Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Death of a Ghost Hunter (2007)

Going to horror movie conventions and getting to meet some of my favorite genre actors and directors was, for a while, one of the most thrilling and enjoyable things I did with my time at one point. I had heard about them for most of my adult life but it wasn't until I was 22-years old when I went to my first one and although I'm not exactly sure why I didn't go to one before then (besides being busy with school, the most likely reason is probably because, at that time, none came anywhere near my area), once I did it was a real thrill and something I quickly became addicted to. Not only did I get a kick out of meeting people involved with horror films that I had loved for years, one of whom, Jeff Burr, became a close friend, but I was also excited about finding rare movies that I had wanted to see for a long time but never could because the DVDs for them were out of print. Even if they were DVD-Rs, it was still great just to actually have them (I can't tell you how awesome it was to find a great rip of the old Anchor Bay DVD of The Guardian). Conventions were just a lot of fun but now, I'm kind of growing beyond them since I've pretty much met everyone I would ever want to meet and also because they're getting more and more expensive, as well as due to some recent changes in my life that I'd rather not go into. However, while I do miss being able to meet some new genre actors and directors that I had never encountered before, one aspect of them I don't are all of the independent filmmakers who go there to peddle their movies and will do everything they can to make you end up with a copy. Sometimes they talk you into buying them and other times they just simply give them to you; they don't care as long as someone sees them. Now, I'm not trying to be a jerk by saying this since I understand that making movies, especially independently with little to no money, is tough and that these people just want to break into the business but, at the same time, I can't help but get annoyed when they try to give me something I have no interest in watching (and not wanting to be an ass is how I've ended up with bad movies like Headspace and The Prodigy, which I reviewed during my first year of having this blog).

That's how we come to this little item, although I must confess that nobody forced this movie on me. I bought it with my own money from Tiffany Shepis at a small convention in Chattanooga in January or February of 2011 (she even signed it for me, which is weird given that she's not even in it). Why did I buy it? It looked interesting. I like movies about ghosts and haunted houses, be it classic ones like House on Haunted Hill, The Legend of Hell House, Burnt Offerings, and The Shining or more modern-day ones like the Paranormal Activity films (well, the first three anyway), and the whole idea about ghosts and the paranormal has always fascinated. Plus, I admit that I did watch Ghost Hunters at one point, although I quit once I realized that they almost never come up with anything tangible and that you're usually just watching a bunch of guys roaming around in the dark, freaking out whenever they hear a little bump, catch footage of little "orbs," or something similar. So, with all that, I figured, "A movie about ghost hunters. That might be fun." "And was it?", you may ask. Well, despite some bad acting and its glaringly obvious independent nature (I'd be surprised if they spent more than $1,000), this film did show off some promise at the beginning. It was somewhat intriguing, I liked the house that it was set in, and there were some instances throughout of a creepy vibe and atmosphere, as well as some downright freaky parts. Unfortunately, the movie gradually fell apart as it went on, needlessly overcomplicating its plot by the end and far overstaying its welcome with its 106-minute running time. I'm not going to say that it out and out sucks and, knowing the limited funds they had to make it, I'm also going to try to cut it some slack, but I'm not going to say that it's an independent masterpiece or, "The scariest film of the year," as Anthony Pepe of the NYC Horror Fest, where the film won Best Screenplay, called it either because it's most certainly not.

On October 10, 1982, the Masterson family of Mesa, Arizona are found brutally murdered in their house. In 2002, renowned ghost hunter Carter Simms is contacted by the house's current owner to investigate and document any signs of paranormal activity. Although she prefers to work alone, Simms is joined on her three-night investigation by videographer Colin Green and journalist Yvette Sandoval, as well as spiritual advocate Mary Young Mortensen, who also claims to have been hired by the owner to assist. Over the course of the first two nights, the ghost hunters experience a number of instances of unexplainable phenomena, including isolated cold spots, a chair moving by itself, and ghostly images and voices captured on their video and audio equipment. They also come across evidence that, despite what Mary says, the Robertsons were not as righteous as they appeared to have been. Throughout the investigation, Mary proves to be very standoffish and overzealous in her religious beliefs, as well as coming across as downright strange at points, and it's eventually discovered that the house's owner never hired her. After they force her to pack up and leave, they learn that she's a very disturbed woman who's been barred from the church she claimed to be a part of due to her behavior, which includes many accusations of sexual assult and defecating on the property. On the third and final night, the remaining three realize that there's virtually no activity going on inside the house and soon decide to check out the guest house after seeing a figure in its top window on one of the cameras; at the same time, Mary returns to the house to take it upon herself to protect the Robertsons' good name and her connection to the family is soon revealed to be very disturbing.

Upon looking at the film's credits, it becomes clear just how independent it was since director Sean Tretta and his partner Mike Marsh did pretty much everything. They both wrote and produced the film, Tretta acted as both cinematographer and editor, and Marsh, who also acts in the film as one of the main cast (Tretta does the voice of a DJ near the end), composed the music as well. The two of them have been working together since the early 2000's on other movies like The Great American Snuff Film, The Death Factory Bloodletting, and The Greatest American Snuff Film, all of which Tretta directed. Tretta's other directing credits include The Prometheus Project and a short called M Is for Matchmaker, and like Death of a Ghost Hunter, he's worn other hats like producer, writer, editor, and cinematographer on those films as well. According to IMDB, both he and Marsh continue to remain active in making independent films so, if nothing else, at least they're doing what they want to do. Far be it from me to criticize them for that.

By far the weakest aspect of this movie is the acting. Again, knowing that this was a little independent movie with almost no budget, I realize that they couldn't afford the greatest actors but the "performances" that are given here are hardly believable. The four leads, Patti Tindall, Mike Marsh, Davina Joy, and Lindsay Page, look like they're trying but the whole thing comes across like you're watching an amateur high school play rather than a movie. Each actor does have a different type of character to work with: Tindall's Carter Simms is a skeptical ghost hunter who prefers working alone but is forced to cooperate with three other people and we learn that her backstory is that she's always been fascinated with the idea of the afterlife since her parents died when she was very young, which leads to her becoming positively obsessed with figuring out what happened to the Masterson family and why they're still haunting the property; Marsh's Colin Green is a young videographer who, at first, does seem interested in performing an investigation but begins to really lose his nerve as more and more bizarre things happen, to the point where he's smoking a lot of cigarettes (as well as some wacky tobaccy at one point); Joy's Yvette Sandoval is a young journalist who's just there mainly for a story but does start to become freaked out and genuinely believe what's going on as more and more weird things happen; and Page's Mary Young Mortensen is an overzealous "member" of the church who sees sin in everything and wants to protect the Masterson's pure reputation at all costs, refusing to believe the evidence that they were actually some very sick people. Out of the four main players, I'd say that Page probably gave the best performance. She did a decent job as coming across as one of those uptight, Jehova's witnesses type of people who will call you a sinner just because you have sexual urgers and the like, as well as making it clear from the get-go that she's a very disturbed person, with the low, religious chanting that she tends to do and other behavior such as peeing on Yvette's clothing. And as you've probably already suspected this early in the movie, she has a rather twisted connection to the Mastersons that I'll get into later. As for the other actors, Tindall tries but her acting mostly comes across as stilted and unnatural, although I do smirk when, during her journal entries at the beginning of the movie, she talks about getting stranded out in the desert, commenting, "That would suck," and about how annoyed she got when Seth Masterson, the current owner of the house, quoted Poltergeist when he first meets her. Marsh, who's acted in a few other films, is okay and did a decent job in coming across as very freaked out and not at all prepared for what he starts encountering in the house. The worst actor in the bunch is Joy. At no point did I believe that she was anything more than an amateur actor failing miserably at coming across as believable.

There are a few supporting actors, like Gordon Clark as Seth Masterson, the snarky current owner of the house who hires Carter to perform the investigation, Evelyn Ramos as Martha Guzman, the terrified maid who experienced some paranormal activity while cleaning the house one night, and Greta Skelly as her daughter Alma, who translates for her Spanish-speaking mother when Carter interviews her. However, the most notable supporting actors are those who appear in the flashbacks of what happened at the Masterson house years before. Tim Wadhams does a good job in making Joseph Masterson a very sick individual whose method of "cleansing" someone who has sinned involved imprisoning, tortuing, and raping them while they were chained in the top room of the adjoining guest house. He also liked to have kinky sex with his wife by having her wear this bizarre, religious-themed S&M-style helmet while they did it and also told her that it was not her place to question whatever he did. Speaking of the wife, Mary Beth Masterson (April Hinojosa) came across as just as wicked as her husband, not only having gone along with his sick ways but becoming so jealous when she learned that their most recent "guest" had become pregnant with and given birth to her husband's child that she killed her entire family, including their own two young children, the new mother, and put the baby in the bathtub so it would drown while she herself blew her brains out. You can't help but feel really bad for Miranda (Stephanie Anne Landers), the poor woman who is imprisoned, tortured, and raped by Masterson because her family believes that she has sinned (those scenes of her getting drilled by him and giving birth while chained up are really disturbing), and the two children, Susanne (Sophia Morgan Stewart) and Peter (William McMinn), who are murdered by their own mother while clearly being frightened by her behavior.

