It’s officially summer. I want to relax and watch movies. But not necessarily the Hollywood-appointed summer blockbuster. In fact, not necessarily good movies. For whatever reason, I’m in the mood to dig up some older, more obscure, potentially bad horror movies.
Hey, I like bad horror movies. I watch Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’ve seen “Manos” the Hands of Fate over twenty times. My tolerance is pretty high. Heck, sometimes if I watch them often enough, I end up liking them. They may not be perfect or even make sense, but there is something that draws me in.
So I picked up a copy of The Apparition.
The Apparition is a horror movie that came out in 2012. It bombed in theaters and was eviscerated on Rotten Tomatoes. The problem with The Apparition isn’t that it’s offensive or graphic or horrific. It’s not. It’s also not scary or emotional or interesting.
The Apparition is a lot of nothing. The plot, characters, and setting are so thinly drawn they disappear into vapor. If there’s a concept or meaning driving this movie, director/ writer Todd Lincoln didn’t choose to share it. In spite of this, I kind of enjoyed it. It was like playing in an empty cardboard box. Sure, there wasn’t much to look at on the surface, but if you use your imagination, it could be anything you want it to be.
(Warning: I will now be writing a LONG point-by-point summary of the movie and spoiling every plot twist. If you want to see the movie first--and you can find it--you may want to hold off on reading this article.)
The movie opens with 1970s footage of “the Charles experiment.” A group of friends hold a seance to contact their dead friend and are met with some mild table-thumping frights. The yellowed, flickering film strip is authentic in the way Disney theme parks are authentic: it has all the hallmarks of the time and place, yet you can instantly tell it’s fake. This scene has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie, by the way, except to try to convince you that this movie is inspired by what I presume to be a true story.
Flashforward to… present, I assume? There’s no established place or year, and the clothes the characters wear seem normal. Anyway, a group of college kids are conducting their own experiment loosely based on the Charles experiment, except they aren’t they’re trying to contact anyone, but to “manifest a spirit,” as Patrick, their leader, explains.
Patrick, by the way, is played by Tom Felton, a.k.a., Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series. He’s got brown hair and glasses in this film, but he’s kept the British accent. He explains to the camera man how this experiment will prove the paranormal exists and drops technical jargon that goes over my head.
Bottom line is, they’re wearing electronic headbands to amplify their brainwaves, so that “it will be like there are five hundred of us.” Apparently, the takeaway of the Charles experiment is that the more people believing at the same time, the more likely to get a response. Honestly, I took nothing away from the grainy fake footage, but okay, sure. A blond girl produces a small white statue for them to stare at. They all stare hard. After about thirty seconds, the table rocks, the lights go off and on, and the blond girl shoots up to the ceiling.
Cue the opening title.
Now that the plot (such that it is) has been established, we get to see our protagonists, Kelly (Ashley Greene) and Ben (Sebastian Stan). Ashley Greene is best known for playing Alice Cullen, in the Twilight series, the vampire with visions of the future, and I remember, vaguely, when this movie came out, they were testing to see if she could be a movie star. Unfortunately, the movie bombed, and her projects dried up. Sebastian Stan had just played Bucky in the first Captain America, but since he’d yet to be re-born as the Winter Soldier and since the MCU was not yet the all-powerful box office juggernaut, he was probably the least bankable of the stars. Ashley Greene has long brown fluffy hair that sometimes makes her look eerily similar to Bella from Twilight, and Sebastian Stan has short hair with bangs he can peer up from to creepy/ angsty effect.
Anyway, Kelly and Ben are girlfriend and boyfriend. Kelly works at a veterinarian office, Ben is a temp. Kelly likes exotic food, Ben does not. Kelly wants to buy a cactus, Ben does not. Kelly likes camping, Ben does not. This is the character development, people, and it’s pretty much all we’re going to get. We’re meant to take away that Kelly is an adventurous, caring, outgoing person, and Ben is… um… not?
