Director Rodrigo Cortés generated a fair amount of under-the-radar noise with Buried, his trapped-in-a-coffin thriller that, unluckily, got lost in the static around Danny Boyle's 127 Hours. While praise dogpiled on the true-to-life story of a nature trekker trapped in a canyon, Cortés' exercise in breathless claustrophobia proved that he -- armed with the right performances, cinematography, and lighting -- could generate a lot of tension with limited space and resources. The regrettable truth about Apartment 143 (Emergo), an infusion of the found footage and haunted house corners of the horror genre, is that Cortés limits himself to the writer's chair for this project, relinquishing the helm to Carles Torrens. In place of resourceful anxiety, the material scrapes together into little more than a muddy Paranormal Activity knockoff with an abrasive attitude and chaotic visuals, where under Torrens' direction it induces headaches long before it scares up haunting tension.
So, a trio of eccentric parapsychologists -- trust me, elaborating further than that really isn't that necessary -- answer an inquiry to inspect the home of a single father of two, a place riddled with ceiling thuds, rattling pictures, and flickering lights. The unusual thing is that the activity isn't limited to just this apartment; the previous place where the family lived exhibited the same "symptoms", as if it traveled with them. After a few up-close experiences with the unexplained force, one that's not really shy or discrete about its presence, the team throws the paranormal/parapsychology kitchen sink at it -- devices, mediums, séances, the works -- to try and drive out whatever darkness this is that surrounds the family. But, as to be expected, we don't really have the full picture of the family's tumultuous history, where a strung-out father and a flagrant, rebellious daughter seem to be guarding a closet with more than a few skeletons.
Rodrigo Cortés wrote a decent-enough plot for Apartment 143: it's steeped in genre tropes and familiarities, but intuitive enough with the family turmoil angle to carve its own path. Better direction and a tighter grasp on getting genuine performances could've made this a credible contemporary to the Paranormal Activity franchise, perhaps even punchier, yet Carles Torrens creates a jarring, infuriating environment that puts one ill at ease for the wrong reasons. Emphasizing a brash shock-value style over focusing on the addled people within the apartment's confines, it's more concerned with forcing an agitated mood of moving furniture and phantasmagoric discoveries via technology instead of showing how the presence of deep, dark demons afflicts those in the apartment. The danger of the spectral denizen can be felt, sure, and the family's back story holds superficial interest, but it doesn't create enough suspension of disbelief to convince those watching that they're observant flies on the wall.
A lot of that is due to the maddening visual perspective. Director Torrens works to distinguish Apartment 143 from other genre entries by steering away from the one-camera aesthetics of Blair Witch, The Last Exorcism, and [REC], and towards a mosaic of footage types; cameras of varying analog and digital quality mix with night-vision shots and fish-eyed surveillance monitoring, at times strapped onto the sides of the characters' heads. Instead of departing from the norm into something innovative, the spastic shifts in quality -- as well as the profuse, gritty shakes during high-action scenes -- simply try too damn hard without paying mind to sustaining a persuasive ambience. Admittedly, there are some sharp tricks at its disposal, such as an eerie hallway sequence involving grainy surveillance footage and a swath of motion sensors, but they're countered with either nauseating shaky-cam excess or trite infrared jump-scares. It everything we've seen before, only trite, loud and much more spastic.
Apartment 143 does expand on its meager sinister purposes, though, blustering through eighty minutes of escalating paranormal tension that's punctuated by the family's haunting past -- and that meager foundation pushes it towards a chaotic climax of spectral fury and traumatic plot revelations. Yet, aside from a few jolts and dim spectral exhibitions, there's simply not a lot to the parapsychological machinations that'll get the skin crawling or teeth chattering; and no, loud noises, levitating bodies, a few white eyes and distorted voices aren't enough when they're mundanely tossed between half-baked characters and a tedious environment. And I don't consider that to be the fault of Rodrigo Cortés, really: underneath the routine paranormal faux-documentary tropes, there's a suitable range of dialogue and an eerie disposition built around the family's tumultuous past and uncertain future. Apartment 143 needed far more subtlety, room for the moody essence of the found footage genre to do something singular.
Video and Audio:
Man, I'm not really sure where to start with Apartment 143's Blu-ray transfer. It's a mix of 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 footage; some of it is grainy, some of it is high-contrast, and some of it exhibits heavy pixilation, distortion, and muddled detail around contours. However, all of that plays into the erratic visual temperament that the film sets out to achieve, a mix of different mediums in an edited-together patchwork of material to create a mosaic of the events. I could comment on the heaviness of the grain in darker sequences, the jaggedness around characters, and the oppressive white bloom in lighter shots, but much of it factors into the look it's going for. The 24p frame movement seems on point, though, and you'll find a handful of shots that express suitable HD robustness (those framed at 1.85:1). It's the way the film's supposed to look, and the Blu-ray achieves the experience.
It's a little easier to develop some impressions on the sonic side of things, since this English 5-channel Master Audio track nails a few sharp instances of bass usage and dimensionality. Most notable are the thuds and crashes that occur in other rooms, which the lower-frequency and higher-end sides of the surround design create a fine, robust stage to get wrapped up in. But, again, there's more than a substantial amount of material that's distorted because of the found-footage aesthetic: muffled dialogue, thin atmosphere, blips and grating sounds get the aesthetic point across, yet they're not really much to absorb in term of HD interest. It's fine, and it matches the visual temperament as expected. English and Spanish subs can be played with the sole Master Audio track.
Making of Apartment 143 (16:16, HD):
The job of any decent making-of video is to make the audience really appreciate the technique and skill implemented in specific parts of the film, and this featurette mostly accomplishes that. Interviews with Carles Torrens, Rodrigo Cortés, and the other cast and crew hit on points in the production, from how they see the visual temperament as unique from the rest of the genre to the "voyeuristic" approach to following the characters and activities in the picture. You'll get plenty of behind-the-scenes shots, though they're largely what you'd expect on a low-budget, one-room set.
Several other self-explanatory special features cover their respective topics: Special Effects (5:18, SD) rushes through the various practical and digitally-rendered elements that gives the film its aggressive attitude; Levitating (4:21, SD) covers the composition of one of the film's crucial, intense sequences using wires; Visual Concept (5:50, SD) zips through how the crew tried to balance popcorn film and arthouse aesthetics; Art Direction and Make-Up (4:58, SD) covers the ideas behind the apartment and, fairly predictable, the facial designs of the possessed people in the house; and Child's Play (3:54, SD) focuses on the little boy who plays the son in the film.
Magnet Releasing have also included a lengthy Interview with Carles Torrens (18:49, SD), where he discuses working with Rodrigo Cortés and scrutinizing the plot and his motivations, as well as a brief EPK-caliber HDNet: A Look at Apartment 143 (5:02, SD). Finally, we've got a Theatrical Trailer (2:22, HD).
As someone who still appreciates the found footage genre more than most, even I found Apartment 143 to be a tedious, stale case of genre necromancy. It's pretty much everything you've seen before: "pragmatic" camera footage, family issues, and a slow simmer to a bold climax within the space of a single, chaotic setting. What it's missing is the the authenticity and the scares to bolster Rodrigo Cortés' decently-written paranormal script, which largely hinges on an overestimation of the thrill-value and a lack of concentration on giving the characters more than cursory depth. Some genre fans might find it watchable enough for a rental, but it'll simply be something to pile on top of the other meandering genre entries out there. Skip It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site