Though January has a worse reputation, late August is really the riskiest time of year to go to the movie theater. The studios are gearing up for Oscar season, kids are headed back to school, and everyone else is on vacation. With a limited audience suffering from an acute case of blockbuster fatigue, there isn't much for Hollywood to do but clear the decks and cross its collective fingers. If a movie is opening in late August, odds are there's either something legitimately wrong with it, or someone at its distributor thinks there is.
In spite of all of that, I was actually pretty curious to see "The Apparition," one of this week's entries in the movie industry's annual Late Summer Race to the Bottom of the Barrel. The signs were all there that this movie would be a stinker — ominous release date, untested director (Todd Lincoln, making his first feature), cast of popular franchise refugees (Ashley Greene from "Twilight," Tom Felton from "Harry Potter") — but I ignored them all for one reason: I really liked the film's trailer.
Whatever its problems, I told myself, the movie would have at least one interesting idea: that hook that ghosts are fueled by our belief in them. It's a conceit laden with possibilities. How about a skeptic who, confronted by signs of the supernatural, finds protection his disbelief? Or what about a devoutly religious woman who has to learn to reject her deeply held values in order to stay alive? The release date gave me pause, but the promising concept gave me hope.
Readers, I am here to tell you: optimism is for suckers. "The Apparition" is a film worthy of late August: bland, boring, and surprisingly devoid of scares. Worst of all: the movie's one big idea isn't even in the movie!
The theory that paranormal events are products of the human mind? Never discussed beyond a faux found footage prologue. The notion that ghosts are real only if we believe in them? Ditto. Most of the images in the trailer — a woman dragged through a wall, Felton pulled into a dark closet by some unseen force, mold sprouting everywhere — are still present, but almost all the dialogue around them is missing. The high-concept ghosts have been stripped of their high-concept. What's left is just a run-of-the-mill haunting (with mold). The coolest part of the trailer — not to mention the entire point of the poster — is totally gone.
I don't know whether anyone will show up to see "The Apparition" this weekend, but if they do this won't be the first time Hollywood's brought people into the multiplex with a misleading trailer. We've already had two pretty egregious examples so far this year: "The Grey"'s marketing disguised an existential survival horror film as an almost comically masculine action movie; "The Amazing Spider-Man" structured its ad campaign around the revelation of an "untold story" about its title character that was almost completely cut from the finished film.
A misleading trailer isn't always a bad thing. A coming attraction that reveals too much is always worse than one that reveals too little. Sometimes it can be fun to go into a movie expecting one thing only to get another. But in order for that to occur in this case, "The Apparition" would have had to replace its belief-in-ghosts-make-them-real gimmick with something — anything — else. It doesn't. Which, in retrospect, explains why the entire film is just 75 minutes long, including two prologues and a lengthy scene where the protagonists casually shop at Costco. (Look, they needed a cactus, okay?)
As a critic, it's your job to review the movie on the screen, not the movie you wish was on the screen. So it's not entirely fair for me to measure "The Apparition" against the far more compelling version of it that lives in my head. In this case, though, it's the film's own fault for selling itself on the back of a marketing campaign that it doesn't even come remotely close to fulfilling. It's like that old saying: don't write checks your movie can't cash (NOTE: this may not be an actual old saying, but I heard a guy mutter it on the subway once).
Or maybe it's my fault. Maybe that doomed experiment was right, and ghosts exist only if we believe. If I believed in ghosts more myself, I might have seen the version of "The Apparition" that I was hoping for.