Film Reviews: My Haunted Apartment

Here’s six movies about haunted apartments! Why? I think my apartment may be haunted. I saw a ghost cat in my bathroom and the apparition of a person. I can’t get freaked out about it though because I’m horribly nearsighted and I had my glasses on, therefore my peripheral vision was not good. I won’t even drive with my glasses on (it has to be contacts) because frankly, my vision is too crappy to drive without my contacts.
Anyway, back to movies about haunted apartments!

Dark Water 2002 Japanese version

From the same director who brought us Ringu (The Ring), Dark Water is pure Japanese horror. Yoshimi, a single mom in the middle of a nasty divorce, rents a nasty, cheap, dank apartment for the main reason that it is near to a very good kindergarten for her daughter, Ikuko. The apartment is drippy and moldy and a giant leak seems to grow exponentially right after Yoshimi and Ikoku move in. The apartment building is haunted by more than just ugly leaks and mold. Weird noises are heard and Ikoku begins to encounter a little ghost girl named Mitsuko who carries a red backpack.

And a big blob of black hair will come out in 3…2…1….

Yoshimi finds a chunk of hair coming out of the tap. This is where I got a bit annoyed: the hair in the tap thing is the most overworked theme in the history of Japanese horror. As if chunks of hair in tap water are the scariest thing possible? Obviously, any director who uses this cliched device must have an irrational fear of cleaning sink drains. The hair in water thing was used in Ringu and about a million Korean horror movies, so um, let’s give it a rest, okay? Or equip the characters with some baking soda and vinegar and a good pair of rubber gloves. Okay. Moving on.

Did I mention the place was a dump?

Many complaints to the lackadaisical landlord provide no results for Yoshimi, whose apartment gets more leaky by the minute. Ikoku disappears one day and Yoshimi is forced to search for her in the apartment immediately above them. Probably the most terrifying thing about Dark Water is the idea of the child being taken away by supernatural forces or by the jerk ex-husband who battles for custody of Ikoku the entire movie even though she barely knows him. The best aspect of Dark Water is the mother/daughter relationship and the panic of Yoshimi as she comes to deeply understand how powerless she is to keep her daughter in male-dominated Japan, a.k.a. male dominated society everywhere. Since Ikoku’s dad has money, Yoshimi is almost doomed to lose her child, which is why she was trapped into taking such a cheap, shoddy apartment to begin with: again, the apartment is close to a good school.

Yoshimi finds her errant daughter in the flooded apartment immediately above theirs, which has been causing the horrible gash-like leak all along. The spirit of Mitsuko (the red backpack ghost) used to live in the apartment above, of course, and the mystery where she comes from is solved.

The red Hello Kitty backpack from HELL

The poor little girl was abandoned by her parents, completely left behind. If it is hard to imagine any parent being so cruel as to leave a child or children alone to fend for themselves, consider two true stories of child abandonment in Japan, one of a 23 year old mother who locked the apartment door and left her 3 year old daughter and 1 year old son for several months until they died and the case of Rie Fujii, who abandoned her two babies while visiting her boyfriend in Canada, returning to find both children dead.

Mitsouko’s spirit is understandably angry. In a moment of revenge, the climax of Dark Water occurs and it is tragic.

This place is a dump!

Overall, I thought the Japanese version of Dark Water was better executed than the American version starring Jennifer Connelly. Not that the actors weren’t great–Jennifer Connelly is a fantastic actress–it’s just that the details of the ending of the Japanese version are much better and sadder. There is an idea of a return to the past that is not present in the more recent, American Dark Water.

Overall Grade: A-

13B or Yavarum Nalam

Everyone’s got a haunted apartment story, including Bollywood. 13B is India’s answer to haunted apartments. In 13B’s case, a big well-to-do family moves into a not-so-crappy condominium. There’s no floods or leaks in patriarch Manohar’s new place. The only trouble seems to be an elevator that works for every person in the building except Manohar, who is played by Indian movie superstar R. Madhavan. The first sign something eerie is going on is that the milk Priya (Mrs. Manohar) boils for chai keeps curdling. As an animal rights vegan who argues that milk is diabetes and cancer-causing poison obtained from raped imprisoned cows, I could not help but think that the last thing chunky Manohar needed was more dairy protein. Dude and the rest of his family need to switch to soy or almond! Anyway, more stuff goes wrong in the form of photos of gods that refuse to be hung on the walls. The walls spit out nails and defy contractors by electrocuting them. Only Manohar notices all the strangeness.

