You’ll wish you could project yourself into a different entertainment dimension while slogging through “Astral.” This almost perversely uneventful, talky attempt at horror involves college students with malevolent spirits, only the ghoulies take their bloody time to manifest, while the protagonists are even duller than usual in such enterprises. This Brit indie feature debut for director/co-scenarist Chris Mul is mostly impressive for having wrangled overseas theatrical distribution at all: It opens on 10 Stateside screens simultaneous with a digital/VOD launch.
In a prologue, a young woman is released from a psychiatric hospital, only to seemingly commit suicide while investigating poltergeist-y sounds upstairs from her sleeping husband. Fifteen years or so later, their only child Alex (Frank Dillane) is a university student intrigued by a professor’s theoretical discussion of the astral plane. He decides to personally attempt “astral projection” — having a deliberate “out-of-body experience” in which the spirit supposedly roams free of its physical container — and after reading a couple how-to’s online, apparently succeeds.
A schoolmate rigs Alex’s computer to record future sessions. Afterward, the visual evidence suggests sleeping Alex in his dorm room may have accidentally opened a “gate” not just to his own spiritual self, but to “shadow people” who are probably evil. (Why? Because this is a horror movie, dummy.) Growing alarmed, Alex consults various experts including, eventually, a clairvoyant (Juliet Howland). Upon reading his Tarot cards, she holds an impromptu seance/exorcism to expunge a hostile demon in what is virtually the film’s first, and last, spurt of action.
It’s one that’s more than a bit laughable, but by then, unintentional laughs are as manna from heaven. “Astral” is the kind of movie that hopes you don’t notice its sneaky way of doing a fantasy theme on slim means by simply having characters chin-wag about that fantasy concept ad nauseam. But we do notice, because the characters and their yakking are so tediously generic.
“Fear of the Walking Dead” thesp Dillane makes a curiously irksome protagonist, fussing with his emo haircut and demonstrating a vocabulary of fey gesticulations that render the pining presence of wannabe-girlfriend Alyssa (Vanessa Grasse) even more gratuitous. Otherwise, “Astral” demonstrates one unexpected pitfall of a routine teen-type horror movie being shot in England with professional actors: They’re so much better trained than their U.S. counterparts would likely be, there’s no fun in the stereotypical roles or cloddish dialogue. This already flavorless movie could use some guilty-pleasure cheesiness. Instead, the performers’ refusal to embarrass themselves (while failing to generate actual interest or sympathy) makes it like eating Kraft Mac & Cheese minus its second most essential ingredient.
Mostly, people prattle in wide-eyed, humorlessly explanatory ways about possible supernatural phenomena while sitting in libraries or classrooms. We also spend much time watching Alex doze in his dorm bed, a particularly boring reiteration of the slow-burn surveillance suspense milked dry by the “Paranormal Activity” series. It takes more than 40 minutes for the film to produce its first minor scare — and that’s just an audio “gotcha” by Ed Watkins’ original score, one of the more competent package elements here. Another is Charles Heales’ cinematography, which takes advantage (particularly in some impressive drone shots) of Royal Holloway College’s splendid mid-19th-century architecture.
Its deficiencies capped by a shrug-inducing non-ending, “Astral” is an almost consummate no-there-there experience. Very little “happens,” what little does happen is poorly explicated. In retrospect you might giggle at the memory that this turgid pulp starts with a portentously serious disclaimer: “Whist the events herein are fictionalised for the audience’s entertainment, the premise is very real. The filmmakers in no way condone any behaviour or action that might endorse the undertaking of astral projection.”