Sunday was a good day for ghosts at Screamfest. A film festival can be a real crap-shoot – you watch lots of low-budget independent films, and you lower your standards, barely daring to wish for basic competence, let alone some kind of outstanding quality. But Screamfest does a good job of finding little gems that raise your hope for the horror genre. The lineup on October 14 was loaded with things that go bump in the night, and even if none of them is likely to become the next BLAIR WITCH or RING, they all delivered enough decent chills to make them worth seeing.
Things kicked off at noon with ROOM 205 (pictured at top. One might be tempted to call this a Danish version of J-Horror like THE GRUDGE, but it is more in the tradition of Roman Polanski. As in REPULSION, THE TENANT, and even THE PIANIST, it’s all about how scary it can be to live alone in an apartment when you’re afraid someone is out to get you. And like ROSEMARY’S BABY, it strives to create a believable, everyday situation that makes the scares more credible. The story follows Katrine (the wonderful Neel Ronholt), a young female student moving into a dorm, where one of the rooms is supposed to be haunted. Is there really a ghost, or are the older students just making fun of the naïve newcomer? The question seems to be answered pretty quickly when people start to die in inexplicable ways, but one of the interesting things about the story is the way the vengeful supernatural force more or less targets the people who have been tormenting Katrine. Although a ghost story, the film does not shy away from the occasional gore (including someone stuck halfway out an elevator door as the elevator rises), and the ghost herself is depicted with some nice prosthetic work that makes her look less like a spirit than a zombie. The visuals are nicely done, but special mention must go to the sound design for creating a wonderful sense of dread.
The angry spirit in ROOM 205 manifests in mirrors, resembles a decaying corpse, and causes trouble in elevators. Screamfest deserves special points for screening it back to back with the next film, which uses similar imagery, turning the pair into a perfect double bill.
ALONE is an Asian import – not from the usual suspects Japan or Korea, but Thailand. Pim is a married woman living in Korea, who returns to Thailand after her mother has a stroke. Home is definitely not where the heart is, however; Pim is haunted – either psychologically or literally – by the ghost of her conjoined twin, who apparently resents Pim’s happy life alone, after the two of them had sworn to stay together forever. The typical supernatural scares are executed with all effectiveness you could desire, but the film is essentially a study of Pim’s psychological deterioration. The plotting is slow (it takes forever for flashbacks to reveal things we have already guessed, such as that Pim insisted on being surgically separated from her twin in order to get married), but the script pulls off a great surprise twist near the end that not only casts more like on the proceedings but also helps make sense out of why Pim is so guilt-ridden. If one were to pick a point of comparison, the closest predecessor would be A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (which also played the game of “is the haunting real or imagined), but ALONE is much less cryptic in its storytelling.
If the first two films shared any flaw, it is one fairly typical of ghost and/or haunted house movies: the lead characters are trying to go about their daily lives, which are interrupted by the intrusion of the supernatural; consequently, the stories have little forward momentum, relying on the ghostly manifestations to liven things up, until our heroes or heroines finally take action in the last act. The next film on the bill avoids this problem by turning the haunted house into a maze from which the characters cannot escape.
DOOD EIND (a film from Amsterdam whose title translates as DEAD END) is about a group of friends out for an excursion in the forests of Scotland, where they run afoul of a pair of wild dogs and seek shelter in a nearby mansion. It turns out that the dogs were actually driving the friends into the house, which is a sort of deathtrap, haunted by malevolent spirits. After brief scenes introducing the characters, the dog attack launches the fear almost immediately, and the story seeks to keep the tension high from that point on as the characters struggle to escape from a house that is obviously eager to kill them. Unfortunately, the back story behind the haunting is unnecessarily convoluted (there are multiple ghosts with divergent agendas), and the film shows no guilt about having one character suddenly display psychic abilities, just so she can see the flashbacks that will explain what’s going on. By the time the ending rolls around, you will probably find yourself not caring much who lives or dies. Which is too bad, because the film has many remarkable moments that make you wish it had managed to come up with a better conclusion.
As afternoon turned to evening, Screamfest presented a slightly confusing combo: a ten-minute excerpt of PARANORMAL STATE, along with the feature film PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Although the similar titles seemed to suggest that there was some connection, in fact the two have nothing to do with each other, outside of taking an allegedly documentary approach to supernatural subject matter.
PARANORMAL STATE is an A&E television series that purports to document a group at Penn State University who investigate hauntings. PARANORMAL ACITIVITY, in the manner of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, presents itself as “found footage” shot by a couple who became the victims of a demonic entity. The faux-documentary approach is getting a little tired, and the attempts to pass this story off as “true” (including a closing title card dedicated to the “victims”), but once you get over that, the results are frequently terrifying. The film focuses on Katie, who has been haunted all her life by some kind of spirit or demon. Her boyfriend Micah buys a camera hoping to substantiate her claim, but it rapidly becomes obvious that he is less interested in helping her than in documenting the phenomenon; if anything, the camera seems to make things worse, as the haunting intensifies, eventually reaching lethal proportions. One way in which this allegedly true story betrays itself is the presentation of Katie and Michah: despite absolutely convincing performances, the couple are obviously movie people with no real life outside the events we see in their house. The camera never follows them outside; there are only fleeting references to life and work, and they seem to have absolutely no support group of friends or family to help out when things almost literally go to hell. In spite of this, the movie works because of the low-key approach to the scares, which start so simply and build up so incrementally that you believe every one of them as if they were actually happening. Sure, there are passages where you may find yourself wanting to yell at the characters for being so stupid, and one or two moments are unintentionally funny (as when a psychic investigator bails out in a panic, having barely entered the room), but that doesn’t diminish the icy hand you will feel climbing up your spine when the floorboards start to creek and shadows shift in the darkness.
Afterward, there was a question-and-answer session with some of the people involved with PARANORMAL STATE. There was momentary confusion, as the audience was expecting someone from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, but PARANORMAL STATE host Ryan Buell did his best to offer his expert opinion on the film when asked if he believed it was real:
“In my opinion, that was [mostly] fictional. There is some accuracy, but the majority of haunting we investigate are not that dramatic. For instance, the footage of the exorcism…I’ve worked with some real exorcists. We have never come across footage like that. I know some people who work at the Vatican. If footage like that existed, they would have said something; they would have showed it to us.”
Screamfest wrapped up Sunday with DAYS OF DARKNESS (about a comet that turns people into zombies) and HELL’S GROUND (which bills itself as the first gore film from Pakistan). Unfortunately, like the guy in the Green Day song “Brain Stew,” my eyes were starting to bleed after more than seven hours of horror and haunting.
I’ll be back with more as Screamfest continues all this week…