Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cult Movie Review: The Apparition (2012)

At just barely eighty-two minutes in duration, The Apparition, a 2012 horror movie from director Todd Lincoln, is an absolutely bare bones affair.  It features paper-thin characters, cardboard performances, and no meaningful third act or denouement.

And yet -- though unexcavated -- there is the seed, at least, of something intriguing in The Apparition.

In particular, the movie creeps up to the outer edge of ingenuity and imagination by conceiving of an incorporeal entity from another plane of existence, perhaps the after-life. 

However, other than a few speculations about this entity’s nature, and the dimension from which it hails, the movie doesn’t explore the notion of such life in any significant or interesting way.  

Instead, all the big fright moments seem transplanted from popular horror films of the last decade, especially of the Japanese remake variety.  A maleficent spot or stain on the ceiling may remind you of Dark Water (2005).  A scene with a female wraith crawling out into the open near a washing machine recalls a key (trademark) moment from The Ring (2002).  And the film’s closing image harks back to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s final scene in The Grudge (2004).

Finally, The Apparition throws in the occasional “found footage” touches, and you realize you’re trapped in the same narrow, predictable “jump scare” vein of your average Paranormal Activity sequel. A horror film that might have explored the idea of other planes of existence with awe and wonder as well as terror instead charts terrain you already probably know pretty well.  

So -- no bones about it -- The Apparition is not a very satisfying horror film.

And yet, one feels as though there might once have been more meat upon the film’s mostly-naked bones.  You might even detect some of that missing dramatic material in the theatrical trailer or preview, posted below on the blog.  The preview suggests a whole thematic through-line about “belief” manifesting or changing the nature of reality.  But that premise is hardly in the movie at all, likely excised at some point late in the game.

You can’t judge a movie on what’s not in it, of course, but you can still evince some sympathy for those involved with the resulting debacle.   I had the strong, almost unshakeable feeling watching The Apparition that it had been butchered in post-production, with almost all sense of nuance and humanity lopped out to make it nothing more than a routine, easily-digestible scare show.  I could be wrong, of course.  Maybe The Apparition is just generally awful.   But the previews, at least, suggest to me that there is a more interesting film in there somewhere, hoping to escape.

 The Apparition begins with a title card and flashback involving a super-8 film of an infamous (though fictitious) seance in the early 1970s.  There, a group of scientists attempted to contact the soul of their recently-dead colleague, Charles Reamer.  They get more than they expect in response.

Then we arrive at a modern college campus, where students use “science” (here, little more than a form of technobabble magic…) to recreate the experiment, only with five-hundred times the mental strength of the original.

The misguided experiment brings a malevolent entity through a “rift,” and that entity “takes” one of the students, Lydia (Julianna Guill), back into its reality, where she disappears.

A few years pass, and the students, led by Patrick (Tom Felton) now attempt to contain the entity, which is still on the loose. The attempt fails. 

Meanwhile, Ben (Sebastian Stan), one of the students who participated in the experiment, has moved on with his life.  He’s now dating Kelly (Ashley Greene), and together they have moved into an “investment house” owned by her parents.

Before long however, the malevolent entity comes looking for Ben, and seems to be obsessed with Kelly…

The Apparition begins with two scenes that serve an identical purpose: establishing the fact that paranormal entities exist.  These scenes fail to scare because in both instances there is no build-up, and we know none of the protagonists by name.  It’s all just paranormal pandemonium.  It’s all effects, in other words, and the effects aren’t that impressive because we don’t even know who’s at risk, or why they are at risk, or even why the risk is worthwhile.

Watching these moments, I wondered, at least initially, if there was a method to this madness; if The Apparition was seeking to go beyond simple scares in the early scenes and escort us, full bore, into the world of that unseen force, that evil paranormal entity.  Perhaps it was taking the paranormal as a given, and then moving forward to explore that terrain?

But of course, that doesn’t happen. 

The first two scenes are merely repetitive ones that laboriously lay the groundwork for the central narrative, but which fail to elicit goose bumps.  The whole Charles Reamer subplot could be taken out of the film, actually, and its absence would, essentially, change nothing.

Then, about half-way through The Apparition our man of exposition, the student scientist Patrick provides us some more information about the monster.  The entity is not only present in our world…it can re-shape or manipulate our reality.  This means that, in a critical moment, Kelly traps herself in the laundry room with the monster by mistake.  Or that, in another scene, Ben finds himself sleeping on a motel room ceiling, watching helplessly as the demon shrink-wraps Kelly in a normal bed-sheet-turned-fly-paper.

Obviously, any entity with the capacity to re-shape our reality to this degree is going to be impossible to defeat, at least by three none-too-bright twenty-year olds.  And yet the monster uses its admittedly-awesome powers entirely inconsistently and often illogically.

Sometimes, the entity kills people out-right, leaving their corpses behind.  Sometimes it drags people out of our reality, into its reality…and they are never seen again.