Everyone is Well…or are they?

Meanwhile, the women of Manohar’s family have become addicted to a brand new soap opera called “Everyone is Well”. The show features a family who has just moved to a new apartment. Uncanny resemblances to real life, such as the normally flunkee sister graduating with good grades, occur as eerie coincidences. Only Manohar realizes that the soap is mirroring his life. One of the things I found irritating about 13B was the weakness of the female characters. Maybe this is an issue I would have with all Indian cinema, I don’t know, because I’m not well-versed in Bollywood films. I resented that the women of 13B are depicted as satellites of Manohar. They don’t have personalities, they’re just pleasant (Manohar’s wife, Priya) or feisty (the little sister who graduates, the mother-in-law). Which brings us to the relationship of Manohar and his wife, which is very good as marriages go. The two are very much in love. When Manohar buys a version of the Kama Sutra, he brings it home and he and his wife make fun of it, comparing sexual positions to dishes at a restaurant.

Oh look, obligatory filler characters!

Oh mystery of life, at last I’ve found you!

Though I found absolutely no part of 13B scary, I suppose others might appreciate the slow build of scares, like the TV flipping on by itself and a neighbor’s dog being unwilling to enter the apartment. Any built-up suspense is utterly destroyed by a music video that replaces a scene where Manohar and his wife make love. I know this is Bollywood and we should expect musical numbers at random parts of any film, however, a weird song in the middle of cinematic tension is like a spoonful of vinegar in the middle of being fed mouthful after mouthful of chocolate pudding. Jarring and hokey, the two characters singing about coitus rather than just engaging in the act was worse than odd.

Things get worse on “Everything Is Well” as well as in Manohar’s family life. His wife loses her baby to miscarriage, but the sweet part is that Manohar doesn’t really care because he genuinely loves her and says he couldn’t live without her.

Manohar takes matters into his own hands and seeks out the production house of the soap opera that mirrors his life.

The happy couple…looking at a very fun piece of literature.

To Manohar’s horror, the show isn’t even the same as the show he sees on the family TV. In fact, “Everything is Well” does not exist outside Manohar’s apartment. Via research, Manohar ferrets information about the previous tenants of the site of his apartment. A family of eight dwelled where his apartment stands. From there it gets quite convoluted.

Another cheesy musical number ensues just as the film is building to its climax. A giant group of mystery subplots is introduced, and that is where 13B goes from horror into Nancy Drew territory. I won’t spoil it for you.

At 137 minutes, 13B is about forty-five minutes too long. There are many scenes I would have been ruthless about editing: the first to go, of course, would be the freaking music videos. The ending of 13B is marred by a god-awful “rap” video that makes absolutely no sense at all. So even though the Indian critics loved this, I found it tedious and not scary. Redeeming points included the 1977 subplots and the relationship between Manohar and his wife.

The credits end with, yes, another music video. This time, it’s a heavily Autotuned techno-trance song called “Sexy Mama” that begins with the phrase “Bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow, SEXY!” I wish I was joking. The actor who played Manohar, similarly-named Mahavan, frolics before the screen with a bevy of sexy-scary sluts in a creepy imitation of a genre of American rock music that sucked to begin with. For this reason, an okay movie is getting a D.

Seriously? No. Seriously???

Overall Grade: D+

Occupant

Occupant tends to draw very polarized reviews, people either love it or hate it. I was somewhere in the middle. Occupant follows the life of Danny Hill, a 25 year old whose grandma has just died. Granny and Danny were not close, which is why it is just as huge surprise to him as everyone else that she has left behind an enormous, gorgeous rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. Upon coming to identify the body of his grandmother, Danny is approached by the oddball doorman, Joe, who encourages him to talk with a shyster lawyer. The lawyer convinces free spirit Danny to tie himself down and live in the apartment illegally in order to essentially “inherit” the contract and thus the steal of the century, as Grandma was only paying around $400 a month or so to live in the Center of the Universe.

There’s this apartment see…in Midtown Manhattan, see. You only need to sign here!

