Apartment 143 (2011): Legend of Hell House in Shorthand

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The White family live in a haunted apartment, but that’s nothing new to them, the last house they lived in was haunted as well. Convinced that the vengeful ghost of his dead wife has followed him and their two children to their new home, papa White asks a paranormal team of investigators to find out what’s happening.

This is a Spanish film, written by Rodrigo Cortés (Red Lights 2012) and directed by Carles Torrens as his first feature-length film. The cast is a real amalgamation of actors.

Michael O”Keefe plays Dr Helzer and I spent the entire film wondering why he looked so damned familiar. It was not until setting down and researching this film that I found out t he was the young caddy in the 1980 film Caddyshack. He’s put on a bit of weight since then and aged, of course, but once you see his publicity photo, you realise who he is.

One of Dr Helzer’s assistants is Ellen Keegan. She is played by  Fiona Glascott, a more than capable actress who’s been treading the boards for some time now. She made me think of a young Catherine Deneuve and I found it hard to take my eyes off of her in any scene she appeared. I think it’s safe to say that I was “crushing” on her a bit. But Deneuve reference aside, she’s a good actress.

Fiona Glasscott, lovely to look at, delightful to watch act.
Fiona Glasscott, lovely to look at, delightful to watch act.

Rick Gonzalez does a more than capable job as Helzer’s other assistant  Paul Ortega, the techie of the group and he comes across as quite likeable.

The White family consists of dad Alan (Kai Lennox), daughter Caitlin (Gia Mantegna) and son Benny (Damian Roman). The only problem I had with the Whites was that I did not like any of them except for Benny. Damian Roman is brilliant as the four year-old youngest member of the family. I enjoyed it when he was in scenes. Dad and sis Caitlin, turned me cold and it was made very obvious that the daughter was the “trigger” that set these hauntings off.

I was impressed with the way Torrens set the technical side of this film up. It could have been an episode from the Sy Fy channels TAPS Ghost Hunters. The matter-of-fact way that the equipment was handled and the explanations could have come from Jason Hawes or Grant Wilson.

Unfortunately, for me, I felt that the plot and the mechanisation of the film very closely resembled the atmosphere of the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House (Roddy McDowell and Gayle Hunnicutt) especially after the inclusion of the “machine” that supposedly “cleaned” the house of spirits.

Of course it doesn’t have the convoluted back story that Hell House had, but it’s damned close; if not in nature at least in the area of being convoluted. Over all the film impressed but, at the same time, it underwhelmed in some areas. A lot of the stunts were brilliantly pulled off and some of the “filmed” ghostly effects, again, looked like they could have originated from the Ghost Hunters televised footage.

Michael O'Keefe as the humourless Dr Barrett.
Michael O’Keefe as the humourless Dr Barrett.

In keeping with the focus on “real” ghost hunters and a sort of tenuous LOHH connection,  even Dr Helzer seemed like he could be a close relative of the humourless scientist Dr Barrett (Clive Revill) in the Hell House movie. Which reminds me of another “nod” in the film, doesn’t the name Helzer evoke images of Hans Holzer, paranormal investigator extraordinaire?

All in all the film was good, but not overly scary. It has few “jump” moments and a “surprising” twist in the plot and then falls on a “cheap” scare at the very end of the film. I don’t count that as a spoiler as you are (as the viewer) expecting it.

So I’d have to give Apartment 143 a 3.5 out of 5 stars. It gets the .5 because of Michael O’Keefe, Catherine Deneuve look-a-like Fiona Glasscott and little Damien Roman.

Hans Holzer, a real life paranormal investigator. (1920 - 2009)
Hans Holzer, a real life paranormal investigator. (1920 – 2009)

 

An Arkansas Razorback in Queen Elizabeth Country 6

A new arrival in the unit asked me if I was interested in sharing a house with him in a small Suffolk village. He’d rented the house and it was large and had about four bedrooms in it. I went out to the village of Swaffham Prior and had a look at the place.

For starters it was excellently placed in the village as it was right across the street from the village Pub. Don’t get the wrong idea. I liked my drink as much as the next person, but that wasn’t why I was so pleased with the proximity of the Pub.

The Red Lion

Pub’s were, at that time anyway, a meeting place for the village. Through the Pub, you met people, found out what was happening around the area and who was who in the village. That and if the Pub was close enough, you could drink a skin-full of booze and just stagger home.

The house itself was old. It had been a coach house in the olden days. (I cannot for the life of me remember when the house was originally built, but the coach house bit is a dead give away for how old it actually was) It was long, much longer than than the Google earth picture above. And when I lived there with Ralph, it was white.

On the right hand side of the house as you faced it from the street was an agate gravel drive that branched off to the left and led you to the back door. The front door was used only once when I lived there and that was when the local vicar stopped by to welcome us to the village.

When you entered the back door you would find the back hall, bathroom, stairs to the first floor (that’s second floor to denizens of the US) and a smaller hall to the rest of the house.

