Apartment 143 is essentially a cross between Paranormal Activity and, assuming I’m interpreting it correctly, An American Haunting. On the one hand, it’s a standard, technically competent found-footage mockumentary that delivers plenty of tension and some genuinely good scares. On the other hand, its plot is needlessly confusing and ultimately provides a baffling resolution that raises more questions than it answers. When it comes to movies like this, I think certain filmmakers are mired in the misguided belief that there should be both an explanation and a twist, as there would be in a conventionally shot supernatural thriller. I’ve repeatedly asserted my position on the original Paranormal Activity, namely that it worked so well was because Oren Peli kept audiences in the dark, literally and figuratively. It was about mood and atmosphere, not plot.
It begins decently enough. A handheld camera introduces us to three paranormal researchers as they drive in their van. There are the two techs, Paul (Rick Gonzales) and Ellen (Fiona Glascott), and a psychologist named Dr. Helzer (Michael O’Keefe). Their destination is an apartment building somewhere in Los Angeles. They arrive at the unit of Alan White (Kai Lennox), who needs their help in explaining the odd occurrences that have been happening. The scientists set up a series of surveillance cameras around the apartment, along with a series of still cameras, motion detectors, and various pieces of computer equipment. They also get to know Alan’s children. There’s four-year-old Benny (Damian Roman), who’s outgoing and bright. Then there’s his teenage daughter, Caitlin (Gia Mantegna), who’s disrespectful and combative towards her father.
According to Alan, the trouble started not long after a car accident killed his wife. This was in the family’s old house. When they moved, the trouble moved right along with them. Indeed, the scientists bear witness to apparent paranormal activity almost as soon as they arrive. Phones ring, yet no one is at the other end of the line. Doors open and close on their own. Heavy footsteps seem to be emanating from the floor above them, although Alan claims that very few tenants populate this building. Perhaps the sound is coming from pipes, or rats, or metal fatigue. Sudden gusts of air fill the living room. The central ceiling light sways ominously. Later on, when they examine a night’s worth of still frames, they look at one in Caitlin’s room and see the unmistakable shape of a human figure cloaked in shadow.
Is it possible that the ghost of Alan’s wife is haunting the apartment? Benny seems to think so, but then again, Benny is the stereotype of the precocious and intuitive child who, even with his limited vocabulary, seems to have a better grasp of the situation than the adults do. Caitlin doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about the prospect of a haunting. She only projects anger and hate, firmly believing that her father is responsible for her mother’s death. Is this the case? The techs – or, more accurately, Ellen, seeing as Paul is essentially a superfluous character that’s only good for wiseass remarks – are convinced that Alan is a poor soul struggling to keep his family together after such an incredible loss. What does Helzer think? He asks all the shrink questions, although he doesn’t make his true feelings known until nearly the end of the film, at which point he’s more of an anomaly than a character.
There will at one point be a confession that plays like it came from an episode of Law & Order. There’s nothing innately wrong with this, although what’s ultimately revealed is grossly implausible and does little to shed any light on the situation, at least in terms of what’s physically happening in the apartment. Helzer has a theory about that, and yet somehow, it makes even less sense than the possibility of being haunted by a ghost. At least the latter is easy enough to understand. Burying yourself under a mound of psychobabble, on the other hand, will do more to push an audience away than reel them in. Not that it matters a great deal; the final shot, while effectively tense and frightening, thoroughly undermines everything Helzer says. I suspect it was more out of obligation for cinematic overkill than anything else.
To be fair, the film does have its fair share of effective scenes, unoriginal though they may be. The best, I think, is shown through the lens of an oscillating surveillance camera; as it moves back and forth through the pitch-black room, it sets off strobe-like flashes, briefly illuminating anything in sight. When it comes to this one shot, there’s a buildup and a definite payoff. It would be easy to attack this film strictly from the angle of its genre, since found-footage mockumentaries have become quite common over the last several years. But since I believe that even overexposed genres can be effective as long as the plot and characters are engaging, I won’t go that route. The fatal flaw of Apartment 143 is that the story got shortchanged in the process of making it atmospheric. The filmmakers should have taken a hint from Oren Peli and not even bothered with a story in the first place.
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