Phantom menaces

Pub date May 31, 2011
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm Features

FILM Does anyone actually believe Ghost Adventures is real? Including its hosts? For the uninitiated, this is the Travel Channel show that locks a trio of doucheba — er, paranormal investigators inside an allegedly haunted location overnight, leaving them with an arsenal of high-tech gadgets to record any paranormal happenings.

Inevitably, these goings-on include supernatural “voices” captured by one of their doohickeys (the voice always sounds exactly like garbled static, but is subtitled into meaning — usually a variation of “Get out!”) Main host Zak Bagans employs obnoxious tactics to goad the spirits into responding. Did you see that one where he decided he needed to bare his telegenically pumped-up chest to provoke the phantom that hated tattoos? It was fully necessary, people. For science. Also, it was 24-karat unintentional comedy gold.

Ghost Adventures and similar shows (main ingredient: shaky, sickly-green night vision) are ripe for parody, but they’re also au courant. As anyone with a pair of eyes and a thirst for blood can attest, there’s been a trend in “I am filming myself at all times” horror since ye olden days of The Blair Witch Project (1999), sure to be buoyed along for another decade-plus thanks to the monster success of 2007’s Paranormal Activity. (Last year’s The Last Exorcism being a prime example.) If these films are fake-real, then shows like Ghost Adventures, which follow regular people through actual abandoned prisons, sanitariums, and the like, are real-fake.

Which brings us to Grave Encounters, a fake-real movie that does a number on Zak Bagans types and delivers some pretty decent scares in the process. (Don’t be put off by the directors’ corny nom de screen, “the Vicious Brothers.” Although, dudes — really?) The film, which closes out the 2011 Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, is introduced by a slick production-company type who assures us that what we are about to see is undoctored video from a ghost-hunting reality show. Seems the crew of Grave Encounters, including lead investigator Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), have vanished from the crumbling confines of their latest filming location, a decrepit mental hospital with a sinister past.

With this Blair Witch-y setup, the found footage rolls, including outtakes that let us know Lance and company are skeptics not above manipulating circumstances to get the shots they need. The faux-show apes Ghost Adventures‘ title sequence, low-angle shots, and jumpy editing. There’s even a slightly unhinged caretaker on hand to lock the Grave Encounters folks in for the night. And this wouldn’t be a horror movie (as opposed to a highly questionable reality show) if creepy critters didn’t end up coming out to play. It’s not a spoiler to disclose that once doors start slamming by themselves, full-scale shit-hitting-fannage (shades of 2001’s excellent Session 9) is not far behind.

In a similar vein, but with a more succinct running time and more likeable characters, is Haunted Changi, one of HoleHead’s opening-night films. A group of young filmmakers (portrayed by actors who have the same names as their characters) set out to make a documentary about Singapore’s Old Changi Hospital, a vacant structure troubled by the lingering fragments of World War II-era prisoners of war and their decapitation-happy Japanese captors. Plus, the occasional vampire. Old Changi Hospital is apparently a bona fide ghost-hunting hotspot, which makes the fake-real Haunted Changi a little more real than it probably ought to be.

After the four-person crew’s initial visit to the hospital, director Andrew (Andrew Lau, also credited as Haunted Changi‘s director) becomes obsessed with the place, returning again and again to shoot more footage and hang out with a mysterious woman he encounters there. Meanwhile, uptight producer Sheena (Sheena Chung), dreadlocked sound guy Farid (Farid Azlam), and “I am filming myself at all times” camera guy Audi (Audi Khalis) feel the after-effects in different ways — all of them bad.

Haunted Changi features a scene where a group of paranormal investigators use a little kid as their supernatural-activity barometer, like a canary in a coal mine. Way creepy, and one of the few novel ideas in a film that’s solid without being particularly original. Still, Old Changi Hospital has plenty of built-in atmosphere; a real-real documentary on its history would probably be just as scary as Haunted Changi‘s paranormal fantasy.


June 2–17, $11

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF



Absentia (Mike Flanagan, U.S., 2010) Daniel has been missing for seven years. His wife, Tricia (Courtney Bell), has dutifully done all the right things, distributing missing-person posters, mourning, seeking therapy, and filling out the paperwork to have him declared dead in absentia. But — heavily pregnant by a new suitor — she’s more than ready to move on with her life. In town to help with this task is her younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), a former drug addict who nudges Tricia to look for new apartments and work on her social life. But is Daniel really dead? Tricia’s been having freaky visions that suggest he’s still … somewhere. And what, exactly, is haunting that tunnel down the block from Tricia’s front door? Absentia is an indie-horror find: Bell and Parker are totally believable as sisters who stick together despite their complicated relationship, and writer-director Mike Flanagan conjures serious menace from a benign suburban streetscape. Mon/6, 9:20 p.m.; June 12, 5:20 p.m. (Cheryl Eddy)

