If you listen closely enough while things go bump in the night during “The Apparition,” you might also hear the scraping of barrel bottoms. This enervating muddle of paranormal nonsense manages the difficult feat of seeming frenzied and lethargic all at once, while building toward the sort of ludicrous cop-out climax that often incites die-hard genre fans to shout rude things at the screen. Even if the late summer Warners release manages to post middling opening-weekend numbers, word of mouth should be sufficiently scathing to douse long-term potential. Ancillary prospects are dim.
Writer-director Todd Lincoln lays on the portentous atmosphere with a trowel, and attempts to amp the suspense with an insistent techno score by the ensemble known as Tomandandy. But all that window dressing does little to generate sustained interest in a jumbled narrative that plays out as though it were improvised on a day-to-day basis during shooting. It doesn’t help that lead players Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan offer performances that seem not just muted, but Quaaluded.
The plot involves two attractive young lovers — Kelly (Greene), a veterinary student, and Ben (Stan), a home-entertainment tech guy — who agree to housesit a suburban investment property owned by Kelly’s parents. (Exteriors were filmed in Southern California, but most interiors were shot in Berlin’s Babelsberg Studio.)
Even after they begin to hear strange noises at night and notice doors opening and furniture moving by themselves, the couple stays put. (“Our house is too new to be haunted,” Ben insists when Kelly gets a teeny bit nervous. “It has no history.”) But when unsightly splotches of mold appear on walls and beneath floors, and a neighbor’s dog just lies down and dies in their kitchen, they still don’t get the hint.
Eventually, Ben surmises that maybe all this weird stuff has something to do with a mysterious whatsit that he and his fellow students summoned a while back during a university parapsychology experiment. But the audience remains several steps — miles, really — ahead of him. So it comes as a surprise only to Ben when, somewhere around the 50-minute mark, a college chum states, “Your house isn’t haunted. You are.”
To say there is a resolution to “The Apparition” would be to credit the pic with more coherence than it deserves. Suffice it to say that the payoff has something to do with a malignant spirit that can use bedsheets as lethal devices and something else to do with power-line towers that loom ominously in shots scattered throughout. (These towers teasingly hint that someone involved might have remembered “Pulse,” Paul Golding’s unjustly overlooked 1988 thriller about a killer power grid.)
Shorn of its mercilessly protracted final-credits roll, “The Apparition” clocks in at a compact 73 minutes. But, really, some pics can never be short enough.