The ads for The Apparition tell us it’s about how believing in supernatural events can make them real. The finished film, on the other hand, never once says anything about belief or non-belief. There’s only a lot of generic talk about summoning some dark, evil force from “the other side.” Already, we have a huge problem, namely that people will pay to see a film founded on a premise conjured up by a studio marketing department rather than by the filmmakers. Did they know their movie was being so grossly misrepresented, that the prominent tagline, “Once you believe, you die,” does not factor into the storyline as they conceived it? This is the most infuriating display of bait-and-switch advertizing since Case 39, the long-delayed supernatural thriller about a demonic little girl in the care of Renée Zellweger.
But suppose The Apparition hadn’t relied on a deceptive ad campaign, that its actual premise had been used to entice audiences. What then? Not much, I’m afraid. Here is a horror movie so narratively tepid, so stylistically derivative, and so conceptually vague that one wonders if it began with anything resembling a screenplay. It has plenty in the way of atmosphere but virtually nothing in the way of plot, character development, theme, or insight. The thrills, while technically competent, are mediocre at best, all drawn from the likes of other, more original, and in most cases more successful horror films. This means that, nine times out of ten, we can see a scare coming long before it finally arrives. Unfortunately, this level of predictability doesn’t extend to the overall story, which doesn’t even try to be understandable.
We open with Super 8 footage of a paranormal experiment conducted in the 1970s, when a group of people sitting around a table somehow summoned an entity from “the other side.” This manifestation, known as The Charles Experiment, was successfully recreated decades later by a group of college students, who had an arsenal of high tech equipment at their disposal. We see their efforts courtesy of their own home video footage; rest assured, the Queasy Cam is utilized, and there’s a lot of screaming in the darkness. Flash forward to what I assume is the present day. We meet a young couple, veterinarian-in-training Kelly (Ashley Greene) and tech-company service rep Ben (Sebastian Stan). They begin noticing strange things happening in their new house, such as doors open by themselves without tripping the burglar alarm, lights flickering, mysterious thuds, and large patches of mold growing spontaneously in odd places.
And so continue these Paranormal Activity-inspired events until Kelly discovers Ben’s connection to the recreated college experiment, which resulted in the disappearance of one of the participants. It’s obvious that some kind of supernatural entity is haunting Kelly and Ben. But what is it exactly? Here enters a British parapsychology student named Patrick (Tom Felton), a geeky typecast whose role is to provide the lead characters – and vicariously, the audience – with technobabble explanations of a wild, paranormal nature. The more he explains, the less sense the situation makes; this entity, whatever it is, operates under rules so random and confusing that no potential audience is likely to make heads or tails of it. We know that a doorway to the other side was opened, that it wants to exist in our world, that it lives off of our fears, that it wants to kill people, and that, at least in one instance, it can take the form of the missing participant. But why? What does any of this mean?
Yet again, I turn my attention back to Paranormal Activity, which worked so well because nothing was explained. How is it possible that The Apparition fails for the exact same reason? The answer is simple: Unlike Paranormal Activity, which was much more psychologically driven, The Apparition is completely story driven, and therefore is required to be clear in its intentions. One cannot make a movie on merely an idea. It must first be honed into something comprehensible, something an audience can actually navigate through. Watching this movie is not at all unlike playing a game without knowing what the rules are; as you struggle to make sense of your surroundings, you’re open to attacks from the opposing team.
The final act, while visually engaging, is a maddening collection of twists and revelations that clarify absolutely nothing. The last scene in particular seems intentionally constructed to make as little sense as possible – and you should know that the trailer spoils it for you regardless. How could this have become such a mess? What movie did anyone involved believe they were making? It might have helped if the filmmakers had used the plot the ads falsely allude to. “Paranormal events are a product of the human mind,” says a small section on the homepage of the film’s website, “and ghosts only exist because we believe in them.” This is an intriguing idea, and it certainly would have been worth exploring. Apart from not being the film it was advertized to be, The Apparition is boring, unoriginal, and nonsensical.