Monday 18 November 2013

An American Ghost Story (2012)

Director: Derek Cole
Star: Stephen Twardokus

When any genre starts doing really well at the box office, it's never surprising to see a whole rash of low budget knockoffs following in its wake. Paranormal movies are no exception, but they were hardly high budget to begin with. The Blair Witch Project cost $22,500, which meant that the quarter of a million it grossed ensured it a place in the record books. Paranormal Activity is catching up to that mark from an even lower budget; it cost a mere $15,000. While An American Ghost Story is a little more traditional in its avoidance of found footage and shakycam, following an approach that dates back at least as far as The Amityville Horror and is doing well once again with pictures like The Conjuring, its meagre $10,000 budget doesn't sound particularly small in comparison. The faux iconic cash-in title doesn't help either, presumably aiming to catch fans from American Horror Story rather than An American Haunting, which bombed horribly; the film's original title of Revenant is better and more appropriate.

It plays pretty well from the outset, as Paul begins recording notes on the haunted house he's moving into, even while surrounded by moving boxes. 'Day one in the Browning house,' he states. 'No activity thus far.' He's here because he aims to write a book about supernatural phenomena and the best way he can come up with to make it viable is to rent a supposedly haunted house and get the experience first hand. It makes sense, in a twisted way, but it does lead to a host of the sort of moments in which we cringe at the stupidity of characters in horror movies. 'All right, house!' he dares it in a particularly good example. 'Show me what you got.' Like that's ever going to end well? That's what he wants. The freakiness of the approach soon makes itself apparent when his girlfriend Stella arrives. The first thing he does is show her old photos of the house and the family who lived and died there in a mass murder suicide, then asks her to decorate the little boy's room like the photo to make the spirits more active.

Stella clearly isn't sold on the whole concept, but Paul is blind enough not to notice how unhappy she is from the very beginning. 'It's horrible to think they all died in here,' is her immediate response and she gets less enthusiastic from there. 'Can't we just enjoy our first night together?' she asks, but she can't even distract him with mild seduction attempts. He's eager to get down to work, while she's reluctant, clearly hoping that nothing whatsoever happens but just as clearly fearing that it will. He's consistently and calmly persevering, which is cute but an active buzz killer, both to us and to his girlfriend, who's a second thought in his mind behind the potential of the place throughout. When his friend Sam arrives the next day, almost his first words are to ask if Stella has left him yet, because the eventuality is that obvious. At least Paul's calmness is refreshing, this playing sincerely, without any of the camp idiocy of the usual college kids or the dumbness of ghost hunters out of their depth.
For a microbudget picture, this works pretty well for a while, especially given how few people made the film happen. The cast is small, numbering a mere half a dozen and for long stretches it's just Paul; the crew is similarly tiny, with many cast members doubling or tripling up roles behind the camera. Stephen Twardokus is a capable lead; Paul is too driven for us to really care about him but, given that limitation, I appreciated his performance more than I expected. He also wrote the script, co-edited it and was one of three producers. The other two are Jon Gale, who cast the movie and played Paul's landlord Skip, and Derek Cole, who's all over the credits like a rash: he directed it, shot it and co-edited it. What's more, he also provided the most important prop, the house, which is really his own home and which was lived in at the time. All the night scenes were shot silently because his wife and kids were busy doing whatever they felt like doing in the other rooms at the time.

I liked the traditional approaches that these filmmakers took. They avoided the easy shakycam option and shot this capably and professionally. It's certainly no art film, but the cinematography is surprising in its effectiveness. The effects are also well done, even though they avoided CGI and overt gimmickry. Their simple nature was refreshing but also often underwhelming in the face of inevitable comparisons with the usually CGI assisted shocks of other paranormal movies. The lofi nature of the effects doesn't help the film move on either, especially as they don't begin until twenty minutes in. A strong downside is that it's a very deliberate, often slow, film and it does drag at points. H Anton Riehl's piano score both helps and hinders, as it's low and slow and plays to that pace. I liked the creepy feel, which reminded of the Tori Amos cover of Slayer's Raining Blood, but it's never able to perk up the pace. When that works, the score helps it work; but when it starts to drag, well, the music helps it do that too.

The most important moment for me was when Stella left. I knew she would from her first couple of lines and everything she said underlined it, but it still happened a lot sooner than I expected. Liesel Kopp got second billing in what was fairly the second most substantial role, but her leaving so soon made it so obvious that it was all about Paul that I reevaluated what was going on. And what's going on is that An American Ghost Story isn't a paranormal horror movie, not really; it's a character study of a driven man who just happens to choose this subject for the book he wants to write. If we choose to watch this as a horror movie, it works but barely; the shocks are decent but not unexpected and there's nothing to see here that we haven't seen many times before. However, if we choose to watch it as a drama about Paul, it works much better. It's about the clash between what he wants to have done with his life and what he eventually finds he's capable of, along with the risks he takes to find out.
The setup for this side of the picture arrives a quarter of an hour in. When Sam asks Paul about all the clippings he's put up on the wall about the murder suicide, he affirms that he really believes in all this stuff. He's naïve, of course, and he has apparently no background in the paranormal, but he believes and he believes that believing is all that matters. Every approach he takes is because he believes it's what he's supposed to do, not because he knows it'll work. There's something driving him and we find out what it is that night as he talks with Stella in bed. He's thirty and he hasn't done anything with his life, so he's acutely feeling his age. 'I want to prove to myself that I can actually finish something that I start,' he confesses to her. The final piece is when he suggests that Sam needs a girlfriend who'll take care of him like his mum did, as he's subconsciously stating that he needs that too. If that isn't Stella, it certainly isn't the gap she leaves when she moves out. He's presaging his own doom.

And so, for all the trappings of a paranormal horror movie, all the expected genre conventions and the inevitable shock moments, we're watching Paul not the ghosts of the Browning family under the sheets that covered them when the cops found them. Even the more effective ones are as much about Paul as they are about the paranormal (the best is a double whammy built from an incredibly simple scene of him looking under a bed) because we're never required to share his belief. We can simply buy into his conviction that he has to achieve something and his willingness to jeopardise everything he has to get there, including the very person he claims to be doing it for. 'I want to be somebody you can be proud of,' he tells Stella in that early scene, before she inevitably disappears from the story and he fails to see that his reason for doing this has gone with her. Stephen Twardokus does a good job at portraying Paul as a man only half realising that and perhaps driving himself crazy in the process.

I liked An American Ghost Story for this exploration of a man attempting to do the one thing that might give his life meaning, only to find that it may be an impossible task, yet continuing on regardless. As a horror movie I found it only fair, though it does punch far above its weight given the slight budget. Many of its aspects played out depending on which reading we take. For instance, it gets very dark, literally, because of how Paul utilises lighting. From a horror standpoint, that might aim to make it more spooky but really it just makes it more dark. As a metaphor, it plays much better as a mirror of Paul's perhaps irreversible journey into darkness. What you get out of this may eventually depend on what you expect from it. Expect The Conjuring and you aren't going to be impressed. Expect a modern take on Heart of Darkness and you might get something out of it, with its journey into a man's soul where he finds 'the horror, the horror' at its end dressed up in a modern paranormal framework.

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