I have no idea whether I’m supposed to root for them as a couple. They bicker in what can either be interpreted as endearing or passive-aggressive. For example, when shopping at Costco, Kelly convinces Ben to buy her a mini cactus by saying, “It’s cute, it’s cheap, it’s low maintenance.” To which, Ben replies, “Just like you.” Um, okay. Should you really call your girlfriend cheap?
The movie takes place in this desert community called Palmdale, a mostly empty block of track homes, one of which Kelly and Ben rent from her parents. Weird stuff happens. The cactus turns black and dies. Mold appears. Doors open. Objects move around. The neighbor’s dog wanders into the laundry room, lays down, and dies. None of it is particularly scary, but the dog’s death does trouble me because this apparition thing can already kill living breathing mammals. Can it kill the protagonists? If so, why is it bothering with the mold?
More weird stuff happens, there’s a shower scene, yada-yada-yada. Finally, the plot kicks into gear when Ben browses his emails and discovers tons of messages from Patrick. They know each other! Dun, dun, DUN. Patrick warns Ben that he continued the experiment, but with more power, and naturally, it all went horribly awry. Ben may be in danger.
At this point, Kelly discovers that the closet has been horribly mangled and freaks out. Now would be the time for Ben to share his information about Patrick. But he doesn’t. Instead, he tells her the house can’t be haunted, because it’s too new. They sleep in the tent they bought from Costco earlier, and Ben vows to stay up all night to protect her.
I’m starting to wonder if Ben’s going to turn out to be evil or at least a massive jerk who’s death we will be salivating for by the end of the film. Maybe his lack of characterization and passive-aggressive comments hide a dark presence under his vaguely likable facade.
More weird stuff happens.
Finally, Kelly snoops through Ben’s stuff and uncovers his dark secret. Ben… was dating the blond girl from the first experiment. And was also the camera man. And the blond girl got sucked into the ceiling.
I mean, I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to feel about this character. On the one hand, Ben saw his old girlfriend disappear, and that’s pretty traumatic. On the other hand, he tried to hide this vital information from his current girlfriend and that seems mildly jerk-ish. So… a wash, I guess? Kelly is furious and confronts him. Ben says he was trying to protect her, and I get the idea that even he knows it’s a lame excuse.
At this point, I’ve given up on the apparition being anything. This was the big reveal, and it revealed nothing, including why the apparition is haunting Kelly. She wasn’t part of the experiment. Why’d it kill her cactus? Why’d it stalk her in the shower?
So I come up with my own explanation. The apparition has a crush on Ben and is trying to kill his girlfriends. Yeah, it’s a stupid explanation, but at least it’s something. And if you think about it, it has the potential to be frightening. I mean, how would you like to be stalked by a supernatural entity that tries to kill your girlfriends?
Kelly and Ben decide to go to a hotel, but Kelly is still mad at Ben and makes him sleep on the couch. And here we come to one of two scenes that I found genuinely interesting. Not scary--I didn’t find anything scary--but with potential.
Ben wakes up and finds himself astral-projected onto the ceiling. His spirit has been wrenched from his body, which still lies prone on the couch. He can’t move. He can, however, watch in horror as the sheets start creeping over a sleeping Kelly, vacuum-sealing her into the bed.
Now I’ve lightly studied the paranormal (fine, I watched Paranormal Survivor on Netflix) and these incidents harken back to incidents mentioned. I’ve heard about astral-projection. I’ve heard about being smothered while sleeping. So this feels like an actual idea. If nothing else, there is something genuinely scary about being helpless while you watch someone you love get hurt.
But the way it’s done, it’s not scary. Possibly because it happens too fast. After a few seconds, Ben wills himself back into his body and tears the sheets off Kelly.
You know, at this point, I’m starting to wonder why this is Kelly’s story at all. So far she hasn’t done a damn thing. Ben is the one who took part in the experiment. Ben is the one knows Patrick. Ben rescues her from the sheets. Hell, Ben is the one driving the car from here on out, despite getting little to no sleep. I’m getting really annoyed by how passive our female protagonist is.
So they meet up with Draco Malfoy--sorry, Patrick--can I just interrupt and say, that we now have Draco Malfoy, the Winter Soldier, and Alice Cullen sharing a scene together? And if the actors were playing those respective characters, this apparition thing would stand zero chance.
In fact, I’ve come up with an amusing alternate story of how that would happen. You see, back when Draco was one of Voldemort’s loyal death-eaters, Hydra decided to side with Voldemort’s death eaters, because they’re both evil secret organizations. Working together, they dabble into necromancy. Draco is given this task, but Hydra assigns him the still-brainwashed Winter Soldier as a bodyguard. But obviously things go wrong and they summon the apparition.
Flashforward a few years. Bucky is now un-brainwashed, but he’s still got gaps in his memory. He and Alice are in a relationship, because Alice clearly has a thing for introverted ex-soldiers trying to overcome a bloody past. Plus both are about a hundred years old. At this point, Voldemort is dead and Draco is at least somewhat reformed. The apparition re-appears, but Draco can’t fight it alone. So he contacts the former Winter Soldier. Draco has magic. Bucky has strength. Working together, they can overcome it.
Then Alice pops in and says, “Why didn’t you tell me this was bugging you? I’m an undead vampire with psychic power, plus super strength and super speed. I got this.” And she single-handedly kicks the apparition’s ass.
That was fun.
Where was I?
Oh, right the movie.
So Draco--I mean, Patrick--talks about the apparition haunting them, not the house (yeah, I got that) and that it is not just a ghost but an evil spirit (got that, too). Then he suggests defeating by—well, it’s hard to tell through the technical jargon, but I think he suggests going back to the house and blasting it with more power. Um, you just said the house wasn’t haunted. Also, every time you blast it with more power, it gets stronger. But apparently, this will work, because they’re going to stick the power setting to reverse. What?
At this point, I’ve decided that Patrick is an idiot and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But for some reasons the protagonists go along with his plan.
I think Ben knows that Patrick is incompetent, but a combination of sleep-deprivation and desperation impair his judgement. He doesn’t have any better ideas, so he goes along with it. Kelly, for her part, sees a guy with glasses who uses big words in a confident way. The techno-jargon goes right over her head, but she trusts in Patrick’s authority, especially since her boyfriend, who is more technically-minded than she and has done this before, seems to agree.
Had he (an introvert) voiced his doubts, she (an extravert) might have suggested looking elsewhere for help. This is why couples need to communicate.
As the three of them set up paranormal speakers all over the house, Kelly goes into the room where the dog died and gets creeped out. She shuts the door and nails it shut. But—surprise!—the camera reveals she nailed herself inside the room. Somehow. Did the apparition trick her into going back into the room? Did it teleport her to the other side of the door without her realizing it?
Whatever. Kelly tries desperately to undo the nails, to no effect, while a cheep knock-off of the creepy girl from The Ring lurches out of the washing machine. All the imagery thus far has been of a slender man, but suddenly the apparition is a girl? Whatever. Since Kelly can’t do anything on her own, she yells for her boyfriend. Ben and/ or Patrick break down the door and Kelly runs out of the room.
And that, believe it or not, was the big second act scare. Ben, Kelly, and Patrick blast the psychic soundtrack in reverse, the house cracks, and two days pass.
All seems peaceful.
The movie tries half-heartedly to convince us that this is the end, rather than the lull before the third act storm, but I don’t buy it, because nothing has happened yet. So while Patrick has a beer and Ben and Kelly sort-of reconcile, I’m eye-balling the two men, thinking, “You’ve both got to die.” I’m sorry, but that’s the rule in horror movies. If you can’t actually scare the audience, at least you can fall back on gruesome deaths.
Except The Apparition can’t even do that right. Patrick gets sucked into a dark room and disappears. That’s not a death scene! That’s a cop out! I know this movie is PG-13, but you can do some gruesome things with PG-13. Come on! Use your imagination!