Nestled in between the drive and the back door path was our ‘sitting’ room. It had a two seater settee, Ralph’s leather recliner, a fireplace and the television. The window faced the front of the Pub across the street.

When you walked out of the ‘sitting room’ you crossed the small hallway and walked past the front door to the huge dining room. If you continued you walked through the kitchen (a perfect square of a room) and on the other side of the kitchen was my massive bedroom. That plus a utility room that housed our washer and dryer made up the ground floor of the house.

My bedroom featured the only other door that opened onto the high street. I say opened, but that is a bit of a misnomer. The massive four inch wide door was sealed shut and could not be opened at all.

The first floor of the house was comprised entirely of bedrooms. The one opposite the Pub was our ‘cold’ store. In the winter we left a window cracked and it kept most of our perishable foodstuff nice and cool.

The first couple of months that Ralph and I lived there we would occasionally both watch the telly in the sitting room. When anyone walked up the gravel drive and the path to our door you could hear them as clearly as if the path were in the room with us. One night we sat there watching the news when, during a break between stories, the volume lowered enough for us to hear someone walking up the drive.

“Looks like we have a visitor.” Ralph said with a smile.

He turned down the volume on the TV. We both sat grinning like a couple of idiots as we listened to the footsteps progress from the side of the house to the back door. The gravelly steps stopped at our back door and waited we for the knock.

Silence permeated the air. No knock. Nothing. We sat there is silence and waited for the footsteps to start their journey back to the street. Still, nothing.

Finally, we couldn’t take the suspense any longer. We both got up and jogged to the back door. Ralph flung open the door with a loud and cheery, “Hi!”

There was no one there.

We had quite a giggle about this turn of events and made jokes about ghosts and possible pranksters having a laugh at the ‘new boys’ in the village. As we walked back into the sitting room we watched the fancy leather throw on the back of Ralph’s recliner start swinging back and forth.

Ralph looked at me with one eyebrow up and said, “The fireplace must be open. I’ll close the draft.” He walked over to the fireplace and knelt down to close the flue. He suddenly stopped and looked up the chimney. He looked back over his shoulder at me.

“Damn thing’s closed already.”

As he stood up, the throw began to sway again. Ralph walked over to it and held his hand by the throw. “Nothing.” He moved his hand fractionally. “Not a breath of air.” We both shrugged and sat back down to finish watching the news.

This occurrence would be a regular event at the house. We used to make jokes about our mysterious sitting room ghost and our invisible house guest who was too shy to knock on the back door.

It was only after we had lived there for about six months that the activity increased and soon shifted it’s focus on to Ralph’s new girlfriend. But that was after it decided to pick on me and after I had moved out of the house and  into  a flat with my new fiancée .

My bedroom and it’s inoperable door.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001): Guillermo del Toro’s Tour de Force

Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, HellboyThe Devil’s Backbone  is a slow and haunting film that frightens and mesmerises the viewer. Overshadowed by the wildly successful Pan’s Labyrinth, the film is a lesser known film, that despite the success of Labyrinth, is a superior film.

Set during the 1939 Spanish civil war, the film follows Carlos’s arrival to an all boys orphanage located in the war-torn countryside. We follow Carlos in his day-to-day experiences and his interaction with everyone at the orphanage.

The film starts with the camera zooming in on the Orphanage itself, with the narrator, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) asking: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat it self time and again?” We see a bomb being sent to earth by a plane and its landing in the orphanage and we see the body of a young boy lying on the ground.

The narration continues. “An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An  emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”  While the last of the narration continues, we see that the boy’s head is covered in blood and that another boy is with him. We then see the bloodied boy in water, sinking slowly down as bubbles rise around him.

This wonderfully mesmerizing opening goes on during the opening credits of the film. And it sets the mood of the film brilliantly. This narrative by Dr Casares sets up the framework of the film. His questioning of what a ghost is tells us that the orphanage is haunted and just from the opening scenes alone, we can tell it is haunted by several spectres.

Carlos is brought to the orphanage by car, speeding through the dusty and desolate countryside. Carlos is with his guardian and bodyguard who is taking him there for his own safety while the civil war escalates. Upon arriving the first thing noticed is the unexploded bomb. It is half buried in the dusty courtyard of the orphanage. This is the first spectre that both haunts and threatens the inhabitants of the orphanage.

Carlos himself comes from a ‘wealthy’ family and he is convinced that he is there temporarily for his own safety. It transpires that he will be there much longer. Initially, Carlos has trouble fitting in with the other boys and he has trouble sleeping. He sees the ghost of the boy we saw at the beginning of the film. His greatest antagonist is Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) but this changes when Carlos saves Jaime from drowning in the ‘dead-boy’s’ pool. 

It turns out that the real bully of the orphanage is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) an alumni of the orphanage who stayed to work there when he grew up. Jacinto is the second spectre that haunts the orphanage. A spectre with a pleasing countenance who is full of bad thoughts and evil deeds. He is also the local ‘stud’ servicing, it seems, all the women in the orphanage. Including the ‘head’ of the place, the one legged Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is loved by Dr Casares.

