My notes on the documentary Demon House, in US theatres and on homevideo platforms March 16.
This opens with paranormal investigator Zak Bagans, who directed and wrote the film, walking through a truly impressive abandoned, derelict building – where snow has poured in through the roof – bigging up the particular case he’s promoted from average episode of his TV show (Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel) to full-on documentary feature. Up front, he insists that he has himself been seriously affected by this particular haunting and a whole raft of other folks have become casualties – going so far as to say that this film itself is cursed. It then turns out that he hasn’t been hanging out in the eponymous demon house, which is a much smaller place in Gary, Indiana that he bought after it attracted some local news publicity when the residents were allegedly pestered by more than two hundred demons, a priest (Father Maginot) was called in to perform exorcisms which (as is often the case) didn’t seem to take, and a whole parade of characters who got involved were driven to flee or have suffered runs of extreme bad luck.
A minor thread I found more intriguing than the haunting is that Bagans, who has seized on the property as ‘the next Amityville’, finds some witnesses won’t talk to him not because they’re terrified to go over that ground again but because they’ve signed up to support a rival film production – which will presumably be more on the lines of the Conjuring or Haunting in Connecticut series. This isn’t quite the film to pull back and address the ethics of this sort of tabloid TV paranormal investigation, but it does suggest the beginnings of a cultural shift whereby anyone who suffers a haunting will have to be as wary of professional spook hunters as they have learned to be about the media.
As a spooky documentary, Demon House suffers from having to compete with dozens of found footage horror films which have tried to pass themselves off as true stories by aping the aesthetic of this sort of thing – to spice up the package, Bagans includes dramatised sequences involving a twelve-foot goat-headed demon he says he saw in a dream, a boy doing a backwards walk up a wall as hospital staff and social walkers panic, and some eyes-rolled-to-show-only-the-whites evil possessed grinning kids. This stuff is well-staged and conventionally frightening, but by contrast the supposedly unfaked actuality footage of the horrors of the demon house involve mystery oiliness on window blinds, odd items found in the earth under the basement stairs (a press-on nail and women’s underwear) and Bagans pushing one of his crew around then forgetting about it.
In the end, Bagans develops an eye condition that means he has to wear refractive lenses – though he always was a dark-glasses-after-sunset type – and resorts not to another exorcist but to a bulldozer to trash the property and, he hopes, end the curse, even though everyone has reported that the ghosts, demons, spirits or whatever from the site tend to stick to people who visit and pester them well away from the house (this is a plot element in the Insidious and Paranormal Activity films which has seeped back into true-life parapsychology in parallel with the way elements from The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone crop up in authentic UFO encounter stories). Films like The Nightmare, My Amityville Horror, Hostage to the Devil and Beware the Slenderman have worked the hinterland between documentary and horror lately – but they’ve explored belief systems informed by people like Zak Bagans rather than authored by observers who have long since become a part of the phenomenon.
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