Ghost hunting shows proliferate in the rich environment of the cable television market. And though they can be creepy at times, mostly they're a little too self-serious, and ripe for a bit of satirical treatment. Director Chris Randall and company provide some good natured ribbing, along with a few genuine scares, in their low budget effort America's Most Haunted.
America's Most Haunted is both the title of the film, and the name of the ghost hunting show. The leader of the show's team is Leon (Brad Norman), an abrasive fellow who doesn't really have a position on whether ghosts exists, and is mostly interested in producing compelling television. Which requires mostly faking all the ghostly experiences his viewers see, facilitated by techie Jimmy (Jimmy Meritt), who rigs up all of their ghost hunting equipment so that it can be activated remotely. Jimmy also spends a lot of time around the corner slamming doors.
The team is called on to investigate an old mining camp in Michigan which has been renovated into an artist's retreat. The owner Mr. George (the inimitable James Karen) and his assistants have noticed an increase in paranormal happenings at the house, including one fellow being shoved down the stairs. So, Leon and his team agree to spend the night and "get the ghost". The team includes the lovely Emily (Brittany Risner), who is auditioning for a straight acting job, and likely won't be around long, and Rob (David Gries) who is hopelessly smitten with her, and the new editor Kevin (Dave Lyzenga) who is quite disappointed that this paranormal investigator stuff is all made up.
Of course, this being a horror movie, things don't go exactly as planned, and the vengeful spirit of axe murderer Pierre Boutierre (Daniel Falicki) soon makes plain his displeasure. Since this is pitched as a horror comedy, there of course is a fair bit of humor. A few of the jokes fall flat, the timing being a few beats off or whatever, but it mostly works. The riffing on ghost hunting and the super self-important attitude of Leon as the host are probably the best bits, but there is plenty of plain old conversational humor and snark.
The horror part also holds up pretty well. There are a number of good jump scares that are really unexpected and effective. The moment when Jimmy closes one door to show a "ghostly presence" for the show, and all of the other doors in the hallway slam shut as well is great. A pretty good sense of unease is developed, and mostly maintained, but unfortunately it flags from time to time, and is never quite ratcheted up to the level that it ought to be. Having said that, there are moments of real tension, and the climax is quite thrilling. It's just that this feeling is patchy and inconstant. One of the perils of low budget filmmaking is that one can't always do all of the things one wants to, and I'm sure that this had an impact.
The effects are generally good, especially considering the budget, and in particular the way that the ghosts are integrated into the film with the actors is very impressive. The visual style is cool, and they mesh the handheld look of the ghost hunting show into the film quite nicely.
Overall, America's Most Haunted achieves most of what it's aiming for. It's funny, scary, enjoyable and engaging. It lacks a bit of polish here and there, but this is understandable considering the constraints of the production. This one is recommended.
Video is 1.78:1 widescreen, and generally looks good. This isn't strictly a found footage film, but there is a lot of hand held material from the perspective of the characters, who are involved in a ghost hunting television show. It all works together pretty seamlessly, and aside from a bit of murk from time to time and some mild aliasing, everything is fine.
Audio is Dolby digital 5.1 channel, and sounds pretty good. The dialogue is always audible and no hiss or other problem can be heard. No subtitles or alternate language tracks are included.
There are a few extras. They are:
Behind the Scenes Featurette
This runs just over fourteen minutes, and has a lot of behind the scenes footage of shot setups, flubbed lines, flubbed effects, etc. It's moderately engaging.
Special Effects Featurette
This comes in at 8:30, and shows a lot of footage of how they accomplished the ghost effects, with explanations and context from Andre Guimond, the visual effects artist. It's quite interesting.
Producers Audio Commentary
This is the most substantial extra included, and features director Chris Randall, director of photography and editor Keith Golinski, producer Jason Roth and writer Joe Anderson. They talk about the nine day shoot, pulling doors closed with string and old fashioned in camera effects, losing a location at the last minute, the fortuitous basement in the hotel, and the perils of low budget filmmaking generally. These are people who clearly love making horror movies, and are quite appealing most of the time, though there are a number of silent patches where they get drawn into watching the film.
America's Most Haunted does its level best to be a good horror comedy, and since it has more than a few laughs and scares, it definitely qualifies. It's not a perfect film. There are jokes that fall flat and times when it should be creepier than it is, but the film has the attitude and flair to mostly overcome these defects. It's a daunting thing to make a movie without a lot of money, but these folks accomplish it and do themselves credit. Let's hope that Chris Randall and his cohorts continue making movies.