As I mentioned during the introduction, this film, all of its flaws aside, is quite successful in being both creepy and downright disturbing at points. The opening, which you learn later on is the tail end of Mary Beth Masterson killing her entire family, already had my skin crawling when she puts a crying baby into a bathtub and begins filling it up with water, while she goes into the kitchen and shoots herself through the mouth. The sound of that baby continuously crying, to the point where you can hear what sounds like the water beginning to go into its mouth, while Mary Beth shoots herself and small splatter of blood hits a picture of the family on the wall really got to me the first time I watched this movie and made me question whether or not I wanted to see the rest of it. Near the end of the film, when Mary Young is describing the family's actions in a nice, holy way while the audience is being shown the horrible things they actually did, you actually see the moments when Mary Beth confronts her two children as she prepares to kill them. You don't see the actual murders but the kids' reactions, especially the crying and pleading of Susanne, which you'd heard many times before but you now know what it means, are more than enough. As for instances that are just downright creepy, you have a surprisingly eerie section when Carter goes into the Masterson house for the first time and walks around in the darkness, which is her preferred method of checking out a supposedly haunted location. While the music that plays during that bit is inappropriate (an airy, somewhat whimsical tune), the visuals of that very dark house, even though it's the middle of the day, do give off a feeling of dread and foreboding. Then again, that house, as ordinary as it is, is rather creepy no matter how bright it is inside for some reason. And I don't think I need to describe how freaking scary that shot of little Peter's ghost peeking around from a doorway on a night-vision camera is (reminds me of that terrifying "ghost boy" photo taken at the infamous Amityville house).

But, that's honestly the only praise I can give this movie; the rest of the time, you're painfully aware that what you're watching is a little micro-budget, independent film that all of the best intentions in the world couldn't help. Besides the lackluster acting, the movie's very look is clearly courtesy of a cheap, digital camera that gives it a handheld, homemade feel. I wouldn't mind that so much if this were meant to be a found-footage movie, which would explain the look better within the context of the film, but since it's not, I sometimes find myself wondering if what I'm seeing is meant to be from the point of a view of a camera being held by someone. For instance, near the beginning of the movie when Carter talks with Seth Robertson, there's a moment where she's looking off-camera at him (I think) and questions him about his real intentions for hiring her after his maid claimed to have experienced paranormal activity while cleaning the house. The way the bit is shot, it's like Carter is really talking to someone who's filming her and saying what she would like to hypothetically ask Seth if she got the chance. This confusion is not helped by there being actual moments of the investigation being filmed by Colin on a night-vision camera of his. There are also many instances throughout the film when the sound quality will fluctuate; sometimes it'll be crystal clear and you can hear everything that's being said, and other times it'll get really muted and you have to struggle to understand the dialogue. And the special effects that are used whenever they encounter the ghosts? Sometimes they work, like the image of Peter's ghost up above and when Susanne's ghost is captured on the night-vision cameras, but there are also effects used to convey the ghosts going through the characters, as well as to represent the ethereal feel of the afterlife at the end, that are pretty cringe-inducing and old hat (to me, movies that can't afford to make them look good shouldn't use any type of computer effects). Yes, again, I know, independent filmmaking, but it was still something I had to mention.