At first, Danny is fine with living in Grandma’s old place. He moves in with his cat, Ziggy, and of course you know that poor Ziggy is marked for death. That was one of my issues with Occupant–can’t a dog die in a horror movie instead of a cat? Or how about no animals die, and we try to create suspense through the humans in the film, like in Stephen King’s The Shining, which this story resembles?

Joe delivers Danny’s food as the number one rule is he’s not allowed to leave the apartment until his lawyer can work out of the details of his inheriting the place. For if Danny were to leave, the apartment would immediately be seized by the landlord, who could then legally rent the place for what it is worth.

The stalker (left) and Danny, looking goonish.

Danny’s stalker, hottie blogger Sharleen, traces Danny to his new digs one night and schmoozes her way in. Danny makes her dinner and she seduces him. After sex, she goes into the kitchen and something bad happens to her. We do not see her again.

A disturbing hole in the closet shows signs of being entered and exited. Danny has nightmares and becomes a sad shell of his former self.

Various people try to barge their way in. Danny goes from happy, fun loving guy to morose, paranoid Unibomber. Joe brings less and less food and Ziggy the cat disappears.

Danny has Joe bring him some razor wire with which he proceeds to booby trap the place, which is symbolic of his mental and physical deterioration.

I can’t find my cat, so I’ll booby trap my apartment with razor wire just in case.

Occupant is well-acted, especially by Danny’s character, Van Hansis, and beautifully filmed. However, Occupant is a depressing assessment of the human predicament that is almost unwatchable at times. As true as this story may ring on the topics of greed culminating in human loneliness and despair, it’s really a sad movie and will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. Nevertheless, Occupant is far scarier than 13B, though, because humans, not ghosts, are truly scary.

Overall Grade: C+

Absentia

Kelly Travolta and Beyonce, take notes.

Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for over seven years, so she’s thinking she should declare him dead in absentia in order to gain a sense of closure and put the past behind her. One of the reasons Tricia is trying to get on with her life is that she is pregnant. Of course, the baby is not Daniel’s but a detective she had a little fling with named Mallory. Tricia’s younger sister Callie comes to live with her in a mutually beneficial arrangement: Callie, a former drug addict, needs the moral support and Tricia needs all the mental and physical help she can get with a baby on the way.

The first thing I liked about Absentia was that none of the characters were stick-thin. Tricia is genuinely pregnant, not Beyonce pregnant or Kelly Travolta pregnant. I believe the actress was legitimately with child, because it would be very hard to fake that belly or those hips. Callie, even though she’s the young “pretty” sister, is also not stick thin as any big-budget Hollywood movie would have certainly made her. I was hooked by the story because the actors seemed like real people, not Hollywood people.

Wow, a main character that doesn’t have the body of a ten year old boy with large breasts? Imagine that!

The second thing I noticed that the dialogue was very real. The characters said spontaneous lines and made funny jokes like real people would. One of my big things when I wrote Forever Fifteen was to avoid characters that spoke like they had a pole up their ass, except for Sebastian, of course, LOL. How refreshing that someone else took this detail into consideration! Especially funny is when Callie gets back from jogging and says “I smell like an armpit’s asshole”. This is exactly the sort of self-deprecating joke middle class Americans make all the time.

This is what happens when she tries to move on with her life…

Poor Tricia is increasingly haunted by disturbing dreams that progress into waking visions of her missing husband. He looms in the background of her life, popping out to remind her that she’s an evil person to declare him dead.

Callie maintains a routine of jogging through a creepy tunnel. One day while Tricia is at work, she encounters a disheveled homeless man in the tunnel who scares the daylights out of her. When she tries to pass, promising him that she’ll try to get him help, he protests and tells her his name. She jogs away and never sees him again. The next day she brings him a tupperware full of bread, leaving it at the mouth of the tunnel. The day after, Callie sees he has left her a pile of junk jewelry and rusty ephemera in trade.

Tricia is just about to go out on a date with Detective Mallory, her baby’s father, when guess who shows up but Daniel. Daniel looks like a zombie and spends a day in the hospital being brought back from dehydration, starvation, and all the symptoms of being buried alive.

