This direct-to-video thriller attempts to transplant Roman Polanski’s REPULSION into a haunted house setting, but the operation proves to be a disastrous failure; the patient dies an agonizing brain death without ever regaining consciousness. The result is scary, though not in the way the filmmakers intended; fear arises not from on-screen suspense but from viewing the ravages of time upon the film’s cast and crew: for fans of THE DEERHUNTER, it is scary to see actor John Savage reduced to playing the thankless role of the unsympathetic and ill-defined father; for fans of ’80s cult sci-fi films, it is scary to see Catherine Mary Stewart reduced to playing the thankless role of the vaguely alcoholic and ill-defined mother; for fans of PET SEMATARY, it is scary to see director Mary Lambert reduced to helming this muddled mess.
The story focuses on young Emma Callan (Elisabeth Moss), who has become agoraphobic since her family moved into an isolated house in the country. The screenplay presents her neurosis in a peculiar way: she is terrified by visions of a ghost she sees haunting the house, but for some reason, she prefers to stay inside the house, closer to the source of her fear, which is soon revealed as a doppelganger that kills her mentally challenged brother (played by the film’s screenwriter Tom Malloy). Mom and Dad linger on the margins of the story, vaguely berating her Emma for being a malingerer, but she finds solace in the arms of John Trevor (Jason Lewis) a local EMT who serves double duty as a police detective. After a little digging, Trevor reveals that Emma had a twin sister, but her parents deny this. Emma concludes that the ghost is her twin, who died at the hands of her parents, who are cultists planning a similar fate for her. Trevor, fearful for her safety, gives her a gun, setting up a violent final confrontation. But is the ghost real, or is Emma imagining everything? A final twist in the coda reveals the truth about the malevolent force inside the house…
THE ATTIC comes close to begin a total failure as a haunted house thriller. Instead of building to its supernatural effects, it throws ghostly glimpses at its audience from the very first scene, creating a sense of rushed desperation, as if fearful of losing the ADD audience. With normal reality never clearly established, the intrusion of the ghost has no impact; it’s the difference between seeing a house of cards toppled by an unseen hand and seeing a handful of loose cards blown around by the wind.
Emma makes a singularly unappealing protagonist. The film never manages to make us empathize with her. The big problem is that we never know what she was like before moving into the new house, so we have no yardstick by which to measure her decent into fear and/or madness; consequently, she seems like what her parents accuse her of being, a self-pitying malingerer whose actions make no sense (why is she frightened to leave the house, when what frightens her resides in the house?).
Lead actress Moss can make nothing of her nonsensical characterization. Leading man Lewis grates with his James Dean swagger. Stewart and Savage walk through their roles without enthusiasm. Only Malloy comes across nicely, giving the best performance in the film, as compensation for his sub-par job writing the script.
In the end, Emma’s agoraphobia seems like an excuse to create a film set entirely in a single house, with no more exteriors than a few glimpses of the outside yard. One is tempted to admire this as a piece of low-budget ingenuity, but only if the film takes its limitations and, in a deft ju-jitsu manuver, twists them around into strengths. Polanski certainly showed it could be done in REPULSION, turning the tiny space of the apartment into a visual landscape representing the deteriorating mental state of Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve).
Lambert never achieves the same effect; the house remains a mere setting – a low-rent Hill House, a one-star Overlook, a wannabe Amityville. Forced to graft haunted house elements onto a “horror of personality” thriller, she tries her best to salvage the ill-advised operation with her directorial skills. On a mechanical level, she achieves some minor success: the sudden scary appearances release just enough adrenalin to keep the heart pumping, and the doppelganger’s attack on a supporting character does jolt the film briefly to life. However, the climactic confrontation, which is obviously supposed to be a brutal mind-blower, registers only as crude exploitation, because we simply do not care about anyone involved; we’re reduced to watching the violent spectacle for its own sake, not for any dramatic catharsis. Trying to lend visual style to this kind of material is a bit like performing surgery on a mangled corpse: the effort merely further mutilates an already dead body. No amount of cosmetic touch-ups can make THE ATTIC worth viewing; this is definitely one for a closed-casket ceremony.
THE ATTIC (January 15, 2008). Directed by Mary Lambert. Written by Tom Malloy. Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Jason Lewis, Tom Malloy, John Savage, Catherine Mary Stewart, Thomas Jay Ryan, Alexandra Daddario.
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