Spooky ghost/Haunted House and Slasher films are two distinct subgenre of horror film. While each can effectively borrow elements from the other to make an otherwise mundane slasher flick spooky, and an otherwise prototypical spooky haunted house flick gory, but scrambling the basic plot mechanics of each into a combination spooky haunted house/slasher film never, ever works.
As evidence I present Evil Remains, written and directed by Dogme film auteur James Merendino (of SLC Punk fame), as possibly the worst collision of genre clichés ever collected in an 88 minute B-grade horror movie. To say that Evil Remains is bad is an insult to bad films the world over. Even the most derivative Bollywood musical-serial killer-uplifting family drama-musical (Yes, I said musical twice… have you never seen an Indian movie?) has a more coherent plot, better direction, less idle chit chat, and better visuals than anything in Evil Remains.
I admit to a weird fascination with the opening moments of Evil Remains as the entire film was shot in Jefferson Parish/New Orleans, Louisiana and it is a very probable that mother nature has erased all memory of this film's production from the Earth's surface. If only it could do the same to the ridges of my prefrontal lobes.
The hallmark of a Dogme film is the reliance of natural light to add atmosphere to the scene, and Merendino doesn't sway from this technique in Evil Remains. This is definitely to the film's detriment as much of it takes place in the virtually lightless interior of a dilapidated plantation house. Thus, the vast majority of the film is shot in near pitch black. For a while I thought my DVD player was on the fritz, but after testing a couple of other titles came to the conclusion that my 6-year-old Zenith is fine, and James Merendino is an idiot.
We begin in 1982, not all that far back in history, where a husband and wife are discussing (and there is ample discussion throughout the film. Literal reams and reams and reams of stultifying, unnecessary, and obvious dialogue) the strange behavior of their teenage son. Dad has beaten him pretty badly after the boy strangled the family dog. Mom wants Dad to take the boy to a shrink, but Dad believes it's better just to beat the crap out of him a little more often and that will solve everything.
FYI, for you prospective parents in the audience, this never solves anything.
Dad, of course since this is Louisiana , wears a shit-stained wife beater and grungy shorts as he 's getting ready for bed. Dude, put on a clean shirt or take a shower or something! Why is it that every horror film set in the rural south requires someone to be completely and utterly filthy? Anyway, as he's brushing his tooth (I kid. I kid because I love), the bedroom falls silence and Dad fails to answer Mom's increasingly plaintive calls. At this point there is an audio cue that something scary happens but the scene is nearly lightless so after three rewinds and a frame-by-frame analysis I gave up and figured the soundman was bored.
Dad pokes his head out of the bathroom to scare Mom and suddenly behind him, arms are holding a pair of gardening shears. Now, I am no architect, but the bathroom Dad was in sure did look small, and wasn't he using the bathroom mirror to shave? How could he have not seen his son standing behind him with a pair of hedge clippers?
Three quick cuts with no gore, and Dad is dead. Mom scrambles to the other side of their bed and tries to call the cops but gets her hand pinned to the floor (I have to guess here as the scene is almost completely black), doused with gasoline, and after a few pathetic minutes of begging, burned alive.
I don't know why she doesn't try to wrench her hand free. I mean, if I was sitting there on the floor being doused with gas and the only reason I wasn't escaping was my hand being pinned down, I'd sacrifice the hand and try to save the body.
Merendino frames the shot too so that you can see the assailant's leg between the legs of his mother yet she doesn't even kick him?
Anyway, in the present, we get to see one of only two well lit scenes in the film where Dr. Rosen (Kurtwood Smith - Papa Foreman of "That 70's Show"), a psychologist at the local college, is answering interview questions put to him by Mark (Daniel Gillies) about the power of myth and the relationship myth has to somewhat current events. Specifically, how the Bryce family murders might be tied to a voodoo curse attached to the Bryce plantation.
In a good film, even a bad good film, this could be handled in two lines of throwaway dialogue but Merendino is so infatuated with his writing that we are instead hammered over the head with almost ten minutes of exposition explaining the curse. Namely, that the pre-Civil War owners of the place used to torture and experiment on their slaves and their spirits still live on the property with the mission to drive anyone insane who dares trespass.
See, I did it in one sentence. Merendino makes that sentence last an eternity.
Dr. Rosen admits that he did interview Carl Bryce before the murders when he was first exhibiting signs of weirdness, but he hasn't seen the boy since, and neither has anyone else. It is presumed he died in the fire that killed his parents. He also admits that myth only has power if we give that power over to them, and while definitely a tragic episode, the Bryce murders are no different than any other murders that go reported every month in the USA .
Both characters admit to disbelieving in the whole story.