As I said during my introduction, this film starts out fairly promising but, those instances of creepiness and atmosphere aside, gradually unravels as it goes on. It gets to the point where all you're watching are some amateur actors bumbling around a dark house, occasionally coming across something that's kind of eerie or disturbing, such as some apparitions they either catch on film or come face to face with (the bad effects tend to hurt their effectiveness, though), recordings of ghostly voices, or when they discover evidence that suggests that the Masterson family weren't exactly a bunch of holy-rollers after all. Over the course of the investigation, the ghost hunters are run ragged by what they're encountering, aren't able to get much sleep, and become more and more jittery and freaked out about what might happen next, especially Colin and Yvette, who at one point get stoned and then later talk to Carter about leaving (an issue that is never brought up again). But, the big conflict comes from Mary Young's increasingly erratic behavior and overbearing religious mindset, which culminates in a pretty pathetic fight between her and Carter and the revelation the next day that she's not supposed to be there, further compounded when they learn that she's a very disturbed individual. The third night is where the movie falls apart completely for me. While the three remaining ghost hunters to find a way into the guest house after having seen an apparition in the top front window, Mary returns to the house to take it upon herself to protect the Mastersons' "good name." After getting back inside and apparently becoming possessed when she goes up to the main bedroom and puts on the kinky helmet that you later learn Joseph Masterson made his wife wear while they had sex, Mary murders everyone and then, after a lengthy section where she tries to hold up the Mastersons' pure image while the audience is shown the depraved things Joseph and Mary Beth took part in, she shoots herself much like how the latter did after murdering her family in an act of history repeating itself. During the montage leading to the suicide, you learn that the baby Mary Beth put into the bathtub did not drown after all, was saved by a small act of fate, and adopted by the first police officer who arrived on the scene. And as you can probably guess, Mary Young was that baby. But the movie still doesn't end there (which baffled me since the movie's running time, according to the DVD, was 96 minutes but it ultimately went on for another ten), as you see Carter come to consciousness in the afterlife, realize that she's trapped in the house like the spirits of Susanne and Peter, and tries to let the real world know what's happened by speaking into one of the cameras left in the house.

For me personally, all of that stuff in the third act complicated what I think could have been a much simpler and more effective story. From the title, you know that Carter is going to be dead by the end of the film, especially since, after the opening with the Masterson house murders, we're told that this case's outcome was the most tragic in the history of ghost-hunting, but I think they could have deleted the view of the afterlife through her eyes at the end, leaving it to your imagination whether or not she found out for herself whether exists or not. For that matter, they could have left the very nature of her death ambiguous, with her maybe staying in the house one night while the others leave and them returning the next day to find her dead. I also think they could have done the same with what happened to the Masterson family. I don't think it was necessary to have all those revelations about the family's perverted nature, the disturbed wife killing everyone, and their perversions leading to the birth of a disturbed person who would later end Carter's wife. This idea of it all being intertwined, with the haunting's nature of history repeating itself reflecting what eventually happens and Carter's ending up trapped in the house in the same way, is interesting, I will admit, but I still think it would have been better had a lot of things been left ambiguous, that we know that what Carter and the team are encountering are ghosts but we don't know how exactly they came about or, again, what happened to Carter. It could be just personal preference but I've always felt that serious ghost movies are best when a lot of things are left unknown, like what the ghost in The Entity was and why it was tormenting Carla or why the demon in Paranormal Activity was stalking Katie (the sequels to that film ruined that but I'm just talking about the nature of the first one).

The music score by Mike Marsh is hardly the most memorable one ever put to a film, independent or otherwise. The good thing about it is that it's very subdued, even when it's trying to be creepy, so it's not overbearing or annoying but, at the same time, it's not only not that memorable but it's sometimes inappropriate for what's going on. That quiet, airy theme that plays when Carter first explores the Masterson house is heard a number of times throughout the film and it works sometimes, there are other times where it feels out of place, as in the aforementioned scene. There's also a slightly eerier version of it that works a little bit better, as well as a low piano theme that kind of works too, but I think the music overall could still have tried to be a little more creepy and atmospheric. In addition to the music, they put some freakish, waling noises on the soundtrack whenever something really scary is supposed to be going on and I've read that they're from a video game but I also think I heard them on the episode of History's Mysteries that talked about the Amityville case. They are effective in making my skin crawl but whenever something I've heard on a television show or a video game is put into a movie, it always makes me think, "Wow, this movie must be cheap," as it does whenever I see some questionable digital effects.

If Sean Tretta or any other independent filmmakers somehow come across this review, I want to make it clear that I've meant no personal offense to you guys or the nature of what you do, because I understand that it's very tough to make movies, especially by yourself. But, still, I have to be honest in my opinions and I will always stand by what I feel from watching Death of a Ghost Hunter. It does have some good aspects, like a disturbing opening and genuine moments of creepiness and atmosphere, but on the whole, I find it to be a fairly unremarkable film. The acting is very amateurish, the camera and sound-work suffer from the film's tiny budget, the digital effects used to create the ghosts and the ethereal feeling of their world are very cheap and cringe-inducing, the music leaves a lot to be desired for, and after the promising opening, the film kind of meanders along until it needlessly overcomplicates itself at the end and goes on far longer than it should. Once again, no offense to those who make independent films for a living, but I think this movie could have been a lot better and that there are other movies like this that are far more effective.

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