Writer/director Amanda Gusack’s dramatic 2005 supernatural outing “In Memorium” has the unfortunate distinction of being mentioned in the same breathe as Oren Peli’s grossly overhyped indie hit “Paranormal Activity,” a fact which thrills her to no end, I’m sure. Truthfully, there are very few similarities between the two productions: both films feature an attractive young couple as main characters, and both utilize amateur video footage to tell their respective stories. Beyond that, these two projects have absolutely nothing in common whatsoever. The methods might seem congruent at first, but their destinations couldn’t be more different. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Beneath “In Memorium’s” faux-documentary veneer beats the heart of a gothic ghost story, a dreary, depressing tale that achieves much more than simple scares and frights. Gusack — who recently helmed the 2008 direct-to-video slasher “Betrayed” — deftly mines the depths of human misery without trivializing or exploiting the subject matter in the least. The beauty of the film is that, were you to completely strip away the supernatural elements, the core story would still be enthralling and totally engaging. It’s a great example of horror filmmaking that doesn’t necessarily rely on genre conventions to power the central narrative.
Erik McDowell stars as Dennis Wade, a filmmaker who bravely decides to document his life-altering struggle with bone cancer. In order to achieve his goal of total coverage, Dennis installs numerous cameras and microphones all over the inside of his rental home, giving him unprecedented video access to every mundane aspect of his day-to-day life. In the event of his death, all of the footage will be sent to a pre-selected editor, who will then attempt to make sense of everything Dennis has captured. It’s as morbid and emotionally draining as it sounds.
Along for this unfortunate adventure is Dennis’ faithful girlfriend Lilly (Johanna Watts), who watches in tearful agony as her boyfriend’s illness slowly takes control of his body. Her concerns for his mental and physical well-being are put to the test when Dennis begins to suspect that someone — or something — is secretly living within their cozy suburban abode. His bizarre theory is supported by some seriously creepy footage which shows a strange woman lurking in the shadows of their sitting room. The couple is, of course, understandably freaked out.
As the story progresses, Gusack gradually begins to reveal her hand. What starts as a simple “haunted house” picture soon becomes something altogether more sinister. The reasons for Dennis’ increasingly poor health, including the strange lesions and skin discolorations that begin appearing all over his body, are more unnerving and complex than you may initially suspect. Gusack handles this decidedly touchy subject matter with a fair amount of intelligence, transforming an otherwise rudimentary fright flick into a surprisingly emotional and heartbreaking tale of betrayal and regret. It’s an impressive ride, though it’s definitely not for everyone.
There are, however, a few unsightly wrinkles that may concern you. Performances from a few members of the otherwise talented cast are less than impressive, though the more problematic instances are, thankfully, few and far between. Additionally, the “cameras and microphones everywhere” concept is stretched a little too thin; the picture often feels more like a traditional narrative than a faux documentary, particularly towards the tail end of the feature. These issues are quite small in the grand scheme of things, but they are worth mentioning.
Given the vast array of garbage that’s currently clogging Netflix queues across the nation, it’s hard to believe that “In Memorium” has yet to find distribution. The film is a tear-jerkingly refreshing take on the “haunted house” genre told from a wholly unique perspective. Unlike “Paranormal Activity,” a film Amanda Gusack’s ambitious production is unfairly compared to, the picture is more interested in telling an thoughtful, well-written story than trying to make you believe the whole bloody affair an authentic supernatural experience. In other words, it’s a fantastic picture that rightfully deserves to find its audience. Distributors, take note.
Amanda Gusack (director) / Amanda Gusack (screenplay)
CAST: Erik McDowell … Dennis Wade
Johanna Watts … Lilly
Levi Powell … Frank
Mary Portser … Ms. Sporec
Doris Weldon … Ruth