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Secrets in these Walls

Director: Christopher Leitch
Cast: Jeri Ryan, Peyton List, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

(US DVD: 20 Sep 2011)

If there are secrets in these walls, I don’t care what they are.


Secrets in these Walls is a barely watchable suburban ghost tale rife with cliché, poor scripting and very unscary effects and atmosphere. Even the score, which is surprisingly chipper for an alleged horror film, feels canned.


In some early notes for this review, begun while the film was rolling, I wrote something to the effect that “I didn’t know what the Lifetime movie of the week feels like, but it must be something like this.” I quickly noticed that this “film” was segmented into obvious commercial breaks. A quick look online revealed that this was, indeed, a Lifetime Movie of the week.


Not surprisingly, this attempt at horror is centered on dysfunctional family romance. Jeri Ryan plays the single mom trying to make her way in the world. Ryan plays her with lots of face scrunching and hair-flipping that proves incredibly distracting. There are two adorable daughters who are also semi-troubled, I guess by divorce but we don’t really know why. Mom finds “her first job in eight years” and a house near her work. Its more house than she can afford. “Lucky “ for her the owners have significantly reduced the price on her dream house.


Uh oh, must be haunted? Nay.  It’s probably just the recession.


Perhaps ten minutes is consumed with the house tour and a home improvement montage, literally making us feel like the channel has changed from Lifetime to the DIY network. This segment, lingering like an annoying real estate agent on the amenities of the house, employs an especially absurd conceit. We are urged to believe that this is an old house “from about 1910” and not the McMansion in the subdivision of McMansions it obviously is.


Not surprisingly, the ghost story is almost a kind of subtext here. Most of the emotional energy (Ryan’s eye twitching and hair-flipping) is expended on the mother daughter relationships. The highs and lows of this are as tedious as you’d expect from sentimentalized family drama. Obviously they band together against the ghost, they sort of try and help the tormented female spirit and, this being Lifetime, nobody gets hurt and we all learned something.


How does one know that they are watching not only a flawed movie, or a problematic movie, but also a complete failure of a film, a film with literally no redeeming features? The signs are many and they are all here. The dialogue that meanders meaninglessly, the listless camera work, and the various cheap shots taken to titillate audience’s most sensitive sentiments.


Secrets in the Walls includes all these tells plus a couple more egregious. First, it gives us tropes instead of characters. Ryan plays the harassed single mom seeking economic independence. We know this is what she is, and all she is, in literally the movie’s first few moments.


The film even makes use of what Spike Lee calls “the magical negro”. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays the African American head nurse “Belle” at the doctor’s office where Ryan works.  She’s a kind of wise spirit guide who “can sense and see things that other people can’t” and is obviously happy to rush to the aid of white ladies endangered by ghosts. Even dressed up in a modern medical uniform, the presentation of this character is an offensive caricature.


Second, it’s a film that does its best to manipulate emotions in a way sure to make horror fans yawn instead of scream. Little grey hands, literally pale imitations of the vengeful spirits of Japanese horror, reach through walls. A young girl appears suddenly in the bathroom and stares out windows. When these things happen, the cheery little score becomes all percussive thunder and the audience is ordered to jump.


Not surprisingly given the nature of this flick, there are absolutely no special features included on the DVD. Its hard to imagine that the target audience, channel-flippers all, would possibly have an interest in them. Certainly no one else would care.


Horror fans in search of some paranormal frights would be better served checking out the gorgeous new release on Blu-ray of Nicole Kidman’s The Others. You have been warned: stay far away from Lifetime’s faux frightfest.

Rating:

W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting (October 2011) and Vampira, a cultural biography of America's first seductive horror host forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2014. He's inordinately proud of his record and comics collection. His website is monstersinamerica.com. Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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