Friday, November 09, 2012
Cult-Movie Review: Apartment 143 (2012)
Apartment 143 (2012) is a low-budget found-footage horror film concerning a small team of investigators who look into the strange incidents bedeviling a recently relocated family, the Whites. The film from director Carles Torrens and writer Rodrigo Cortes features some effective shocks, and at least one legitimately great sequence involving a rotating strobe light and the surprise appearance of a would-be specter in a dark room.
While some of the lead performances in Apartment 143 are pretty weak -- notably that of Michael O’Keefe as Dr. Helzer -- the film nonetheless builds up a more-than- adequate head-of-steam in the third act. There’s a strong sense of suspense accelerating and multiplying as the finale nears.
But irrevocably, Apartment 143 pulls a Paranormal Activity and supplies the audience a valedictory, declarative, unnecessary image that not only undercuts the film’s narrative and thematic point, but actually contradicts it.
This final, blatant pander to audience demands decimates the film’s impact, favoring a momentary jolt of adrenaline over narrative consistency and logical coherence.
Apartment 143 is by no means a total loss, but its blatant desire to satisfy and answer a question in need of no answer prevents it from ascending to the top-tier of the found-footage pack.
Instead, Apartment 143 is worth a single viewing, but hardly a triumph or high water mark of the form.
“There is no ghost…”
In Apartment 143, a cameraman, Paul (Rick Gonzalez), a professor, Dr. Helzer (O’Keefe) and a “gate keeper” (secretary) named Ellen (Fiona Glascott) visit the deeply-troubled White family, now living in an urban apartment building.
Mr. White (Kai Lenox) has two children, a disruptive teenage girl named Caitlin (Gia Mantegna) and a cute-as-a-button little boy named Benny (Damian Roman). The Whites moved from their previous home after the death of Mrs. White (Laura Martuscelli), who suffered from schizophrenia.
Following her sudden demise, strange paranormal events began to occur in the White home, and Mr. White believes that his wife may be responsible for them.
Meanwhile, Caitlin believes that Mr. White caused her mother’s death, and that this act of murder is the reason for the ghost’s apparent continued presence in whatever place they choose to call home.
The investigators bring in a medium, attempt an interview with the spirit, and launch a painstaking scientific survey of the apartment by utilizing motion sensors, infrared detectors, and flash-bulbs.
However, the professor soon comes to a conclusion about the haunting, and shockingly, his conclusion is that there is no supernatural activity in the White home at all…
“It’s all my dad’s fault…”
There have been so many found footage films produced and released at this point, that you can practically predict the characters and their nature from the first frames of Apartment 143. The camera-guy, Paul, has the bravado, informality, and sass. The professor has the “belief” and “knowledge,” and so on. And Ellen is the most sincere and straightforward of the bunch.
There’s nothing particularly original or ambitious about the set-up or these character profiles, but I was heartily encouraged that, in broad strokes, Apartment 143 attempts to portray accurately a seldom seen, seldom-explored aspect of parapsychological literature.
If you’ve seen the classic movie Poltergeist (1982), you may know what I mean. That (brilliant) movie popularized the idea of a poltergeist as a playful or mischievous ghost, a presence from “outside” normal humanity.
Contrarily, parapsychological studies have long concluded something else about poltergeists. Poltergeist activity is commonly believed to originate within a living soul -- usually a conflicted adolescent -- and outbreaks of so-called supernatural activity are actually thus manifestations of guilt, anger, repressed sexuality and such on the part of that individual. Parapsychology: The Study of Psiology explains: "Household objects move with a controlled type of flight that is often visible, sometimes navigating corners and seldom causing injury to the observers, although fragile objects such as crockery and windows may be broken." (p.181).
There aren’t many films that I can immediately think of that have correctly made the distinction in nomenclature regarding apparitions and poltergeist activity. There was actually a One Step Beyond (1959 - 1961) episode in 1960, “The Lovers,” that accurately dramatized the poltergeist phenomenon, but that’s the only production on this subject that leaps to the memory.
In some ways, I suppose Stephen King's Carrie is really a story about poltergeist activity, though it isn’t parsed or explained that way, technically. The book and De Palma film get right, however, the idea that these frightening PK powers over the environment occur at the same time as the hothouse changes of puberty. There may be even a connection to Apartment 143 and Carrie. Both families involved are named "White."