Apocrypha (Michael Fredianelli, U.S., 2011) Vampires are about as ubiquitous and tired a pop cultural fixture as the Kardashians and it’s getting harder and harder to come up with an original twist on such a shopworn staple. That’s all the more reason why I wanted Apocrypha, a modestly-budgeted, locally-made indie premiering at HoleHead, to make good on its promising premise that vampires aren’t just bloodsuckers, they’re also amnesiacs. Unfortunately, director Michael Fredianelli (who also coproduced, edited, cowrote, and stars in the film) makes a hot mess out of this neat idea thanks to weak dialogue, inept direction, lackluster performances, and a virulent misogynistic streak that’s far more unsettling than the inevitable torrents of blood. Fredianelli plays Griffith Townsend, a man at wit’s end to understand his growing compulsion to bite the women he takes home. Eventually, his path crosses with Maggie (cowriter and coproducer Kat Reichmuth) — an equally confused woman trying to find out how she woke up in Golden Gate Park — with whom he shares a dark, and somewhat obvious, connection. When Townsend’s job as a senior editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, rather than all the neck-biting, requires the greatest suspension of audience disbelief, you know it’s time to go back to the drawing board. June 11, 3:20 p.m. (Matt Sussman)

Auschwitz (Uwe Boll, Germany, 2010) It takes serious cojones or at least a healthy dose of self-delusion, for Uwe Boll to decide he’s the one to give us a realistic depiction of Auschwitz. Boll is often considered cinema’s most reviled director, known more for his schlocky video game adaptations than for his sense of morality. But in Auschwitz, he does his best to reflect on a horrific atrocity, bookending his portrayal of the death camp with a short documentary in which he questions German youth about the Holocaust. The mind-boggling ignorance on display is somewhat effective, but these teenagers likely know about as much as most American high schoolers — if not more. And Boll’s gritty Auschwitz isn’t the answer: it’s hard to watch at times, and it’s certainly more to the point than Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). But Boll shows his trademark lack of restraint, and the legitimately stirring moments are undercut by shock value violence. June 10, 9:20 p.m.; June 13, 7:20 p.m. (Louis Peitzman)

Helldriver (Yoshihiro Nishimura, Japan, 2010) Leave it to Japanese director Yoshihiro Nishimura (2008’s Tokyo Gore Police) to give us a joyous, blood-soaked twist on zombies. Helldriver‘s living dead are distinguished by the antlers growing out of their foreheads — antlers that can be removed and ground into powder for use as a popular street drug. There’s more of a plot to Helldriver than the set-up, but it’s admittedly a little tough to make sense of it with body parts and buckets of blood flying in all directions. Short version: Kika (Yumiko Hara) has to take down her evil stepmother, who has become the Zombie Queen. To say there are casualties along the way is an understatement — nearly every character is flayed, decapitated, or torn into pieces, all with gleeful abandon. However gross Helldriver may be, it’s an awful lot of fun, an over-the-top, distinctly Japanese reinvention of the genre. Fri/3 and June 13, 9:20 p.m. (Peitzman)

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue (Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy, U.S., 2010) What happens when a pair of slacker brothers (writers-directors-stars Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy) inherit a dilapidated apartment building with a perilously low occupancy rate? What if that building also has a pet-eating monster scrambling between its walls? And what’s that ever-hungry monster gonna eat once all the pets are gone? Dilemmas — all of them absurd, some of them gory, and most of them hilarious — abound in this clever, fast-paced cracker featuring Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund in a cameo as a cranky, horny tenant. Chicago-bred comedians Bradecich and LaFlamboy have Simon Pegg-Nick Frost levels of chemistry. Is it too much to hope that the dreaded Mole Man will return so there’ll be a sequel? Sun/5, 7:20 p.m.; Tues/7, 9:20 p.m. (Eddy)

The Oregonian (Calvin Lee Reeder, U.S., 2010) More an experiment in tedium than terror, Calvin Lee Reeder’s The Oregonian will look familiar to anyone who has seen their share of David Lynch movies. Only unlike Lynch, Reeder offers little in the way of narrative or structure to counterbalance all the creepy randomness he throws at us. One can truly sympathize with the film’s nameless heroine — a frightened young woman who, upon waking up in a station wagon covered in blood, embarks on a hellish journey through the Oregon countryside — for in watching The Oregonian in its entirety the audience also undergoes a seemingly endless slog, only the succession of borrowed gestures merely exhausts rather than frightens. If you really want some good backwoods scares, watch Gummo (1997) or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) instead. Sat/4, 9:20 p.m.; June 16, 7:20 p.m. (Sussman)