There’s an art to making a horror movie with limited resources, one that involves suggesting danger rather than showing it and building tension out of virtually nothing happening. But sometimes suggestions just hang in the air pointing nowhere and virtually nothing happening feels like just that. Just because there’s an art to something doesn’t make everyone who attempts it an artist. The Apparition, the first feature by writer-director Todd Lincoln, features a small cast and takes place largely in an empty suburban home, one of the few occupied houses in a California neighborhood filled with unsold lots. It’s a potentially creepy setting that would give an innovative director a chance to do a lot with a little. Unfortunately, Lincoln isn’t one of those.
There’s little evidence of innovation in this film, which opens with some eyeroll-inducing text introducing, sigh, found footage of a séance from 1973 before fast-forwarding to a modern attempt at the same, filled with pseudoscientific jargon and equipment that looks like it’s on loan from Egon Spengler. Something goes wrong, of course, and by jumping forward a few more years, the film finds one of the séance participants (Sebastian Stan) trying to run away from the horrible, shadowy, fleetingly glimpsed thing he and his friends have summoned. He’s starting a new life with his veterinarian-in-training girlfriend (Twilight’s Ashley Greene), who’s moved into the aforementioned suburban home, purchased by her parents as an investment property.
In the first of many time-killing sequences that pad out The Apparition’s 82-minute (with leisurely closing credits) running time, they talk about taking a trip to Costco, discuss whether or not Costco will carry the type of cactus Greene likes, travel to Costco, shop at Costco, then return home with bags filled with Costco items, including the cactus. (Oddly enough, that shopping spree makes The Apparition only this summer’s second most Costco-obsessed film, after The Watch, which stopped short of featuring a scene in which cancer-stricken children were healed just by walking through the store’s aisles.) Then the cactus dies, making it the canary that reveals they’re living in a supernatural coal mine that’s taken a turn for the toxic.
When not leaning hard on ideas borrowed from the Paranormal Activity series—the doors that open on their own, the surveillance-camera footage, the sound design that clearly cost more than any other part of the movie—Lincoln scares up a few potent images that contrast the sterile dream-home interior with an entity that manifests itself via rot and mold. But the idea of creeping corruption proves a lot scarier than its CGI-created manifestations, and some of the film’s other scares are just laughable. (Although viewers scared of finding their clothes tied into knots should stay far away.) Laughable too: characters who seem less substantial than the ghosts who threaten them, and a performance by Greene that plays like an homage to Wild Things-era Denise Richards, all arched backs, blank stares, creepy smiles, and flat line readings. It’s, sadly, the film’s most unsettling element.