An American Ghost Story (2012) – By Cary Conley

Paul is an unemployed writer who has a history of not completing anything of any importance. In a last ditch effort to become a successful writer Paul and his girlfriend Stella rent a house that has long been rumored to be haunted. Paul’s intention is to live in the house for one year and write about his experiences with the entities with which he hopes to interact. But little does Paul know that not only is the haunting real, but the entities which reside there don’t want to be bothered. As Paul becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of interaction with the ghosts, he begins to challenge them until the ghosts finally lose patience and the house erupts in a night of violence and terror.

Both the writer and the star of the film, Stephen Twardokus has channeled equal parts Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Paranormal Activity to tell the story of Paul and his haunted house. For example, in one scene a child’s wind-up toy (a hideous likeness of a nun which is scary in its own right) mysteriously walks down the hall while in another scene Stella is terrified when all the kitchen chairs are somehow stacked on top of each other. Still other scenes depict the movement of bed sheets similar to what happened in the original Paranormal Activity. But while these scenes are a bit derivative, to be fair, it is hard to create an original concept within the subgenre of ghostly hauntings, especially with the recent spate of (mostly) boring ghost movies over the last five or so years. However, An American Ghost Story does succeed in delivering some delicious scares along with some original ideas as well.

For those viewers who thought Paranormal Activity was a joke and found the film to be decidedly hokey, then you may as well skip this film, too. But for those viewers who found the aforementioned film scary, then An American Ghost Story will likely scare you as well. Along with cabinets and doors mysteriously opening and closing, strange whispers, and a radio that mysteriously clicks on in the middle of the night, there are plenty of other eerie goings-on. In one scene, a basketball silently rolls into Paul’s chair as he works in the garage. Paul absentmindedly tosses the ball out the open garage door, allowing it to roll across the driveway and into the grass. Shortly after Paul tosses the ball, it is thrown back into the garage. But this time it isn’t done playfully; rather it is thrown with a great deal of force, making an explosive bang when it hits the back wall. Now we’ve all seen these types of things in a million horror films over the years so I must admit none of them came as a surprise. But what makes these scenes and many others so atmospheric is the music score. It is a quiet and subtle score punctuated with loud sounds matched to the action to create a jump scare. Nowadays jump scares punctuated by loud music cues are way overused by lesser directors in tons of Hollywood trash, they do have a place when used correctly. They can be irritating but are used effectively in An American Ghost Story. Present day viewers are sophisticated. They know the basketball is coming back into the garage. They just don’t know when or how. So when it is thrown hard into the garage, punctuated by a loud music cue, it surprises the viewer even though they knew it was coming. It’s not the shock of the ball coming back or even the music cue itself but the timing of the event. After all, wasn’t it Alfred Hitchcock that explained suspense not as a bomb exploding but the fact that the viewer knows the bomb is going to explode, just not when it will explode. This is why An American Ghost Story works so effectively. For the most part we aren’t seeing anything we haven’t seen before. We just are unsure of the timing of events or exactly how the event will occur. Director Derek Cole, a veteran director of low budget horror films as well as the hilarious TV show Scare Tactics, assembles a fun and stylish ghost story.

But for all the talk of using the same old creaky floors, dark hallways, and swinging doors, there is also at least one wholly original idea in the film that really ups the ante as well as the scares. Without totally giving it away, it has to do with how Paul goes about looking for the ghost he knows is wandering about the house. And when he uses his trick to find the invisible entity, the stakes are raised as the ghost is not very happy at being discovered. There is also a fun sort of twist at the end that lets the audience know that sometimes leaving a haunted house just isn’t enough.

I found An American Ghost Story fun and frightening. I enjoyed its originality as well as the homages to many of my favorite scary films. But it seems that these types of films are either enjoyed as deliciously creepy and effective or dismissed as totally lame by various viewers. So if these types of films tend to scare you, then An American Ghost Story is a can’t-miss film. The film is being released this month by Breaking Glass Pictures. For more information, go to breakingglasspictures.com.