Regardless, I was pleased to see Apartment 143 begin as a kind of “haunting” or “possession” film and then veer into the poltergeist theory of paranormal activity. I felt that such a distinct choice could distinguish the film in terms of its brethren (much as Insidious utilized astral projection).
I also feel that the theme of emotional turmoil within -- expressed outwardly because of conscious repression -- works ably with the film’s theme, which is that within in a family dynamic, emotional dishonesty can create “monsters.” In the White family, Cynthia’s schizophrenia does just that. And interestingly, so does Mr. White’s response to her illness.
Then, of course, the ability to make monsters is passed on to young Caitlin. It’s a pretty good set-up structurally and psychologically.
And, to its credit, Apartment 143’s script makes a strong case for poltergeist activity in the White family, given the traumas it has experienced since Mrs. White’s death. In other words, the story tracks relatively well, and the poltergeist theory seems valid and legitimate to what we see unfold on on-screen. Kai Lennox gets a great moment here -- and one sustained for some time – in which he emotionally lays out the family dynamic.
And then along comes Apartment 143’s last shot -- aping Paranormal Activity’s disqualifying and ridiculous demon close-up -- to make total mincemeat of all the film’s good, dedicated work. I suppose the reckoning was that the film needed a final “scare” or “jolt”
But that final jolt isn’t good enough (or powerful enough, more accurately) to risk pulping the movie’s entire sense of logic and continuity in the process. The execution of the jolt is ho-hum, but the practical impact of the shot is a giant what-the-fuck moment. My wife watched the film with me, and we both saw that final shot coming a mile away. Kathryn actually whispered: “please don’t….please don’t….the movie just spent the whole time explaining what was going on, please don’t ruin it…”
Well it did.
And the filmmakers also give away the specifics of the jolt on the film’s poster.
As I hope my reviews of them explain, I very much get a kick out of the found footage horror genre. Right now, it is my favorite horror sub-genre, and we’ve been getting some incredible variations on the form, from the critically-derided Apollo 18 (2012) to the psychologically harrowing Lovely Molly (2012). Apartment 143 toils hard for seventy-five minutes providing us another intriguing original take on the format. But then the film negates all its efforts in the last minute. Not a good decision, if you ask me.
I write this assessment with disappointment, because Apartment 143 features at least one truly great sequence. About mid-way through the film, the investigators are attempting to determine if there is a presence in the house that shouldn’t be there. They turn off all the lights, and then an oscillating strobe “flashes” in a dark room, panning methodically from one side of the chamber to the other. We watch with anticipation as the pan starts on the left side of the frame, and slowly moves right, light periodically flashing in the blackness. On the soundtrack, we get a kind of clicking or popping sound to accompany the lights. The pan repeats once.
The pan repeats twice…
The pan repeats a third time and…
…This splendidly-orchestrated sequence does a terrific job of playing on our sense of anticipation, while simultaneously attempting to lull us into a sense of complacency, since all other scientific tests have proven negative. The visual punch line or pay-off will make you jump from your seat. It’s very well-accomplished, and it’s because the filmmakers have taken the time and energy to really set-up the shot and play on our expectations through repetition.
Much of the camera work in Apartment 143 is actually quite good, especially as it grows increasingly frenetic. The film’s climax is practically insane, at least from a camera standpoint, and even if you don’t necessarily feel scared, you’ll feel excited and a bit rattled by the proceedings.
Late in the film, Professor Halzer state that “there is nothing supernatural in the universe because nature can’t transcend itself.” It’s a good, cerebral line of dialogue, and all through the low-budget Apartment 143, you’ll be rooting for the film to transcend the limitations of its format and really go for broke. It actually succeeds, but then grasps for that unnecessary and dumb jolt in the last minute.
My recommendation: watch the film and enjoy it for the story it tells with consistency and clarity. Then, about a minute before the end -- you’ll know when -- turn it off. The final jolt is just a gimmick, a fatal pandering to audience expectations, and it’s not even that good of a scare.
So if you miss it, you aren’t really missing much.
As cinematic real estate, Apartment 143 is worth a quick tour, to be certain, but the ending could have used some real sprucing up.