Chill-free "Apparition" as useful as a moldy sandwich

The Apparition (2012)
82 min., rated PG-13.

No one should be surprised if "The Apparition" turns out to have been released by chimps. Warner Bros. and Joel Silver's Dark Castle Entertainment are selling it as a teenybopper version of "Poltergeist." From the trailer and tagline ("Once you believe, you die"), there seems to be a potentially interesting conceit afoot, in which ghosts only exist if we believe in them. However, none of that found its way onto the screen in first-time writer-director Todd Lincoln's inauspicious debut. Instead, we have a useless, chill-free, oh-so-dull "spooker" that is not only a waste of time, but reeks of a late-summer, last-ditch effort to scrape every last buck from moviegoers' wallets.

Before things go bump in the night, happy young couple Kelly (Ashley Greene) and Ben (Sebastian Stan)—she's a vet assistant, he's a Geek Squad guy—settle into an investment home that her parents own in a desert California residential area. Then the Spooky Stuff happens: Their store-bought cactus dies, the doors open, mold spores spread, a bedroom dresser moves, the neighbors' fluffy dog gets it, etc. What to do? Ben has been holding out on Kelly that he, college friend Patrick (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy of the "Harry Potter" franchise), and Ben's former girlfriend (Julianna Guill) once recreated a seance from 1973's Charles Experiment with modern technology that went wrong. Opening a gateway between the afterlife and our earthly dimension, they unleashed a supernatural entity. So when Patrick shows up, he alerts the couple that it's not the house that's haunted. Oh, man.

Even if the finished project didn't seem like a victim of post-production studio interference out of writer-director Lincoln's hands, "The Apparition" is still an ineffective bust of false starts, missed opportunities, and unoriginal ideas. Its narrative is so incoherent that when its most promising hook is given the boot, Lincoln treats us to silly, tediously staged attempts at suspense and scares. Every time a supposedly startling moment is cut short, it fails to work up any consistent level of terror or unease. Lincoln comes close to building dread when Kelly goes around her darkened house with an ERP scanner and then gets trapped in a mummifying bed sheet, but still, no cigar. The whole film is like that, setting up scenes that should arrive at a payoff but never do. 

It also doesn't help that, despite scratchy found-footage and all of Patrick's expository nonsense and tacked-on voice-over ("It's like a virus…it knows you're afraid"), we're never clear on what the poor protags are up against. Are the apparitions creepy Asian ghost girls from "The Grudge" (like the one Kelly faces when she gets locked inside the laundry room)? What's with the mold growing under the house's linoleum and on a corner wall in the kitchen like a hornet's nest? Some horror films are best when they leave out easy answers and clear-cut solutions, but Lincoln's screenplay (if that's what you'd call it) doesn't care to explain much, so why should we care about any of it? As Kelly and Ben, the ridiculously gorgeous Ashley Greene (best known as vampire Alice in "Twilight"), who gets to react with her mouth agape, shower, and walk around in skimpy underwear, and Sebastian Stan, who's even more of a blank slate, are earnest and easy enough to like. Too bad they are such vapid cardboard cutouts with few personal character traits that it's nigh impossible to care about their fates. They get to "develop" their relationship through playfully throwing tortilla chips at each other, shopping at Costco for a cactus, and ultimately playing house, all to no avail. Then, when Kelly finds her clothes all tangled in the closet (!), the two lovebirds become dummies, as they decide to sleep in their camping tent in the backyard. Apparently, these geniuses have never seen "Paranormal Activity."

The techno score by tomandandy is an edgy respite from the generic, go-to music in horror movies, and the art direction is impressive when the couple finds their house bending into off-kilter shapes out of an M.C. Escher painting, but that's about it as far as compliments go. Even Daniel C. Pearl's cinematography, though certainly slick, favors too many wide shots that suck out the tension. As the movie begins to wind down with two inane false endings, the sepia-toned third sequence is a non-ending as well. Though we're left with a creepy image for the final shot (which has already been given away in the trailer), it's an infuriating cop-out. It may run a mercifully quick 82 minutes (including end credits), but this is a wimpy, dumbed-down, paint-by-numbers (not to mention, PG-13) filmmaking exercise in how not to get the skin crawling. Slowly going nowhere, "The Apparition" just takes up space.