The entity also kills a dog, oddly, without seeming to lift even one malevolent finger.  One of the film’s most unintentionally funny lines involves the dog’s owner, a little girl, telling Kelly “Your house killed my dog.” 

Good luck proving that in a court of law, sister!  The dog just sits down on the laundry room linoleum, and then Kelly notes -- bafflingly-- that it’s suddenly on the verge of death.  We have to take her word for it, however, because the dog doesn’t bark, yelp, or otherwise appear to suffer in the slightest.  It just gingerly sits down, as if the entity ordered it to “Sit!”

The malevolent entity’s motives and reasoning are not exactly clear or consistent in The Apparition, indeed. Is the dog really a threat? 

Also, the entity desires to come into our world, apparently, yet it is already, undeniably, present in our world.  It never tries to “possess” a person or body, although it does, apparently, demonically possess a security/video camera (in another ludicrous scene…).  Without housing itself in a human body, how much more “in the world” can the Entity get?  It can already grow mold on every surface imaginable (like soap and linoleum) and re-shape the perimeters of reality.  It can already reach out and grope final girls in tent displays at Costco.  What does it want, the vote?

The Apparition has a lot of problems like that.

First, the film doesn’t explain why the entity must limit itself to terrorizing those who were involved with the experiment.  And then it breaks that rule by killing the dog and chasing Kelly, two acts which suggest the entity can go after anyone or anything.  Perhaps that’s the hook for the sequel?  

But if the entity can attack anyone, why is it bothering with Kelly at all?  She has absolutely nothing to do with its presence in our world.  Speaking of which, why is the Entity punishing its benefactors at all, the very people who allowed it a gateway into this mortal coil we call life?  That’s like biting the hand that feeds you, or holds the door open for you.

But here’s the rub, incongruities and all, The Apparition does indeed possess some nifty visualizations.  Not many, but at least a few. 

When the entity moves through our reality, for instance, it’s like our reality becomes malleable.  In the entity’s catastrophic wake, reality re-shapes in weird, unsettling ways.  During one moment, we see Lydia torn out of our reality, right through a solid wall.  In another moment, we see a corrupted house interior where everything is disordered, and television sets, tables, chairs and other furniture have been sort of molecularly-blended with the walls themselves.  These moments are powerful ones, and suggest how fragile our “reality” is.

While watching the film, I really hoped that The Apparition was going to follow through on its story, and reveal fully the “other side,” the reality from which the monster hails.  At one point, Lydia returns to our world as a kind of ashy wraith, as if she has lived for years in that “other space” and is now pushing her way back to ours. 

It would have been very intriguing to see Kelly sucked into the other world too, and have to navigate its physical laws and rules.  In fact, for a few moments I thought the film’s punch-line was going to be that the evil entity is just a dead human soul trying to get back here.  Maybe it was obsessed with the experimenters because it was actually Lydia…desperately trying to reach home, desperately trying to take back the life that was stolen from her..

But the movie never comes up with any plot point that clever, and so all the Charles Reamer material at the beginning is absolutely meaningless.  No one ever explains why that one séance (out of the hundreds that have been conducted in the last two centuries…) should open a rift, and why Patrick’s experiments should further open the same rift.  Nothing connects.

The whole “if you believe, you die” paradigm -- the film’s ad-line -- is also totally unexplored.  Nobody stops and tries not to believe in the entity.  Indeed, the movie accepts -- and asks you to accept -- from frame one that the supernatural is real.  There is precious little if any discussion of belief as a motivating factor of creation in the film, if memory serves.

The Apparition is an absolute mess, but it reminds me of the old adage that the best criticism of a movie is to make another movie you like better. 

Someone in Hollywood needs to take the ideas just barely brought up in The Apparition -- of a rift between realities -- and explore that aspect of the narrative. What if someone who wasn’t supposed to die fell through into that other world, and started haunting our reality, at least around the edges?  That could be a moving and terrifying story.

A horror movie that looks beyond our understanding of the boundaries of death could be a scary and fascinating one indeed, and not just a Paranormal Activity on the cheap.  Unfortunately, The Apparition isn’t that movie.


  1. I saw this film 2 weeks ago and literally cannot remember the ending or much of this film. This film started like a knockoff of 'Flatliners' and ended like 'Modern Horror Movie', meaning totally forgettable. I now think that most directors of this decade have a fundamental lack of understanding of how to build a horror film. With films like 'The Apparition' and war-horses like Craven & Carpenter now in their 70's, the future of horror looks very bleak indeed.

  2. I did hear from a DISH co-worker that the entity in The Apparition didn’t seem to be well explained in terms of its purpose. That saddens me a little because Ashley Greene is a great actress but if the plot doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. My friends still want to see it even though I advised them that several people didn’t deem it worthy but I gave up. I added the film to my DISH Blockbuster @Home movie queue and it should be here within the next couple of days. The great thing about Blockbuster is that it lets me choose from over 100,000 movies in the comfort of my own home.