In 2009, Paranormal Activity snuck up on genre fans hungry for a change of pace. Exchanging the visceral highs of gore zone happenings for more aural encounters, the picture struck box office gold, kick-starting an unlikely, but formidable franchise set to haunt the Halloween holiday for years to come. In Memorium has the uncomfortable position of firsties, created and passed around the festival circuit in 2005, a full two years before Activity began production. It’s an incredible coincidence that’s come to pay off in a major way for writer/director Amanda Gusack, who can now mount her tedious thriller on the back of a certified blockbuster, thus guaranteeing some form of distribution that eluded her before.
Tragically, the misspelled title has remained untouched for the last five years. Think of it as the short bus version of Inglourious Basterds.
A filmmaking professional, Dennis (Erik McDowell) has been diagnosed with cancer, refusing a plan of extensive treatment to ride the experience out on his own terms. Renting a house with girlfriend Lilly (Johanna Watts), Dennis has rigged the joint with cameras and sound equipment, hoping to document the slow progression of his disease. Instead of tracking medical malady, the cameras pick up spooky occurrences and apparitional activity. Studying the footage, Dennis senses a personal connection to the demonic events in the house, yet can’t figure out the clues. As the mysterious encounters increase, Dennis and Lilly plan their escape, only to learn that whatever spirit has assumed control of the house wants them to remain there.
Instead of slavishly comparing Activity and In Memorium, let’s just state the facts: reality is difficult to fake. Gusack plays her cards a little smarter than Activity director Oren Peli, launching a sense of the theatrical right away by making Dennis and Lilly cogs in the Hollywood machine. These two have a working knowledge of production, making their labor to document, edit, and display their life a perfectly sensible act, from a distance. There’s a minute amount of web cam realism in play here that’s intriguing, cautiously setting up the ghost story. Frustratingly, the quest for viable haunted house mechanics doesn’t last for long.
While the promise of creepy black-figured occurrences within the rented abode is hinted at, In Memorium is primarily consumed with spreading around dreary exposition, more interested in explaining the domestic disturbance than playing it out visually. Handing this dialogue to severely limited actors doesn’t help the cause, as both McDowell and Watts have difficulty communicating the urgency at hand. The performances are stagy, lacking a feral quality that would typically greet a hard drive haunting. Gusack doesn’t push her cast to frayed ends, instead reinforcing their inexperience through limp blasts of conflict and long-winded scenes of explanation (a pain exacerbated by Levi Powell, here as Dennis’s resentful stoner brother). It’s impossible to feel for these characters, despite Dennis and his unfortunate medical emergency, along with the heavy waves of guilt brought on by the death of his estranged mother. Gusack seems to think a discussion of terror is more compelling than staging terror.
I’ll give the filmmaker this much: she addresses the topic of simply abandoning the house. However silly the reasoning is to stay, at least the film thinks ahead a few steps. Too bad the same consideration wasn’t offered to the rest of the script, which devolves into cheap shocks, watery bloodletting, and furious door banging, lethargically orchestrated by Gusack. Despite the multiple camera gimmick, In Memorium simply doesn’t capture much excitement or scares.