If that's the case then, why the hell is Mark doing his Master's thesis on this? The whole idea of a Master's thesis is to put forth an idea and defend it under scrutiny. To me his thesis is akin to proving that the Chupacabra doesn't exist because he doesn't believe in it. No academic board in their right mind would disagree with him either. So Merendino manages to not only make a visually unappealing film, a film with enough dialogue for a ten-episode miniseries squeezed into 88 minutes, but a stupid one to boot.
Yeah, this is the Hall of Shame trifecta.
We cut back to a party before our intrepid gang of 30-something college students heads off to the Bryce farm to gather audio and photographic "evidence" of nothing unusual in the house. Huh? This makes no fucking sense either. If you are writing a Master's thesis about myth, specifically debunking myth, why in the hell would you go and set up cameras and audio gear in a place where you don't believe anything unusual is going on? And, isn't a master's thesis a paper? Mark is making what appears to be a video documentary. What the fuck?! Make up your goddamn mind!
The party, shot in extreme close up, introduces us to the characters who are going to die a lot later in the film. Of course we already know Mark, with him are Tyler the photographer (Clay Crawford), Scott the soundguy (Brandon Martin), Sharon dreadlocked lesbian (Ashley Scott), and Kristy the blond femme lesbian (Estella Warren).
A quick question about Estella Warren — WHY IS THIS WOMAN IN MOVIES? Her work has been universally awful! Driven? Planet of the Apes? Kangarooo fucking Jack?? I suppose it's no surprise that she's in a tiny little art house shit-film like this, but I've seen puppets with more range than Estella Warren. Hell, even Maria Pitillo from Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's Godzilla could act circles around Estella Warren.
As the quintet of annoying college kids arrives at the Bryce plantation Sharon restates the myth, only it's different than we learned earlier! Now, instead of the place making you insane, it's believe that Carl Bryce still prowls the grounds and kills trespassers wearing a costume made of his dead dog's hide.
The hell? When did this shit happen? (hastily restart the DVD and 35 agonizing minutes later…) It didn't! So now we have two competing plotlines, neither of them very well put together that meld the spooky ghost story/voodoo curse with a dumb ass slasher plot.
Like all slasher flicks, the gang has to be separated so Kristy and Sharon head off for a walk while Mark, Tyler, and Scott hump their gear into the house. Things immediately start going weird. First the lamp falls off the wall mount. Which seems extremely baffling to the graduate students. Hey, dummies, you shove the door open, it vibrates the wall, the lamp falls.
I should be James Randi…
Anyway, Scott instantly doesn't like the place and notices that Tyler and Mark are at each others throats. There is a suggestion that Tyler and Mark are boyfriend/boyfriend, then later brothers, but their relationship is never made any clearer than the visuals.
Scott sets up his sound gear in the kitchen while Tyler heads to the basement to take Polaroid pictures. Of what? I have no fucking idea. Stranger still that he would use an ancient Polaroid Land Camera (the kind with the collapsible lens doo-dad on it) for his photography. Hey, assholes, digital cameras have been around for a decade. But of course, using a digital camera would take away from a potential fright moment later in the film (if we could see what it was, but of course, we can't).
Scott hears something while he's taping. Meanwhile Tyler takes a picture and seems to see something in the print once it develops. What does he see? Beats the shit out of me. Merendino doesn't bother to light the scenes in the basement at all other than via a little penlight held between Tyler 's teeth.
Scott calls Mark down and asks him to listen to the tape. Mark says Scott must've taped Tyler who is in the basement. Mark mentions that he can tell there is something going on between the two, but doesn't want to get involved other than to provide a sympathetic ear.
Huh? Who the hell cares about this? I mean, sure, rounding out characters is important and all, but stretching this kind of mundane formless nothing into 20 some-odd minute yak fests should be illegal.
Tyler comes upstairs after hearing something thudding around and thinks that Mark and Scott are fighting. But Scott is missing and Mark was in the attic. Tyler wants to leave. He thinks the place has a bad vibe but Mark insists that they find Scott before getting off the property.
Meanwhile, Kristen and Sharon are walking along a wooded path on the property and realize, after hearing a bunny shrieking in agony, that they are pretty much surrounded by nasty, iron, sharp toothed, spring-mechanism traps. Kristen frees the bunny and Sharon disappears. Before we can spend too much time wondering where she is, she's back though, and manages to step into a trap.
Mark and Tyler are in the burned out bedroom where Carl Bryce killed his parents. Tyler wants to leave. He believes he may have taken a picture of something in the basement but is noncommittal in his description. Mark thinks he's a chicken shit.
The wall begins to bleed.
Tyler shrugs it off as "swamp mud" but Mark is intrigued. Apparently Mark never saw The Amityville Horror because bleeding walls is a staple of haunted house myths. Anyway, convinced that the answer to bleeding walls is in the attic, both men head upstairs.
