Saturday, March 24, 2018

Demon House / ** (2018)

“Demon House” is a well-made film study about little of consequence, fashioned from a scorching creative eagerness that seems held back unnecessarily by a fear of visual or thematic excess. Given the familiar groundwork of the premise, that’s hardly a surprise; when it comes to any number of stories about evil forces haunting the living – however true or fictional they claim to be – a great risk persists in exploiting their suffering for the benefit of shocking an audience. But anyone going into Zak Bagans’ endeavor may yearn for the possibility of a happy medium: something between a balance of jolts intercut with perceptive discussions about what may be causing the quiet chaos in these lives. For a good while things gradually move towards that direction, as Bagans, an apparently skilled investigator, involves former eyewitnesses in a descent into the mysteries of a Midwest house filled with supernatural energies. But by the end we are no closer to understanding – or caring about – the source of these evils or the suffering they inflict on others. If a conventional horror film shows people slowly unravelling by the strange events going on in their homes, here is one that settles on raising an eyebrow or two before droppings its subjects in the maw of successive boredom.

The movie inadvertently foreshadows this prospect in the opening scenes. As a deep and sincere voice comes over the speaker, ominously warning viewers that this “film is cursed,” a series of quick visual flashes supply the groundwork: a small old white house in the projects of Gary, Indiana, where various families have lived to tell a tale of horrifying hauntings and possessions (even local broadcast news stations are seen in clips talking about the “legendary demonic house”). But the film isn’t content to simply establish a premise, either; as the early histories of the key players are conveyed, the director shows us their peril in on-screen dramatizations. Then the facts pile up in a successive grab for tension. Families have been divided, others been forced into hiding. Some relatives, particularly those who lived in a bedroom in the basement, have either endured terrible hardships or have been murdered in the aftermath. We are told the previous tenants of the house want nothing to do with the making of this film; they fear a demonic force has attached itself to those behind the camera. And then Bagans talks about a repetitious dream he has about being followed by an entity resembling a goat, and imagines this visually in a dream sequence that is referenced throughout the picture – perhaps as a way to visualize what he perceives to be the evil lurking in the house.

It is because the movie conducts itself with such an involved history, however, that nothing going on in the present can possibly match the urgency of those events, however factual or embellished they may be. What we are left with, then, is 111 minutes of strange noises, one-note discussions, suspicious changes in physical health and tired considerations of what this evil entity – assuming there is one – may represent to those who occupy its space. Sometimes that can be fascinating, especially when science becomes involved. Consider a moment when Zak brings in a paranormal expert to do metered readings, and the meter goes haywire the further into the basement he moves. This is, by most film estimations, the underlying glue to the investigation, and indeed strange moments emerge in the aftermath. One of Bagans’ crew members becomes hostile, almost violent (the greatest scene occurs at a hotel down the street, where the others watch on silently as he argues with an unseen entity). The aforementioned expert leaves and is stricken with illness, and checks into the hospital to discover all his internal organs gradually failing.

Okay, so there’s clearly some level of smoke lurking in this investigation. The director’s problem is that he is unable to discover the fire. That may just be the interpretation of an outsider – Bagans is, after all, a respected television personality whose cable series “Ghost Adventures” has many admirers – but what he pitches in “Demon House” is not nearly as compelling or suspicious as the voice-overs suggest; it’s as if he is playing up a subterranean influence simply because he feels it lurking nearby. Feelings, however, don’t translate to the screen as persuasively, especially if the camera is spying events that could be seen as circumstantial. The early dramatizations may undermine the point further; by insisting that the previous tenants did, indeed, witness the demonic possession of their children, the investigation proposes something greater than the what is delivered. As I sat in the dark waiting for the material to peak, I was less convinced that something evil was following these documentarians and more apt to believe they were exaggerating their own unspoken fears.

Is the movie an act of truth, as it claims to be? I have doubts. Bagans approaches the experiment less like a truthful depiction and more like one of those mocked up “found footage” outings (it took a trip to the Internet Movie Database to realize that he, in fact, was not acting on pre-established fiction). Having never seen the “Ghost Adventures” series, I am only left to observe these scenes with the pragmatic intention of a film buff. Aficionados of the supernatural, I guess, will find more meaning in the details. He certainly has a talent for the movie camera, at least; the tense moments are not obsessive or incompetent, interviews are conducted like legitimate procedural investigations, without unnecessary close-ups or grabs for fear, and on-site footage effectively taps into the hysteria of all the crew members involved (we may not believe everything they tell us, but what matters is they are convinced).

However you want to see the material will depend on the trust you surrender to its creator. My mind was perplexed in both positions: it is neither very convincing as a documentary, nor all that remarkable as a horror film. One wonders, perhaps, if the material might have been better suited as a television special, where his target audience could contemplate the ramifications of his experiments more suitably; in a movie theater, they come across as detached and stilted. It’s not as if we are burdened by doubt in this sort of subject, either. A great fear within is that our beliefs in the supernatural may prove true – that when evidence mounts and the experiences between people of this world and the next bleed over, we might no longer be able to distance ourselves from confronting the malevolence of a dimension nearby. But “Demon House” turns us, unnecessarily, into skeptics.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror/Documentary (US); Not Rated; Running Time: 111 Minutes

Cast:
Zak Bagans
Adam Ahlbrandt
Matthew Mourgides
Barry Taff
Billy Tolley

Produced by
Zak Bagans, Michael Dorsey, Joseph Taglieri and Jay WasleyDirected and written by Zak Bagans

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