Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I Am a Ghost (2012)

Had it not been for a recent perusal of The Jaded Reviewer (in my usual fashion, however, I did not read the review before watching the movie; just sought out the title), there's no telling when I would've finally caught wind of I Am a Ghost. At first I was disappointed because it appeared too old to be a candidate for this year's top DVD releases, but then I saw that the non-film festival USA release date on IMDB says March 1, 2014, so I'm going with that data to justify this flick's 2014 candidacy (mostly because I loved the film and want it to appear on one of my end-of-year lists). Still, as technology progresses, my "DVD release" list is quickly becoming a bit of a misnomer, as I technically watched this on a VOD platform (VuDu). But I'll sort out semantics later. For now, allow me to share a few words about a film that seemed tailored for me, and urge you to check it out too.

The first thing I noted about the film was its cover art, which appears to be a throwback to an old Penguin paperback:
This is a cropped picture of my TV taken with my iPhone.
If you know me at all, you know that I hold an MA in Literature and Writing, which formally represents a voracious appetite for reading and aspirations of becoming a published writer; so this image not only caught my eye as a reader; it worked to charm me before I even started the film. Plus, if you look at the upper left-hand corner, you'll notice that I had a $3.99 credit from VuDu, which made renting I Am a Ghost even sweeter. (The credit comes from an incident on Halloween night of last year. I watched The Shining with a friend--we were at our respective hosues, watching it in sync and texting--only to have the iconic zoom-in on the portrait at the end cut short by VuDu's "Please rate your experience" screen. I couldn't believe it! But their stellar customer service kindly credited my account. And, looks like they did the right thing to secure a customer relationship, because, well, I came back!)

Then the movie opens with a quote from one of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson:

ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,   
One need not be a house;   
The brain has corridors surpassing   
Material place.

How perfect is that quote for a ghost movie? This quote not only sets the tone for a subtle, creepy movie; it promises not to deliver another movie where an object (i.e. material) is haunted. Who's tired of haunted cameras/TVs/video tapes/pictures/etc. or the perceptive of a character being in a haunted house? And the quote is supplemented by a score that is exactly what I love in a horror movie: minimal (nonexistent is really OK for me, too, but I don't think it would've worked in this film). It's mostly a sluggish drone with some light bells here and there, and, yes, some musical stings. Now, typically, I'm not one for musical stings--I feel the content should whig the audience out--but I'll take them when employed cleverly.

I had already noted the runtime at 75 minutes, which is 15 minutes below the usual standard, so I wondered if it would either make extensive use of padding (usually with lengthy opening credits) or grope to cram in too much in an effort to keep it fast-paced. Luckily, it did neither. It achieved that delicate balance that is so hard to attain in a movie of this nature. Ti West comes to mind as someone whom people complain about when it comes to this slow-burn fare. And though I definitely understand the argument for some of his movies (The Roost, Trigger Man), I think he finally found a great rhythm for his later movies (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers). I Am a Ghost is in the vein of the pacing of these movies, but it does something different, something clever that won me over. Instead of a linear and consistently steady time sequence, we get a repetition of events that snap to black between each event. We're shown all of the events that constitute Emily's day, and then it repeats. But--and, oh, how I savoured this!--when they begin to repeat, we are given different camera angles, and, steadily, the pace begins to quicken.

This is all we get for opening credits. A single, quickly displayed page. So don't worry about any of those precious 75 minutes being wasted here!
The set design, lighting, and photography are sensational. First off, the screen is framed in an old tube-TV screen (the type with the rounded corners) to give it an old-fashioned feel (remember the throwback Penguin paperback cover art, and note those ornate opening credits!), which helps illuminate the lush, colour-rich set. Though everything takes place within the house (the movies does open with a striking exterior shot of an old, drab Victorian), you will not care because everything seems to be meticulously placed to capture that quaint, old, haunted feel. And in the same manner of the repeating events, the colours change throughout the film to match the mood of the content. Superb! And as if that weren't enough, we get a climactic split-screen reminiscent of Brian de Palma's 1976 masterpiece with a sweeping character perspective in one frame. Then, as the multiplicity unveils itself, a Brady Bunch-style screen to give a sense of the enormity of paralells, followed by quick jump-editing that assaulted my senses. What details this filmmaker has taken into account!

It's no secret that I loved this movie, but let me talk about 2 areas where I thought it was going to break down. First, I couldn't help but wonder how the film was going to sustain the revolving events throughout. Something had to happen to break up the monotony, and I was afraid it was just going to get chalked up to the ghost being a repeater and left at that. Not so! In fact, H. P. Mendoza (whose choice of initials recalls the name of H. P. Lovecraft, an immortal author whose influence is here apparent) secured a fan for life with excellent writing. He creatively takes us into psychological and time-and-space-bending territory that can so easily become a mess of a plot. The second part that I thought would ruin the experience was the voice of Sylvia (Jeannie Barroga). It was much too rigid and theatrical most of the time, but, thanks to a great performance by Anna Ishida, this annoyance was easily overlooked.

Speaking of Anna Ishida: wow, what a task for a first-time feature-film actress (the theme of never-before-seen-by-me lead actresses continues). For the most part, she's the only person we see on the screen, in nearly every frame nonetheless. And since the movie is certainly not dialogue-heavy, the weight of the runtime rests on Ishida's ability to convey information to the reader through body language and facial expression. Thankfully Ishida maintains a perfect cold, almost expressionless face for much of the movie. This, combined with the absence of score and other characters and cheap thrills help to create a space in which our imagination as an audience can run wild with terrifying possibilities. (Things unseen are far more frightening.)

I'm sure there are many things I've overlooked, but I try to keep my rants as short as possible. In the end, I Am a Ghost delivers the exact type of horror movie I love. If you look through my #1 picks over the years, you'll see the theme: slow, psychological, off-beat, inventive. I also happen to be a sucker for things set in older times (I'm something of a Luddite). The writing and execution (both the work of Mr. Mendoza) couldn't be in more perfect harmony. I felt that I was in the hands of a master filmmaker who was both inventive and intellectual but who also had an eye for composition and form. This is one that will please those who care mostly for plot and those who care mostly for asthetics--and, well, all those in between, in my opinion. For more information, including highly intriguing facts about the making of the film (using an iPad to light Anna's face!), be sure to check out the Filmstitute interview at I'm off to read other reviews and maybe petition Mendoza to make another film as soon as possible.

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