They don't make old-fashioned ghost stories as often as they used to, particularly now that the horror market is flooded with Saw rip-offs and torture porn. Consequently, I'm usually a little forgiving of films that remind me of the great horror classics that influenced the way I look at the genre like Carnival of Souls or The Haunting. To be blunt, I'm forgiving of ghost stories. And yet, I still can't quite get behind Tennyson Bardwell's The Skeptic, a film with good ideas and performances but weak, predictable, two-dimensional, frustrating dialogue. It's a feature film concept with a TV movie script and is unlikely to make a splash outside of its current limited release in New York City or availability on IFC On Demand. The Skeptic is currently playing in New York City at the IFC Center, opens this Friday at The Spectrum in Albany and moves to the Music Hall in Los Angeles on May 15th. It is also available on-demand for the next three months.
Bryan Becket (Tim Daly) plays the title character, an unemotional attorney whose aunt dies mysteriously in her creepy old house. Even the set-up of Bryan's character feels forced. His wife (Rescue Me's Andrea Roth) is leaving him and taking their son because he can't show any human emotion. He's a predictable, by-the-numbers kind of guy. Perfect for a haunting right? But the set-up dialogue is so frustrating. After his aunt's funeral, Bryan laments to his friend and legal partner (Tom Arnold) about how life would be easier if he were gullible. He derides anyone with any kind of faith in the unseen with two-dimensional lines like "How big of a stretch can it be believing in the Loch Ness Monster once you've bought the Holy Trinity?" No one in the real world talks like Bryan, laying all of his beliefs on the table just for the audience. Forget those being haunted. Subtlety is the true victim of the first half of The Skeptic.
Of course, the protective shell around Bryan is just waiting to be broken down. He moves into his aunt's house and things become instantly creepy. His partner has an unexplained seizure, doors creak, and Bryan starts to see a woman out of the corner of his eye. When he discovers that his aunt left the house not to him, her only kin, but to a professor (Bruce Altman) at a renowned science institute, he explores the other side even more intensely. Going to a local priest (Robert Prosky), his own psychiatrist (Ed Herrmann), and a gorgeous young psychic (Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana) for help, Bryan unravels the mystery at the core of not just his aunt's house but also his own dark past.
Bardwell's script for The Skeptic attempts to examine supernatural phenomenon from every angle, bringing a priest, shrink, psychic, professor, and lawyer into the haunted mix. It's a good idea for a ghost story, presenting several levels of belief and skepticism in one film. And the performances are interesting. Daly is well-cast, Saldana is intriguing, and the authority figures (Prosky, Herrmann, Altman) are all talented character actors. I also loved how the film played with the idea of the return of repressed memories or mental issues versus an actual haunting, but I wish that concept – the question of whether Bryan is just flooded by the memories of his hidden past and not an actual ghost – had been explored a bit more. It's the strongest element of the script.
The weakest element of the script? It's a tie between the awkward, on-the-nose dialogue and a gotcha ending that feels like a cheat to the audience. The Skeptic is proof that you can have a talented cast, effectively creepy direction, and a great idea, but, if your ear for dialogue doesn't sound believable, then your entire haunted house of cards will collapse. If you don't believe what's coming out of a character's mouth, nothing else rings true. Ghost story, Saw rip-off, slapstick comedy, Holocaust drama – it doesn’t matter. Dialogue and character are a major part of every film's success or failure and I couldn't stand those elements of The Skeptic. The ghost story fan in me wanted to be a true believer but I just didn't buy it.
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: May 1st, 2009
Starring: Tim Daly, Zoe Saldana, Andrea Roth, Tom Arnold, Bruce Altman, Robert Prosky, and Ed Herrmann
Director: Tennyson Bardwell
Writer: Tennyson Bardwell