By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Zak Bagans, Jay Wasley and Billy Tolley
Written and directed by Zak Bagans
Freestyle Digital Media
From PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to THE LAST EXORCISM to V/H/S anthology segments to every inspired homage and dismal knockoff, the found-footage approach to the possession and haunted house subgenres has been so pervasive over the last decade that when an actual documentary comes along to address similar subject matter, it can be jarring. With no CG gags or narrative contrivances to save us, we’re faced with a constant, disquieting reminder that regardless of how clever the directing or performances, there remains a vast difference between realistic and real—and the latter hits like a deathly cold fist to the solar plexus.
An excellent example is Marty Stalker’s smart, eerie, and thought-provoking 2016 HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL (available to stream on Netflix), and now comes DEMON HOUSE, releasing today in select theaters and on VOD. It ventures into a similar realm as HOSTAGE, but embraces a participatory mode of nonfiction filmmaking—think ROGER & ME meets INSIDIOUS. Right from the jump, famed paranormal investigator/director Zak Bagans lets the audience know he’s not the only one with skin in this yet-unspecified infernal game:
The following documentary may not be suitable for all audiences. This film shows real people, places, and events involving alleged demonic possession. Demonologists believe that demons can attach themselves to you through other people, objects, and electronic devices. View at your own risk.
For those willing to put their very lives and souls on the line—to potentially go from VOD to DOA, as it were—the story moves forward, following Bagans as he purchases the titular Gary, Indiana abode “sight unseen, over the phone.” The dwelling had, at that point, become infamous enough locally to show up in sensationalistic international press reports that alternately referred to it as the “Portal to Hell” and the “House of 200 Demons.”
A steady stream of natives—cops, priests, former occupants, neighbors—try to dissuade Bagans and his crew of camera-toting investigators from moving in for the project. But while the team offers respect and an empathetic ear to everyone with a story to tell, the die is cast: Ghost hunters gonna hunt ghosts. In other words, they’re professionals—Bagans’ popular Travel Channel show GHOST ADVENTURES just wrapped its 15th season. The overall vibe is business-as-usual.
Until it’s not.
DEMON HOUSE begins with the sort of disturbances that will be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the ghost-hunting subculture—cold spots, EVP, shadowy manifestations—and then quickly shifts into much darker, more malignant territory: People tangentially related to the investigation die. A young teenage girl who visits the house shortly thereafter undergoes a strange personality shift and attempts suicide. Some investigators become aggressive, hostile and not entirely in control of their actions. Others become physically ill. One outside expert goes into complete organ failure. In a particularly intense sequence, a camera operator—whom RUE MORGUE readers may recognize as THE CEMETERY/CROSS BEARER director Adam Ahlbrandt—appears to be stalked and attacked by unseen forces to the point where he is forced to abandon the project.
Oh, yeah, and there are exorcists, sinister curses and ectoplasm, oh my! Finally, in a true WTF moment, Bagans decides to board himself up in the house for an entire night to let the forces within take their best shot before he pays to have the whole damn place razed to the ground.
Sure, there are creepy re-enactments and dramatizations of foreboding dreams and past occurrences sprinkled throughout. And there are definitely moments that feel contrived or played up or blown out of proportion. But not as many as your peace of mind would prefer. The vast majority of DEMON HOUSE is rooted in the activities captured by phones and surveillance cameras as well as interviews. In fact, what is truly disturbing about DEMON HOUSE is the air of authenticity surrounding it, particularly when it comes to the average, ordinary people who flit in and out of the film, credibly relating experiences and stories that they obviously believe to be true. There’s even what amounts to a subplot about past occupants not wanting to participate in the documentary because selling the rights to their story to Hollywood will be more lucrative. Could a more true-to-life example of the contradictory impulses of human nature be imagined?
Obviously, space remains for skepticism. After all, Bagans never bags a sit-down interview with the 13-foot-tall goat-headed demon that seemingly rules over this “Portal to Hell.” That said, Bagans and his team’s veracity, sincerity, and willingness to be vulnerable and sometimes ugly on screen is legitimately disarming. DEMON HOUSE frequently leaves you waiting—and hoping—your bullshit detector will start to wail. When it doesn’t, the implications for your worldview and eternity can be straight-up terrifying.