Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Ceremony: Home Alone

In the spirit of the last couple of posts, I'm going to tackle a movie that hits on a couple of the same questions - is it really happening or am I crazy, and how do you make a movie scary on a budget? These work well together, because the more plausible the events, the harder it is to draw the line between really happening and crazy, and the easier it is to pull it off without the effects necessarily giving the game away.

The Ceremony tries to take both of these as far as they go, into something approaching horror minimalism.

Eric Peterson is your basic college student on the cusp of graduation. He's at the (improbably large and gorgeous) house he's shared with a couple of roommates, and everyone's in the process of packing up. He's pretty much done with classes, and he's just waiting to hear about an important job offer - his future's so bright, he's gotta wear shades. Phone conversation with some of his bros, a girl who warns him that a group of fraternity pranksters are planning something "epic", and a man about his big-deal job offer. It's his! Of course it's his. This dude doesn't look like he'd know bad luck or adversity if it walked up to him and took his wallet. He has to write an application essay for the job, so he decides not to go out and party, but instead stay home and work on his essay. Maybe the girl will be coming by later. His parents are coming in tomorrow for graduation. It's all coming together.

In doing his packing, Eric realizes that his roommate Jared grabbed some of his sheet music. Eric goes to Jared's room to grab it, and there's a book sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. It's surrounded by lit candles, and it's titled The Ceremony.

In Eric's world, as is the case in our world, books are just books, and not instructions for dark rituals. So he blows out the candles (obvious fire hazard), flips through the (totally innocuous) book, and starts work on his essay. That book was interesting, though…what else does it say?

And who's walking around upstairs?

The majority of The Ceremony is one guy alone in a house, passing the time. Eric cooks dinner, he plays some piano, he tries writing his essay. He kills time like he might on any other night of the week. Then things get odd. Odd turns into bizarre, and bizarre turns into frightening. All of this is achieved with the slightest suggestion - the assumption is that Eric is alone in the house, so anything that isn't that becomes upsetting. Footsteps upstairs, a shadow in a doorway, lights switching on and off. The smallest things add up, and up, and up, and up, and then the voices start. There's something spooky about a big, empty house late at night anyway, so anything out of the ordinary (or within the ordinary, for that matter) is going to ramp up that sense of unease. At the same time, there's nothing inherently supernatural about it. Is it the fratboys playing an incredibly complicated prank? Is it really happening? Is it Eric's imagination? The movie does a pretty good job of keeping us guessing to the very end, and the progression of events feels natural, so by the time things start getting really, really weird, it's sort of on us before we realize it.

To a certain extent, then, The Ceremony is almost…almost…a template for how to do subtle, low-budget horror. The problems with this movie aren't in the cinematography or the acting. There's an attempt to sow doubt early, but the setups are too obvious, there isn't much subtlety to the introduction of the roommate (a religious studies major…hmmm…) or the idea that some group of fratboys like to play pranks by breaking into houses and moving all of the furniture around. The setup is naturalistic, but the story itself feels a little staged. The narrative strings are showing. And…man, I hate to even mention this, it's soooooo fucking nitpicky, and I hate being that guy who quibbles minutiae, but it took me right out of the story. I understand this was a low-budget movie, and by and large it works well, but when your antiquated religious text has a cover page obviously written in Zapf Chancery with the underline function turned on, it blows pretty much any goodwill you've earned up to that point. The ending also fumbles a couple of beats. Not so badly as to ruin it, but enough to sort of make you scrunch up your face like you do when someone almost hits the note they're trying to play, but don't….quite.

Which is too bad, because this is, for the majority of the film, one actor on one set doing all the heavy lifting, which isn't easy. It's not gratuitously bloody, there's no nudity, there isn't even a monster to screw up with cheap practical effects. As it is, it's not bad. It was shot with care, and if the planning of the story itself (and the construction of the most crucial prop in the movie) had just been handled with the same care, it could have been something special.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

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