the dark downstairs, the soundtrack running an accelerating, thumping heartbeat. It's a good thing neither Kelly nor Ben are developed enough for the audience to invest in their safety as they heedlessly engage in such hazard-courting behavior, but without characters to latch on to, all that's left are the scares and the story, neither of which amounts to anything.
At only 82 minutes long, The Apparition is so lean you'd think it had to have been edited to bits somewhere, except that there's no conceivable way that these pieces could have fit together to begin with. With no consistent mythology — at one point the characters drive and drive to take shelter in a Faraday cage that immediately stops working once they get inside — and few original thoughts, The Apparition is distinguished only in being what has to be the lone horror movie to set a climactic scene in a Costco.