Anyway, the house goes screwy, and Kelly and Ben flee. Kelly, who still hasn’t fully grasped the depths of Patrick’s incompetence, suggests going to Patrick's safe house. Ben, who I’m 99% sure knows he’s going to die, puts up a weak protest, but drives there anyway. He’s clearly given into despair and is running on auto-pilot. Kelly manages a spunky, “I’m not giving up.” Well, she is the Final Girl. If anyone has a chance of making it out of this movie, it’s her.
They get to Patrick’s house, which is in the woods, and as soon as they step in, they hear a recording of his voice talking randomly about demons and angels, in a last-ditch effort to make the apparition into something. Kelly and Ben find the cage where they’re supposed to be safe. But Patrick’s incompetence shines through one final time, because almost as soon as Ben steps inside, he dies, and it’s just as anti-climatic as Patrick’s death.
Basically, he disappears, and when Kelly steps out of the cage, she finds him in a dark closet, with a few spooky arms wrapped around him and his mouth opening super long. So, I guess this means he’s dead. Look, I’ve seen Sebastian Stan’s characters survive being burned alive, having his head chopped off, falling from a high height (twice), and being turned into dust--there is a possibility he’s still alive. But Kelly doesn’t have time to check his pulse, because it’s time for her to run screaming into the woods.
While she’s running and screaming, we see flashbacks of everything that has happened so far, coupled by more narration from Patrick. For a brief minute, I hope that Kelly is about to figure out what the apparition is and how to stop it, thus giving her one important thing to do and justifying her being the main character. But even as I think it, I know this is false hope, because Patrick’s narration is new information--the last, last ditch effort of the movie to explain what the monster is. And basically, all he says is that the monster wears down its victim until it stops fighting.
I guess this explains Ben. It doesn’t explain Patrick or the cactus or the dog or the blond girl that got sucked into the ceiling. But, sure, if you say so. By now, Kelly finishes running. She sees a thing, yelps, and the film quickly cuts to black.
But that’s not the end of the movie. It’s time for one last scene, and it is probably the most interesting one. In fact, it might have been scary, had the movie set it up properly.
In an eerie, yellow-hued sequence, Kelly wanders out of the woods and into the Costco where she and her boyfriend were shopping at the start of the movie. The Costco is open, but empty of people. I can’t tell if this is really happening or going on inside her head. Kelly finds a tent, goes inside, and zips it up. She sits quietly, while spooky hands grab her shoulders, wrap around her neck, and cover her mouth. (Hey, it’s the DVD cover picture!) She doesn’t scream or fight or protest, just silently cries as she waits for the inevitable.
I think it’s interesting because she chooses the tent as the place she wants to die. It has the illusion of safety, even if it is not safe, but at this point, that’s all the comfort that remains. And had they bothered to tell us why she loved camping, or shown her fighting back, or developed her character at all, this could have been effective. But since the movie couldn’t decide what to be about, it’s a cool image, nothing more.
I heard (because I check movie box offices religiously) that The Apparition was a box office disaster, so I looked it up on boxofficemojo.com. It made a little under $5 million on a $17 million budget.
This movie cost $17 million! What did they spend the money on? Not the actors, as there were nine names total on the cast list, and the three main ones weren’t in any position to demand a huge salary. Not on the set, because the primary location of the movie was a single house. Not on special effects, because there weren’t any. Not on the writer/ director, because this is the only movie of Todd Lincoln has made.
Blumhouse made “Get Out” for $4.5 million, what were you spending the money on? Was this movie an embezzlement scheme or was someone just really incompetent about budget management?
Anyway, the DVD had one special feature, and I watched it in a desperate attempt to understand what the movie was about. And, holy cow, it turned out there was actually an idea behind the movie. According to the actors, instead of finding the ghost, the college kids wound up creating one based off their subconscious fears or desires. That’s kind of cool. It would have been nice if they developed this idea, or even… you know… shared it with the audience.
On a side note, Tom Felton seems adorably excited about the people who find ghosts.
So that’s it. The Apparition. This movie could have been something. It could have been a lot of things. But in the end, it wasn’t. And that’s too bad.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.