August 15, 2013

An American Ghost Story (2012)

"When Paul, an unemployed writer, decides to rent and live in a house that's rumoured to be haunted, he puts his life and his relationships in grave danger as he obsessively attempts to get the story that will finally make his career."

Whenever a yet to be released horror movie which was made for under $10,000 achieves a 7.5 out of 10 rating on the IMDb, I smell shenanigans. Either not enough non-shills have found it and voted, or the "critics" who received screeners really did find it outstanding. The chances of the latter being true are invariably slim to none though.

Thus, as much as I didn't want to backtrack to another one of last year's movies—especially not one with a title change designed to cash-in on the success of FX's "American Horror Story" TV series—curiosity meant that I had no choice but to check out the ghost story formerly known as "Revenant". I'm pleased to say that I wasn't disappointed by my discoveries either. Although very little has improved since Derek Cole and Stephen Twardokus made "Human Behavior" (2006), at least this movie is in colour like something created in the 21st century should be.

Unfortunately, with annoying, atmosphere-killing background music throughout, "An American Ghost Story" fails to generate an ambience conducive to scares. Things improve enormously when silence reigns, but at its worst, the music sounds like a cat walking up and down a piano keyboard while a tone-deaf 5-year-old child practices chords next to it. Occasionally, it even overpowers the dialogue, and that's a real shame because the acting is fairly decent.

Stephen Twardokus is very good as Paul the obsessive ghost hunter who bites off more than he can chew, and natural beauty Liesel Kopp is ideal as his girlfriend Stella. Liesel Kopp has a lovely, expressive face with big, watery eyes that exude genuine fear in her nighttime scenes. It's a pity that Stella disappears from the movie after 30 minutes, but she's really only in it to represent the sane action which most people would choose when faced with living in a haunted house.

Even Paul's best friend Sam (Cain Clifton) is likeable, so I have to give credit where it's due for the casting choices and characterisation. Wendy Haines is a bit over the top as former resident Sue, and Jon Gale isn't quite so hot as Skip the house-owner, but they only have very small roles which don't add much to the story anyway. Both provide minimal exposition/confirmations about details which have already been said rather than falling into the "idiot lecture" trap.

So where does it all go wrong? Well, apart from the aforementioned awful background music which is only used properly in two action-packed places, "An American Ghost Story" is a very slow burn, and it's full of clich├ęs and homages instead of originality.

There's absolutely nothing here that you haven't seen before, especially if you're a fan of haunted house movies. In particular, "An American Ghost Story" owes a lot to the "Paranormal Activity" series. You could even describe it as a conflation of all the jump scares from the "Paranormal Activity" movies without the camcorders and home security surveillance contrivances.

As much as I would love to praise the "old school" use of tripods and zooms to provide an easy film to watch, there are flaws with the cinematography. Some of the long shots never zoom in enough, and several others are poorly framed. One of this story's biggest contrivances is to have Paul investigating the house at night using a flashlight, which leads to scenes that are too dark to see properly. The intention may have been to cover-up a multitude of effects sins by using the darkness for cover, but it also makes Paul's actions moronic in a house with fully functional electric lights and no power outages!

The house itself is very modern, and amazingly neat and tidy inside. It may have a lot of mismatched wood going on—a mahogany dining table among light oak cupboards is the worst culprit—but it's not a sinister looking house at all. Apart from one of those Crosley Companion radios which is designed to look like an antique one, there's nothing creepy to see. The characters may keep saying how oppressive the atmosphere is, but the "Emperor's new clothes" technique doesn't work when the reality is so painfully obvious.

Even with its flaws, all but two of the jump scares work, but so they should since they've been done to death in other movies! Without spoiling things too much for you, I'll just mention that doors and cupboards open on their own, a basketball is predictably rolled towards Paul by an invisible being, the scary-looking radio switches itself on, and there's a chair-stacking homage to "Poltergeist" (1982) which made me groan. There are a lot of excessively loud bangs to catch you out, and one computer-based moment which I should have known better than to fall for (because I leaned in close to the screen) really works! All I'll say about it, after nearly soiling myself, is that I'm surprised that anyone still uses AOL mail... and you can't animate a jpg image! Well played, Derek Cole, you ass!

As you can see in the trailer, the big thing in "An American Ghost Story" is the use of "sheet ghosts" which, of course, also appear briefly in "Paranormal Activity 3" (2011). The last time I saw sheet ghosts before that was in The Avalanches' "Frontier Psychiatrist" music video. Sheet ghosts are traditionally used for comic effect as in "Beetlejuice" (1988) rather than being terrifying for anyone other than small children, but they work very well here. In its favour, "An American Ghost Story" seriously attempts to make sheet ghosts scary again!

What's my verdict then? All things considered, and with the wind blowing in the right direction, I don't think "An American Ghost Story" deserves its 7.5 out of 10 rating on the IMDb (note: it's now dropped to 6.2 and still falling), but I'm willing to give it a pass mark of 4.5 out of 10 simply because I was entertained. If "An American Ghost Story" was due to be released without any background music, it would be much stronger. It still wouldn't be more than a clone of other haunted house movies, but the sad truth is that the chances of ever seeing any groundbreaking originality in this subgenre is unlikely anyway.

"An American Ghost Story" is definitely worth a rental. If you aren't so enamoured by Katie Featherston that you've vowed never to watch another haunted house movie unless she's in it, you'll probably enjoy this a lot more.

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