Sharon and Kristen head back towards the house.
Back at the house, Tyler and Mark find themselves locked in the attic and each character goes back and forth drawing in events and memories from Carl Bryce's life in a swirling conversation of confusion. They find Scott dead. How he died is anyone's guess, but his body hangs upside down. It was in fact his blood that drizzled down through the bedroom walls. Mark accuses Tyler of being crazy. Tyler does the same for Mark. Both men become paranoid and weird. They both accuse each other of killing Scott. Then, Tyler runs off and get caught in a vertically hung, human sized trap, akin to the myriad lining the forest floor. Oh, and you will have to freeze frame your way through the scene because Merendino doesn't light the attic.
So, we have two deaths now, and the idea of gore, but the scenes are so amateurishly lit we can't make heads of tails of them. Thanks James Merendino, thanks a fucking lot… Also, man that's a big fucking trap? What was it made to catch anyway? Tyrannosaurus Rex? And how did it end up in the attic, vertically mounted, AND set?
Logic, can't live with it, can't make good films without it.
Mark smashes through the boards over the attic window and scrambles down to the porch just as Sharon and Kristen arrive in the front yard. He screams for them to run away, but before they can pry any information out of him, he disappears inside the house.
Kristen thinks they are playing around, Sharon thinks the dog-man-monster has killed him and the others. Before they can make heads of tails of the situation they fall into a pit trap and are locked in a hole in the yard. Sharon insists she saw a guy in a mask but Kristin didn't. They make their way through an access tunnel into the basement and find Tyler's Polaroid camera. Kristen makes a torch and the ready the camera flash to blind whoever it is that captured them so they can make their escape.
This leads to, literally I am not kidding here, like 14 minutes of whiny dialogue as Sharon and Kristen alternate between working out their relationship problems and arguing over which door the killer is expected to jump through. They glance at Tyler's photo and it appears, for a millisecond, that there is a ghostly form in the photo. I had to freeze frame this bit too.
So what we have are both ends of the genre spectrum here. The house sure does seem like it's making the trespasser's crazy, but there is also, apparently, a serial killer roaming the grounds and picking off the college kids. Make up your mind! I shouldn't have to fill in the plot elements as I am watching. That's what your script is for James, or didn't you learn that in Dogme school, you twat!
The door opens and Sharon flashes about ten times. We have no idea what she sees as Merendino, as he has throughout the film, keeps the camera in extreme close up. If this were cropped for TV then a full 90% of the movie would be someone's nostril.
They girls book it out of the house with something chasing them. They run into the woods and finally Sharon can't run anymore (Kristen is training for a marathon so she can run all day). They have another five minutes of dialogue before Sharon dies at the hands of a shadowy figure. Agai, this is all ambient lighting so all we see is a blobby looking thing in the background. Is it a guy wearing a dog costume? I wasn't able to tell and neither will you.
Kristen runs off and finds a gas station where someone inside is welding. She begs him to call the cops, and he does, just before he is killed. Kristen runs off again, across the street, and a semi-tractor trailer truck skids to a halt after hitting something.
Four years later a new person is interviewing Dr. Rosen who insists, contrary to the findings of some jury, that Kristen wasn't crazy and didn't kill all her friends and that something is indeed very strange about the Bryce Plantation.
End movie, pluck out eyes, procure white cane with red tip and start new life selling pencils.
I guess James Merendino loved the film Daredevil because you essentially have to BE Daredevil to watch this movie. Regular old eyesight isn't gonna cut it, you need Daredevil blind man radioactive super special awareness vision or some such thing — Or a Seeing Eye dog, whichever is cheaper.
The acting in this film is universally awful, and like the crap film technique used by auteur James Merendino, borders on the laughable. Evil Remains plays out like a High School Drama Club production as the characters chug through paragraphs and paragraphs of rancid, stupid, unrealistic, obvious, and silly dialogue. In fact, something like the first 70 minutes of this film is JUST TALKING like, "Boy this house sure is spooky… Yep, it's sure spooky… Spooky spooky spooky…. Boooo spooky… Look, something spooky…" And when it isn't lingering over the painfully obvious it's delving into the minutia of these character's lives that has nothing to do with the situation they are in! It's maddening
But the worst thing about the film is the plot. In the hands of even a marginally competent film maker, Evil Remains would have selected which sub-genre to follow and stuck to it rather than veering between ghost story and slasher flick like a repeat DUI offender in a stolen Chrysler speeding the wrong way up Interstate 95 into incoming traffic. Because the narrative can't make up it's mind the audience can't either and dialogue that seems perfectly suited the idea of supernormal paranoia becomes just idiotic rambling in a slasher flick, and having a slasher in a supernormal paranoia film is just stupid.
To quote Dudley Manlove in Plan 9 from Outer Space "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"