Dr Casares is the third spectre of the orphanage. Impotent and a man of poetry and great passion, he loves Carmen but says nothing as he knows he cannot please her as a man. Instead he is haunted regularly by the sounds of her love making with Jacinto. And later in the film Casares will become a ‘real’ spectre who protects the boys and saves them from danger.

The boys of the orphanage tell Carlos that the ghost he sees is that of Santi (Junio Valverde) who went missing the night the bomb fell into the orphanage courtyard. The only person who knows what really happened is Jaime and Carlos (and the audience) believe that Jaime killed Santi. Santi is the  third ‘Gothic’ spectre who haunts the orphanage.

While the ghostly sightings and discussions are going on, we find out that the orphanage is the repository for the rebel’s funds. Gold is kept there to help feed and arm the rebels. Jacinto finds out about this and plots to steal it. Dr Casares goes to town and witnesses Carlos’s guardian and body guard’s  execution by government soldiers and is questioned and insulted by the same soldiers. The civil war is getting closer to the orphanage.

This film was all about ghosts and being haunted. All the characters are haunted by things. Things in their past, their present and their possible futures. And it was about ghosts.

The ghosts or spectres are many, the unexploded bomb, Santi’s spirit, Dr Casare, the gold and the civil war itself are all spectres that haunt the characters in the film. There are other ‘ghosts’ and you will discover that everyone in the film is affected by them.

I believe this film, should be considered the apex of Guillermo’s career as a director. The Devil’s Backbone is a film that does not take one miss step in its execution of the story and the building of it’s characters. It was annoyingly difficult to find at one point, I had several friends tell me, they could not find a copy to view.

If you can find this film. Watch it. You will not be disappointed and you will most likely fall in love with this Spanish film and it’s creator.

Guillermo del Toro

Dark Remains (2005): What the Hell Was That??

Written, directed and edited by Brian Avenet-Bradley ( Freez’er,Ghost of the Needle ) Dark Remains  is an odd, yet entertaining  little film. Obviously shot on a shoe-string budget, the film still delivers a pretty good punch in the scare department.

The film opens with a young professional couple going to bed after a party. Their daughter Emma (young actress Rachel Jordan in her first, and so far only, feature film) asks Mum if she can sleep with her and dad (Cheri ChristianGreg Thompson) and is told that she has to be a big girl and sleep on her own. Later Mum Julie wakes up in the middle of the night and finds an outside door open. Checking in on Emma she finds her with a slashed throat and wrists and what looks like one of her fingers bitten off.

After an undisclosed amount of time the grieving parents rent a cabin on a remote mountainside. Their plan is to “heal” themselves from the loss of their child and try to mend the rift that has sprung up between the two of them. Julie blames husband Allen because she believes he forgot to lock the outside door the night that Emma was murdered.

Allen continues to work as a technical book writer and he encourages photographer Julie to start  working again. The couple are in a place of pain and misery and so far only Allen seems determined to rise above it. Unfortunately for the young couple, this was the worst place they could have picked to “get away from it all.”

Before I write about what works for the film, I’ll point out what does not.

Cheri Christian as grieving Mum Julie never really gets our sympathy. She walks around in most of the film looking like she is chewing on a live wasp. Instead of appearing sad and miserable from the loss of their child, she appears petulant and aggressive.

Most of the actors in the film don’t really overwhelm you with their stellar performances either. Amazingly some of the best acting comes from the smaller  roles in the film. The shifty landlord Mr Booth (actor Patrick G. Keenan)  does genuinely seem to be a boozy wife beater. The librarian (actress Patricia French) delivers her lines with an ease that is admirable.

Greg Thompson as husband Allen is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film. He is a technophobe and is unable to understand his creative wife. He tries repeatedly to get her started on the healing process. He is both supportive and unhappy at the same time.

The other actor who really sold his character was Jason Turner. As family friend Steve, he only has a few minutes of screen time. But I can honestly say that for the scariest scene in the film, he did genuinely seem at first half-asleep and then terrified. My daughter and I had no problem with being terrified. When the above scene came on, I jerked my bum off the seat and gasped,”What the hell was that??” I have never seen a scarier event in a film.

Now for what the film does well. It scares you. Plain and simple. This picture has the distinction of having one of the scariest scenes in cinematic history. It has to do with a flight of stairs and something coming down it. I really cannot tell you anymore or I’ll spoil it for you. Just trust me, my daughter and I have watched this film several times and it still scares the crap out of us.

There are plenty of other scares that are not as impressive but they get the job done very well. The story is all right, just don’t expect an intricate plot here. But the mechanics of the plot serve it well enough. I didn’t find myself dangling at the end of the film wondering what had just happened. It was tied up neatly, if not a little vaguely at the end.

What did work well for the film was that the main protagonists were so consumed with guilt and misery that at first they don’t notice the warning signs. Later in the film, after it is too late, they notice.