Todd Lincoln’s The Apparition didn’t have to be a bad movie. The heart of the story, about a young couple (played by Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan) who begin to see a strange kind of fungus and rot take over there home, accompanied by all manner of paranormal flim-flam, is essentially about the fracture of a fortified trust between the couple in the face of an advancing romantic relationship. It’s a worthy subject, but the film lacks any daring expressive touches that might have made it, at the very least, noteworthy.
It’s the sort of story Roman Polanski might have worked up into a healthy lather, but Lincoln shows no sign of the ambition, either in form, thematic undercurrent, or narrative structure and pulp, necessary to turn The Apparition into a Repulsion-like study of psychological disintegration. Indeed, Lincoln strikes an irrefutable tone of strident ineffectuality from the get-go, using the dull environs of the Los Angeles suburban two-story house the central couple live in, along with a handful of briefer locations and some predictable sound design, to invoke a malevolent presence.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t brief glimpses of actual menace amid the muddled melodrama and shock-scares that Lincoln has created. Stan’s Ben, as we eventually learn, was part of an experiment to summon a spirit from the afterlife, an experiment that ended in the death of his then-girlfriend, who we see being swallowed by a wall in typical Americanized J-horror fashion. That spirit now haunts Ben and the only other sole survivor of the experiment, Pat (Tom Felton), and in fleeting moments, Lincoln allows things to get hairy: a hotel bed sheet that suffocates Greene and an apocalyptic, spirit-protecting shelter hidden in Pat’s home provide the sort of menace that the film never fully embraces.
Sadly and perhaps inevitably, these brief occurrences of invention don’t legitimize the general laziness and for-the-money atmosphere of the rest of the project. Greene, best known for her role in the Twilight saga, is never called on to do much else than look good in various states of dress and undress. For their parts, Stan and Felton remain fully clothed and don’t fare much better. To be fair, the film does offer a faint hint of provocation when Ben’s insistence on keeping the experiment and his ex a secret from Greene’s Kelly blows up in his face, but Lincoln has seemingly only introduced this to create a scenario where his characters fight, only to be reunited by fear of the titular presence.
This is all rendered moot, however, by the filmmaker’s near-astonishing lack of visual competency. At one point, the slow opening of a garage, accompanied by the gloomy, pedestrian score (by tomandandy), is meant to invoke a sense of eerie otherness. It doesn’t, largely because the camera never moves or isn’t positioned in any particularly disjointed or interesting way. Much of the film’s interior shots of the house feel lifted from B-roll of a real estate magnate’s promotional material and the killing of a neighbor’s dog has all the tension of an episode of Full House. There’s no pleasure in reacting to The Apparation with such calcified cynicism, but if the film meant to do anything but engender scorn and smarm, it hides it all too well.