Haunting at the Beacon is yet another film that suffers thanks to its final act. This isn't because the climax is a major letdown. On the contrary, the last fifteen minutes of the film show it morphing into something a great deal more effective and thrilling. The problem is that everything leading up until that point is competently staged but derivative at best. The biggest fault of the climax is that it gives us a taste of what could have been, after the meal is pretty much over.
We start the film with Bryn (Teri Polo) and Paul (David Rees Snell) as they move into their new apartment at the Beacon. If they don't seem terribly excited, it's because they have some awful memories they'd like to leave behind. You see, their son went missing at an amusement park and has been presumed dead. Bryn blames herself because this happened on her watch while Paul is unable to break her out of the deep depression that has consumed her. Attempting to pick up the pieces, Paul starts teaching Astronomy at a local university while Bryn gets back to her love of photography. That's when the weirdness starts.
Bryn notices a mysterious boy in some of her photographs. In attempting to track him down, she uncovers the dark past of the Beacon. The little boy used to live in the building with his parents until the unfortunate day that he fell down the elevator shaft and died. Convinced that the boy's ghost will be able to communicate with her own dead son in the afterlife, Bryn reinforces her effort to make contact and deliver a message. While Bryn meddles with supernatural forces she doesn't understand, Paul fights the thoughts of infidelity that are pushing him towards a snobby but coy actress (Elaine Hendrix) who lives in the Beacon. Of course, once Bryn gets done stirring up the beehive, the dissolution of his marriage will be the last thing on Paul's mind.
Your enjoyment of this film will greatly depend on whether you've seen previous entries in the ghost child horror sub-genre or not. I remember growing sick of all the clones that sprang up in the wake of Ringu and Ju-on's success (and I'm not even counting their English language remakes). As soon as director Michael Stokes dropped the specter of the little boy into the mix, I grew wary of what was to follow. It's not that the ghosts of little boys have become inherently less scary. Once I get past the inevitable jump scares, I just need something more to escape that been there, seen that feeling. While Stokes does ultimately deliver a twist on the tale, he waits entirely too long to get there.
While tiptoeing around any obvious spoilers, let me repeat that the final fifteen minutes of this movie almost don't belong with the preceding seventy five. In one fell swoop, Stokes opens up the field and changes the rules that our characters are playing by. The stakes somehow grow larger and more personal. Even the impressive make-up effects (courtesy of Vincent Guastini) drop all subtlety in favor of campy gore right out of 80s horror. During this portion of the film, I found myself rooting for Bryn in a way that the lead-up hadn't prepared me for. Although the film still goes through a few more unnecessary turns before calling it a day, the gleeful lunacy that dominates the climax is what is sorely missing from the rest of the project.
I don't mean to suggest that Stokes has delivered a complete dud. He is clearly working with a tight budget here but manages to cultivate an effective atmosphere and even lands a few genuine scares. There is a sequence where Bryn accuses a man of abusing his son while standing in his living room that has been decorated with scissors. Let me clarify that statement. There are friggin' scissors hanging all over the walls...ones that could be used to inflict much damage on Bryn in a stabby fashion. This scene drips with dread and is quite chilling. Also helping out the creepiness quotient are numerous shots of figures that hang out in the background while wearing chains on their heads. Although they turn out to be a bit gimmicky in the grand scheme of things, I can't deny the effectiveness of their imagery.
Unfortunately, Stokes doesn't score with all his scare tactics. There are moments when he cuts away from figures lurking in shadows before they have a chance to really land the appropriate impact. I was also thoroughly confused by a photograph that was supposed to give Bryn her first sighting of the ghost lad but just seemed like a dark mess to me. Speaking of Bryn, the casting of Teri Polo is something the film gets absolutely right. She does wonders with a paper-thin character, evoking plenty of empathy and concern for Bryn. The rest of the cast is adequate although Hendrix stands out with her arch performance. Even Michael Ironside gets a fun little cameo as a cop whose past is deeply linked to the Beacon.
Stokes clearly has an affinity for tales where subtle nuances give way to messy broad strokes. Now he just needs a story that hasn't been told so many times before, so that the details can stand out in a meaningful way.
The movie was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Other than a few cases of moiré, I found the image to be clear and free of defects. The visual presentation was a bit flat at times but ably supported numerous dark shots with reasonable shadow detail.
The audio was presented in Dolby 2.0, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. I chose to view the film with the Dolby 5.1 mix and found it to be perfectly adequate. The rear surrounds especially did their thing whenever the little ghosties would pop up on screen and during the energetic climax. English subtitles were available.
The central extra feature is an Audio Commentary with the Director Michael Stokes and Producer Sally Helppie. While Sally definitely adds to some of the anecdotes, this track is largely carried by Stokes. He is a fairly subdued speaker but manages to cover a lot of ground. He talks about numerous aspects of the production design including how various sets came together in a short amount of time. There is some discussion of setting the film in the Rogers Hotel which is rumored to be really haunted. Stokes also expresses his desire to construct the film as a throwback marked by restraint until the release of the climax. A Trailer for the film and other Upcoming Releases closes out the extras.
Haunting at the Beacon ends up in a fairly interesting place. Unfortunately it travels an all too familiar path to get there. Writer/director Michael Stokes has wisely anchored his film around a sympathetic performance by Teri Polo who seems up to the task of playing a tormented and driven woman on the edge of her sanity. Polo also happens to be better than the material she is working with. The film eventually finds its groove but it's a case of too little, too late. Rent It.