American Poltergeist Review (Film, 2015) #31DaysofHorror
American Poltergeist is a horror film inspired by the Lizzie Borden story. A group of five college students move into a too good to be true mansion so they can live off campus while attending Brown University. They are renting rooms from a woman who does not tell them anything about the history of the house. This palatial mansion is apparently the former home of Lizzie Borden, the alleged ax murderer who killed her parents and got away with it in the 1800s. In this story, the house and the family have been cursed ever since.
Before I really go into everything wrong with this film down to the premise, I want to give credit where credit is due. Writer/director Michael Rutkowski clearly understands the horror genre. The scares are spins on classics—doors opening by themselves, loud noises at unexpected times, sleepwalking gags, objects and figures sliding in and out of frame, etc.—and they’re well executed for such a low budget film. Sure, you occasionally see a reflection of a crew person on a shiny door knob or an arm pulling back into the shadows just a little too slow. The overall staging of the scares is clean and surprisingly effective for a film with so much wrong with it.
American Poltergeist gets almost everything else wrong. I don’t even want to get into how the entire premise doesn’t work because the Borden family lived in a very modest home when the murders happened and this place looks like it has more rooms than the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The film would still be bad if it maintained historical accuracy at all.
The most obvious problem is the quality of the acting. Everyone is performing in a different film with a wildly different style. The landlord character is in a Bette Davis-like fugue state more akin to The Anniversary than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The lead actor is incredibly dry in her line reads, almost like she wandered onto set from a mumblecore film being shot in the neighborhood. A police officer has incredibly awkward delivery meant to invoke a harbinger in a slasher but landing with all the terror of a wet newspaper on your front porch. The rest of the cast ranges from clearly cast as a favor to someone to bland as instant mashed potatoes and never gets better. It’s really hard to buy into a story when no one on set thought it was a good idea to make sure the actors were rehearsed and understood the story being told.
I will say there is one exception to this. Screenwriter Nicole Holland pulls double duty as the ghost of Lizzie Borden and she gets it. Her presence is incredibly controlled and intimidating in all of her scenes. The gag of this ghost slowly gaining physical form again leading to the anniversary of the ax murder works because Holland sells the crap out of the non-speaking character. If everyone went for it like this, American Poltergeist could have been a fun, campy horror film with a nonsense plot.
The plot is utter nonsense and performed by actors who seem to not want to be there. The main girl, Taryn, has horrifying visions of things that may have happened in the house. Everyone hears the horrific banging noises happening around the clock—excused as the wind and never questioned again by anyone onscreen—and Taryn is not the one sleepwalking into supposed locked rooms (without keys) and just chilling with an ax in her hand. The scares happen around Taryn, but not too Taryn, and no one will believe Taryn even if they are literally in the room and witness the same thing.
Taryn is meant to be the voice of reason, but her own actions and everything revealed about her character is unreasonable. It’s heavily implied, for example, that Taryn has often had this kind of episode throughout her life to the point that her brother has no reason to believe her when she claims something is really happening. They also throw in my least favorite kind of joke in horror about whether she’s forgotten to take her meds. Offensiveness aside, I really do question if there’s a missing reel of footage all about a family history of mental illness and Taryn’s own struggle to get through college while living with something. That would at least be an attempt to explain away everyone’s utterly unbelievable behavior throughout the story.
Then we’re back to the Lizzie Borden nonsense of it all. Forget about whether you think she committed the murder or not and everything you know about the case itself. This plot hinges on the idea that a direct bloodline of Lizzie Borden exists over a century later. It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely considering she was a spinster who lived with family until they died or left her after arguments. Even if you didn’t know that, the explanation for how one of the five college students renting the Borden house doesn’t know until it’s too late who they really are is absurd. Not only did they not know their family history, they take the first little scrap of evidence suggesting they are not who they thought they are as far more believable and realistic than the idea of a normal family history with loving parents. This kind of reveal can work if handled with a lot of forethought and supporting exposition, but it just feels random and ultimately pointless in the context of the story.
American Poltergeist is nowhere near the worst horror film I’ve ever seen. That doesn’t mean it’s any good. It’s a louder Paranormal Activity crossed with a paranormal slasher film. I struggle to think of who the intended audience for this is. People who are interested by the Lizzie Borden murders will be thrown off by historical inaccuracies, while people who don’t care about that case will have no reason to invest in the fate of the one surviving Borden in the world.
American Poltergeist is currently streaming on Netflix.
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