Tricia is very conflicted but of course brings Daniel home. This is where the movie gets very good–it turns out that something very sinister happened to Daniel and lots of other people who disappeared over the years around the creepy tunnel. We begin to find out where Daniel has been all those long, seven years and it is not very nice…

I was surprised to learn that Absentia was crowd funded using a website called Kickstarter. No wonder it won so many awards: the people making this film were forced to make every minute count and to do as much as possible with a low budget and limited special effects. There wasn’t the time or the cash for extended irrelevant music videos (I’m looking at you, 13B) or anorexic supermodel actresses. Instead, attention to detail and building of suspense by exploiting the viewer’s imagination made Absentia a very special film.

Grade: A

The Haunting of 24

John Hare is the newest tenant to enter a lovely Victorian home that has been divided into crappy apartments. A jocular, borderline slimy landlord extends a warm welcome, letting John know that there is only one other tenant, an old woman down the hall. The woman down the hall, upon meeting John, screams at him to get rid of his TV. He laughs and ignores her.

Unfortunately, 90% of this movie is John Hare walking through a dark hallway.

You’re going to want to stay FOREVER!

John’s apartment door goes crazy at night with someone banging, trying to get in. He hears weird noises and the television shows him a bunch of creepy, menacing people who stare at him maliciously. When he goes down to the bar, the local drunk says that he’s met John before, even though they’ve not met. A makeshift grave in the garden features the crude message “Lie Still” carved in a childish hand in the headstone.

John goes increasingly batty as his apartment gets more and more haunted. His apartment seems to have been broken into, so he predictably goes storming around the house looking for his landlord. John’s ex-girlfriend Veronica comes and visits him when he says he’s thinking about killing himself because he’s going crazy. The evil forces of John’s apartment go to work on Veronica and she never comes out of the place again.

The Haunting of 24 was okay, but just so. The film was short but tedious. The underlying content is interesting but the film falls short. There is so much more that could have been done with the landlord’s character and his daughter that just wasn’t.

Grade: C

The Caller

Mary Kee is recently divorced from a woman-beating, rich prick who desperately wants to be back in her life. She finds a decrepit but charming apartment and moves in. One day, Mary picks up the phone. The woman on the other end, named Rose, asks if Mary has any information on Rose’s cheating, no-good boyfriend. Mary reports that no such person lives there. Mary tries to comfort Rose at first with her own story of woe, but Rose quickly grows nasty and trollish.

Ugh, who knew Mary Sues weren’t just limited to bad fanfics?

Mary’s psycho ex-husband, whom she has a restraining order against, forces his way into her apartment and generally stalks her. One of the major fatal flaws of The Caller becomes evident. First of all, Mary, played by Rachel LeFevre of Twilight fame, never seems genuine at any given moment. She’s not a Mary so much as a Mary Sue, a character with zero physical, spiritual, or mental faults. She doesn’t do fragile particularly well, but then again, her “angry frustration” at her asinine ex is equally unconvincing. She does manage one thing: to look hot. The problem is as much the writing and directing as it is the actor. Was something going on behind the scenes? I have no idea.

They’re perfect-looking, even when soaked from a heavy rainstorm.

After seeing a scary vision of someone sitting in her car, Mary gets her science professor John, played by Stephen Moyer, to accompany her to her car. This is the beginning of their romance.

This does not end well for you, Stephen Moyers character!

Mary receives phone call after phone call from Rose, who claims to be from the year 1979. Mary does some research and finds out that Rose committed suicide in 1979. Rose starts torturing Mary by doing things in 1979 that affect Mary in the present day. This is where the movie gets depressing and stupid. After taking FOREVER to get to any point where we understand who Rose is and why she’s so angry, we get Rose somehow befriending Mary as a child and doing nefarious things to her. At one point, Rose even puts child Mary on the phone so she can talk with her older self. This would have been cool if they had used a real child voice actor instead of an adult woman’s voice. “Young Mary” reminded me of a Garfield Goose rerun. Rose dicks with Mary’s past and Mary ends up losing everything. Her life ends up sucking so she goes insane and kills some people.

If I wrote and directed the Caller, this is how I would have ended things: Rose tries to dick with Mary’s life, but when she dicks too hard, she ends up making child Mary into a pariah. Child Mary never grows up popular and therefore never marries Mr. A. Hole only to divorce him, therefore she does not move into the apartment. We see Mary off living her life elsewhere. In the end scene, Rose redials and redials her phone, only to have it ring to an empty apartment, FIN.

Grade: D

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