I don’t hate The Apparition, despite the low grade I’ve given it. It doesn’t generate the kind of passion necessary for hate; its dull, plodding storyline is far too by-the-numbers. Critics have complained about its truncated running time – 74 minutes or so before the closing credits roll – but that matters less than it might seem. The Nightmare before Christmas is 76 minutes long and nobody holds that against it. Ditto Ton Browning’s Dracula (75 minutes) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (70 minutes), both undisputed masterpieces of horror. The problem with The Apparition is what it does with those 74 minutes… namely wasting our time.
Frankly, I’d love to see a version of this film assembled by whoever did the trailer, because what they promise there turns out to be a lot more interesting than what we see here. A number of terrific horror films hinge on the notion of belief: that the monster gains power by destroying skepticism and forcing people to embrace its existence. The Apparition probably couldn’t have stood in their ranks regardless, but it might have made for a nice August diversion had the filmmakers pursued the notion with more gusto. Instead, we get the bare-bones framework of an utterly generic horror story, devoid of thrills, jolts or even an interesting hook.
It starts with grainy film footage of a séance in the 1970s that apparently goes badly wrong. (We don’t know what exactly because the film never tells us.) It then flashes forward thirty years to a gang of college kids setting up shop in Peter Venkman’s lab to reproduce the same experiment. That goes even more badly wronger, setting loose some entity that sucks one of their own into a wall before departing for haunted houses unknown. Some time later, that same malevolent spirit targets one of those students (Sebastian Stan) now living in the high desert of California with his pretty girlfriend (Ashley Greene) and trying to forget the whole thing. Fat chance. With the local pets growling at cold spots and furniture mysteriously merging with the walls, he’s forced to contact the experiment’s original ringleader (Tom Felton) and find a way to put this pesky poltergeist down for good.
I’d say a great deal of this film ended up on the editing room floor: silly little parts like who the hell the original target of the séance was and how the evil entity’s plans center around CostCo camping gear. But the film’s interminable sections of obvious padding imply that nothing of any value was left behind. After the ten-minute introduction – only tangentially connected to the rest of the film – we’re subjected to endless scenes of the central couple going about their daily lives as bits of supernatural mayhem slowly filter in. Presumably, the filmmakers thought that they were heightening the mood; instead, they bore us to death with banalities that we ourselves can cheerfully experience without shelling out 15 bucks. The characters possess no interesting qualities that justify the time spent on them, a trend that continues once the supernatural threat becomes manifest. The nameless invisible force carries no viable identity and depends largely on loud shock cues to get its point across. I understand the need to preserve a little mystery, but they’ve got to give us something to tell us why we should be so frightened of this thing.
Writer/director Todd Lincoln delivers a bit of subtext in an attempt to grant the film some distinction. We’re treated to excessive shots of the arid emptiness of Palmdale tract homes, suggesting a spiritual isolation tailor-made for supernatural terror. He also follows Stephen King’s famous statement that all haunted house stories tap into financial fears. So we get shots of rapidly growing molds in the corner, crumbling linoleum in the laundry and savaged living-room ensembles that almost scream “think of the repair bills!” Unfortunately, The Apparition can’t translate that anxiety into a viable series of scares. Instead, it meanders aimlessly around each new set piece before hitting upon an asinine end game that only registers as a climax because the credits roll immediately thereafter.
The film also borrows a lot – and I mean a lot – from the Paranormal Activity franchise with its tale of otherworldly evil in an innocuous modern locale. Shots of bedsheets taking on a life of their own and the protagonists’ use of technology to fend off the entity prove only that you can’t conjure scares with a production budget or a lot of creepy music. I’d say the film works as a starter piece for tweeners interested in the genre, but they can do much better. (Look to The Woman in Black or Paranormal Activity to see how a PG-13 ghost story should be told.) The Apparition becomes nothing more than an empty chassis: the bare-bones parts you’re supposed to start with before embellishing it with something interesting.