This English language (but Spanish produced) movie is yet another entry in the crowded (and now surely oversubscribed) ‘found footage’ or faux documentary genre, specifically that sub-sub-genre niche that deals with the amateur camcorder investigation of hauntings and demonic possessions when they’ve apparently been caught on film in domestic surroundings, and which incorporates titles such as “The Last Exorcism”, “I Saw the Devil” and the “Paranormal Activity” franchise (the unexpected success of which launched this cavalcade of copycats in the first place). “Apartment 143” (previously titled “Emergo”) gets a DVD release off of the back of the relatively high profile of the Cillian Murphy, Elizabeth Olsen, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro starring “Red Lights”, which was written and directed by Rodrigo Cortes, who also provides the screenplay here; thus revealing a preoccupation with the whole concept of attempting to investigate the Paranormal from a scientific standpoint, much like Nigel Kneale’s attempts back in the seventies in his television play “The Stone Tape. While “Red Lights” dealt with Sceptics’ attempts to debunk the supernatural powers often claimed by charlatans of various colours, “Apartment 143” looks at a similar subject from the standpoint of a trio of paranormal investigators who have been called in to monitor the poltergeist activity besetting a young family in a downtown apartment in Los Angeles.
The investigation set-up justifies the authentic looking mixed media approach employed by first-time director Carles Torrens who, while not exactly having the most original material to work with here, at least applies himself to realising it in as effective a manner as he possibly can. As the film develops it becomes clear that the mountain of technology employed by the investigating team provides merely a means of bracketing, defining and organising the phenomena they witness rather than explaining or solving the problems which lurk behind it. For the creepily dispassionate team leader and senior investigator Dr Helzer (Michael O’Keefe), there are no supernatural phenomena, just as yet unexplained ones. The two bedazzled younger members of his team, Ellen Keegan (Fiona Glascott) and Paul Ortega (Rick Gonzalez), follow his lead in answering the confused enquires of the bewildered young single father (Kai Lennox) who’s besieged household is at the centre of the disturbances, with a string of techno-babble ‘explanations’ of how their various bits of equipment actually work, all of which are meant to reassure, but which actually explain nothing. The team seem particularly well-funded though, and, as well as switching between a hand-held personal video diary recording of the investigation and formal interviews with the inhabitants of the affected property recorded on 8mm film, they also kit out the entire apartment and adjoining corridors with remotely controlled surveillance cameras, heat sensors, electromagnetic detectors, voice activated recorders and various other bits of gubbins, some of which is so advanced in nature that we’re not allowed to see it on film (the curious ‘ghost-removing machine’ that’s pixelated out of shot is one of the movie’s more eccentric imaginings). The multitude of filming formats lends the movie a “Natural Born Killers” range of image textures as it swaps between VHS, grainy home movie, night-cam and fish-eye lens wall-mounted security camera footage throughout.
The most successful element of Cortes’ screenplay (which is captured extremely effectively by Torrens) lies in how it demonstrates this range of visual media technology’s incidental monitoring, capture on film and highlighting of the emotional turmoil which is all the while upending the family who are caught in the middle of the uncanny phenomena under review. Lennox is persuasive as the young, inexperienced single father Alan White: a widower, still having to deal with the recent death of his schoolteacher wife, while bringing up his young son Benny (Damian Roman) and troublesome teenage daughter Caitlin (Gia Mantegna) in a claustrophobic apartment building in which the boy insists that his dead mother is still around. Alan’s wife was suffering from some undisclosed illness when she was killed suddenly in a car crash, for which an angry Caitlin continues to blame her distraught father, who is himself on the edge of cracking up under the pressure. The poltergeist disturbances started up in their first home soon afterwards, prompting a move to their current location in the city. But the relief was short-lived for the phenomena simply followed them to the new address.
The surveillance footage and hand-held cameras employed at all times by the ghost hunting team, capture the escalating tensions as they emerge between daughter and father, as well as the attitudes of the investigators themselves to their troubled hosts. These relationships soon becomes part of the focus of the investigation, since poltergeist lore has it that such activity is invariably centred on a teenage child, often a girl on the cusp of womanhood who is just discovering her sexuality. The strained familial encounters -- founded in the circumstances surrounding the death of Caitlin’s mother -- and other tensions which seem to be hinting at something that’s potentially even more unwholesome, and that’s discernible as an undercurrent during every interaction between father and daughter, provide ample psychic justification for the avalanche of phenomena the team’s equipment is soon recording: muffled footsteps across the ceiling, phones and doorbells ringing constantly when no-one is there, eerie images caught on film in the shadow-filled corners of rooms: these are just the beginnings of a haunting which is soon taking on epic proportions. Before long, not only are objects disappearing or moving about by themselves but entire contents of rooms are being tossed about in a supernatural maelstrom; bodily possessions and levitations are taking place, ceilings are cracking and a mini-earthquake seems to be occurring inside the small apartment (what were the neighbours thinking during all this?).
The problem for the film is that, though it’s all staged extremely effectively (and realised much better than any of it ever was in the original “Paranormal Activity”, to boot), it can’t be avoided that we have unquestionably seen every single thing that this film has to offer about a dozen or so times before in the past two years alone. In fact, the film eventually comes across like a greatest hits package of best moments from recent (and not so recent: it owes a great deal of debt to “The Exorcist” and “Poltergeist” as well) haunted house/possession movies all strung together. Almost every single ‘shock’ scare is easily predictable in advance, and is therefore neither shocking or scary (actually, the DVD menu provides the only genuine ‘bus’ jump I experienced in connection with this film). The real highlights actually come about because of the characters and the performances, particularly O’Keefe’s monumentally arrogant head parapsychologist, who commands the total respect and awe of everyone around him throughout, but displays a laughably cavalier attitude to the welfare of the family under siege, showing no interest at all in their wellbeing, even as the daughter seems to be about to be sexually molested in her bed by a nightie-raising ghost and the dad is being seized up by an invisible agent and hurled into a glass-pained doorframe!
Gia Mantegna is also worthy of mention as the surly teen daughter -- apparently permanently sown into her tight-fitting hot pants -- who might be at the centre of the entire haunting phenomena. The film is skilfully done and is perfectly enjoyable enough while in progress, but the law of diminishing returns means that it isn’t going to particularly stand out now that this sub-genre has become so popular with so many horror filmmakers. The DVD presentation is fine here, and the 5.1 audio surround extremely effective thanks to some robust sound design that sees all hell break lose sonically in the final act of the film (your neighbours will probably think you’ve got a haunted house as well!). The main extra feature is a fifteen minute ‘making of’ with brief cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, plus there’s a theatrical trailer.