Typically, these stories are set up in one of two ways: everyone except the main character believes in the supernatural OR only the main character believes in the supernatural. That means one crucial element of the story is always someone struggling to come to grips with the existence of something they don't believe in.
Today we'll be looking at 3 examples from the past few years of people grappling with the supernatural: Red Lights, The Awakening, and The Skeptic. If you're a jaded skeptic, like myself, you'll naturally gravitate to each of the leading roles in today's movies as they fall into the category of, "staunch non-believers."
Red Lights - 2012
The $.25 plot overview: a professor and a physicist try to debunk a famous psychic. Turns out the psychic is a fake but the physicist is a psychic - how ironic.
With such an outstanding cast (Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, and Cillian Murphy), this movie should have been amazing. De Niro plays this mysterious, spoon-bending charlatan who spends barely any time on screen and makes so little an impression that the role really could have been filled by anyone. Cillian Murphy is the real "star" of the movie and still leaves the audience wanting more. Sigourney Weaver plays "intellectually superior" yet "terrified and desperate" in a performance reminiscent of that in CopyCat. In fact, I spent most of Red Lights comparing it to CopyCat - which probably provides a pretty good indication of how boring I found Red Lights to be.
What a terrible waste of such great actors.
I read that the director wanted to portray a "balanced" and "unbiased" view of the paranormal which was why he chose to have a fake psychic and a psychic "regular guy." Unfortunately, this "balance" just came off as unfocused, wishy-washy, and amateurish. He also tried too hard to tell more than one story (which meant not successfully telling any story at all). Even sadder fact, none of the stories Red Lights tried to tell were, in any way, compelling or believable.
The story, although dealing heavily with skepticism and crises of faith, actually pulls thematically from Moby Dick: asking, when does passion become obsession? And examining regular people driving themselves mad in pursuit of something only they can understand. Yet somehow, the movie lost the power and emotional conviction that Moby Dick is prized for.
Watch the trailer here:
The Awakening - 2011
The $.25 plot overview: a woman who debunks supernatural phenomenon visits a reportedly haunted orphanage and ends up confronting her personal demons.
For the first 3/4 of this movie, I enjoyed myself greatly. It's dramatic with a great, evocative atmosphere, and beautiful cinematography. I was impressed to FINALLY be watching a (somewhat) major movie with beautifully subtle haunting elements that are not at all overdone or overly CGed.
The entire movie is shrouded in mystery with an extensive cast of mysterious characters. Rebecca Hall is terrific. She plays a strong, bold, and impatient yet fragile woman struggling against her loneliness and skepticism. She is searching for something but isn't even sure herself what she is searching for. Her co-star, Dominic West, is charming and strong. He's the picture of masculinity and the epitome of what every straight woman wants. (Seriously. Yum.)
There is something so basically human about exploring the nature of fear - which The Awakening does - why do bumps in the night scare us? What does the existence of ghosts or spirits mean? Is the most terrifying thing we can imagine our own past and our own capacity for, "evil"?
Hall's character has this gender stereotype challenging "distance" from family and marriage that makes her complex and hard to relate to. This is a bold choice for such a lovely leading lady. An interesting note here is that the film is titled after a seminal work of feminism (that challenges the pre-established ideas of motherhood and femininity.)
The end of the movie devolves into absurdity; the story completely jumps the shark and my interest wandered so far off the path, I should have just stopped the movie before the end. If you're looking for similarly mediocre entertainment, The Haunting of Helena, The Ring, Fragile, and The Orphanage have a lot of similar elements.
Watch the trailer here:
The Skeptic - 2009
The $.25 plot overview: a man visits his dead mother's home and finds out he may not be alone.
This movie feels lower budget than the other two. The acting is less believable; like it's a made-for-tv-movie. So, in doing some post-watching research I uncovered a hilarious fact: this movie made a whopping $6,500 at the box office. I'll let that sink in.
I mean - you could barely buy a car with that.
Also setting this movie apart from the other two is the male lead. I'm not willing to say it's the actor (Tim Daly) because he's really not terrible but his performance is not nearly as strong as the other two leads. What he did play well is his "culturally imposed struggle" - as a man - with having an open, emotional reaction to a stressful situation.
In this case, our lead is is mostly struggling against himself in his belief / disbelief in the supernatural. As with a multitude of other "ghost stories" recently (An American Haunting, Silent House to some extent, and many more.) the "thing" that is haunting our lead is his traumatic childhood memories, not some sort of ghostly entity.
The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh feels very similar but better made; higher budget and more subtle special effects. Put this one on the list of, "only watch it if there's nothing else to watch."
Watch the trailer here: