Bad Reception (2009) – By Cary Conley

Ben Anderson is a budding scriptwriter making his way to L.A. to break into the racket. As he drives through the lonely southern California desert outside L.A., he comes across a roadside shrine that, among flowers and a cross, also includes what looks to be a brand-new television set. Not having a great deal of money, Ben decides to help himself to the T.V. Arriving at his new apartment, Ben and his friends are disappointed to see that the T.V. doesn’t work…at least not all of the time. It seems that the T.V. is haunted, and Ben quickly discovers that the television only plays what it wants Ben to see, namely the sins his friends have committed along with their deaths as payment for those sins.

Writer/director Mark A. Todd is an accomplished television and film puppeteer, with two Muppet movies amongst his credits. He has also created a British series for BBC, an award-winning short film, and dozens of web videos for corporations across Europe and America, so he is no stranger to filmmaking . Todd is an excellent technician, and this is immediately apparent from the opening shots of Bad Reception. He uses long, sweeping shots of the California desert as well as in Los Angeles to establish Ben’s travels. They are beautifully filmed shots and one must wonder how these were accomplished with a tiny budget of just $25,000 (although IMDb estimates $150,000, much more realistic but still a small budget for such expensive and expansive shots). Regardless of the actual budget, Roger Corman himself would be proud of the quality of this film, made for such a small amount of money!

These establishing shots are not the only scenes worth mentioning in the film. Todd also shows off his use of montage in at least a couple of scenes, most notably in a very nice sequence as Ben and his buddies move into Ben’s new apartment. I also really enjoyed the film’s prologue, in which animated scrolls, along with a narrator, tell the story of how the television came to be haunted. It seems that centuries ago several priests were sent into the medieval countryside to search out and punish those who did not adhere strictly to Catholic principles. But as these priests continued their work, they became drunk with power, eventually punishing some with death. The Pope recalled these priests–called Vigilants–and ordered their deaths. The last Vigilant to die swore an oath that he would continue his work from beyond the grave. Apparently, this last Vigilant wasn’t lying. Over the years, this evil entity has exacted revenge upon numerous unlucky people, and his spirit currently resides within the television that Ben picked up on the side of the highway. I thought this was a nifty story idea. And while it seems a bit hokey, the idea of a spirit inhabiting a T.V. was actually well-done and not nearly as silly as it might sound.

Todd has also gathered a cast of actors that are decent if a bit new to the acting scene (the vast majority have appeared in only a handful of titles). Randy Brown, who stars as Ben Anderson, does a nice job in the lead role and Lee Whittaker, who plays Ben’s slightly obnoxious jokester friend Josh is very good in a relatively small role. Whittaker plays Josh perfectly and has some great comic one-liners. He also does a zombie impression that would make Simon Pegg jealous. Perhaps one of the best and most experienced actors is Robert McAtee (star of the film short Black and director of Trail of Crumbs, both reviewed in Rogue Cinema), who is unfortunately underutilized as the jealous but not entirely faithful fiancée of Ben’s new landlady.

The quality of the film is superb. The sound is clear as is the picture, even in the night scenes, and the soundtrack is also excellent, with several catchy tunes. Unfortunately, the writing is a bit subpar. While the idea is interesting, the execution is a bit shaky. For instance, some of the character reactions to certain deaths is sometimes unrealistic. One such case has Ben announcing to his ex-girlfriend that one of their friends has just died. Her reaction is to hit on Ben and offer herself for a sexual encounter. While she isn’t the classiest chick on screen (she previously offered herself to the landlady’s fiancée), I doubt she would be in the mood for a romp in the sack immediately after hearing of a friend’s death.

Another example is the cop that is investigating the mysterious deaths. Detective Abe Johnson comes across as a blue-collar type of cop that is initially suspicious of Ben’s involvement in the deaths. But after one brief strange encounter with the haunted television, Abe not only makes the connection, but it seems he has prior knowledge–along with ownership of a centuries-old text–about the Vigilants. Yet there is no explanation as to how Abe would have that knowledge or how he would come to own such a rare, and likely expensive, text. This is a missed opportunity not just because it’s a bit of a plot hole, but also because it could have provided some fascinating back story for the character. Did he descend from a family of cops that have chased this ghost for decades, or perhaps he, too, was haunted by the evil spirit in a different guise. Maybe he just stumbled upon the book in a quirky little shop. But we never find out how Abe discovered this knowledge, and frankly, Abe knowing about the Vigilants is a bit unrealistic.

The film ends in a sort of exorcism of the television, again led by Abe, with the T.V. being surrounded by a circle of fire and magical chants by the cop and the survivors. These scenes, too, are a little hokey, but if the viewer is used to supernatural thrillers, then one can likely suspend one’s imagination enough to make the jump. There are some simple but effective opticals utilizing explosions and bolts of electricity as the spirit is exorcised from the T.V. There are also some brief bloody bits as various people are killed by the spirit, but nothing terribly gory. Josh’s death scene is filmed in a very interesting and unique way and I enjoyed seeing how it was done. Again, Todd is an excellent technical director.

This is Todd’s first feature film as director and it’s a solid effort. If you enjoy supernatural thrillers and can forgive a few plot holes, then you might want to check out Bad Reception. It is available at Amazon as an instant video for rental or purchase or you can purchase a DVD copy at www.guvnorfilms.com.