Watching the first 20 minutes of The Skeptic, a newly-released psychological ghost yarn from IFC Films, I was reminded of two literary classics: Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Both, in essence, are ghost stories, though the former is a redemptive tale while the latter is . . . well . . . something a little less uplifting.
The Skeptic's main character is Bryan Becket, a self-absorbed lawyer who shows no grief for the recent death of his aunt - only excitement that he'll now take custody of his aunt's estate, including a rather large mansion. Becket's marriage is on the rocks, largely out of his own doing, and he's cynical of religion - or of any other thing that requires a leap of faith. His best friend Sully, a rather flat character, is the exact opposite. Early in the film, Sully semi-rants about the Loch Ness Monster and Roswell to the dismissal of Becket. The dialogue here, courtesy of writer / director Tennyson Bardwell, comes across as forced and unnatural - and it all seems to point toward some kind of redemptive transformation that Becket will go through over the course of the movie a la Scrooge in Dickens' work. The "skeptic," in other words, will come to "believe" after encountering some kind of supernatural shenanigans.
Using the acquisition of his aunt's large home as an excuse to part ways for a while from his wife and young son, Becket moves in - and shenanigans that may or may not be supernatural begin right away a la Jackson's seminal haunted house tale. Doors slams shut on their own, unexplained whispering is heard, and spectral visions are seen - the usual stuff. However, The Skeptic's storyline becomes more complicated than its setup suggests. Surprisingly, it has a rather large cast of supporting characters, including the local priest, Becket's therapist, a researcher interested in unusual phenomena, and a mentally unstable psychic who comes to Becket's house to help him figure what's behind the eerie goings-on that he's experiencing. To say more would spoil some of the surprises that Bardwell's plot has to offer - but suffice to say, despite a fair amount of decidedly awkward dialogue like Becket and Sully's exchange at the start of the film, The Skeptic's storyline is compelling and interesting.
I think two things help make The Skeptic work.
One, while Bardwell doesn't have an ear for dialogue, he has a nice eye for capturing the proceedings. There aren't many locations in this film, and unsurprisingly, a good portion of the movie occurs in the late aunt's home; however, the compositions of shots are often interesting and well-framed. I could easily see this being a boring movie in the hands of a less-adept director.
Two, and perhaps more important, The Skeptic has a strong cast. Tim Daly (from the old sitcom Wings) seems to channel John Edwards a bit in his performance, which is reasonably good. Character actors like Tom Arnold and Edward Herrmann (The Lost Boys) are efficient in their one-dimensional roles. And Zoe Saldana, who has had a banner year with roles in the revamped Star Trek and James Cameron's Avatar, provides some much-needed energy as the unhinged psychic that Becket turns to for help.
Maybe I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff, but The Psychic was involving enough to be compelling. Setting it around the Halloween season - without over-emphasizing the holiday - was a nice touch. The film doesn't really offer anything new to the genre - and contemporary horror filmgoers looking for blood and guts will need to look elsewhere - but I'd recommend it nonetheless.
IFC Films gives The Skeptic an anamorphic widescreen presentation that they claim is "presented to preserve the aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition" - of which I'm confident is the case. Details seemed soft, but considering the subject matter and ambiance of the film, I didn't have a major problem with the video quality. It's not as if the film has a lot of effects work or location shooting.
The lone audio track is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 affair. In general, it's a good mix with dialogue always strong and Brett Rosenberg's suitably unobtrusive score mostly in the background. Late in the film, two characters have a lengthy whispered exchange that's a bit challenging to make out - but that's a minor quibble.
Optional subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
Trailers precede the main menu for Home Movie, Nightmare, Pontypool, and Dead Snow. There's no link for these trailers in the menu system, however, a Trailer option does provide access to a trailer for The Skeptic itself. And that's it for extras.
An interesting plot and a strong cast led by Tim Daly and Zoe Saldana compensate for the lackluster dialogue in The Skeptic. It's a psychological ghost story that is compelling enough to warrant a mild recommendation.