Three basic elements usually build the first act of any genre film: who, what, and why. If you fail to properly establish these three factors you’re going to have a rough time in your attempt to make an audience actually care what befalls your cast. However, if you fail to remain by your established parameters and devolve into a mess of whatever you feel like throwing into the narrative, we’ve got a similar (more frustrating) problem.
A pair of friends inadvertently activate a curse when they steal a shrunken head, with murder ala-The Woman in Black ensuing. It presents a potential premise of hefty camp and even some eeriness. However, a severe lack of establishing or maintaining essential plot elements greatly inhibits American Poltergeist: The Curse of Lilith Ratchet for being all that enjoyable, as horror or even as fodder.
“A pair of friends inadvertently activating a curse when they steal a shrunken head…”
While the film’s prologue drops us in medias res with a pair of women running from a ghoulish presence, only to meet their demise, the film truly begins with Alice (KateLynn E. Newberry) and Lauren (Brianna Burke) entering a shop that seemingly specializes in New Age and neo-pagan items. After being warned off by an off-camera sales clerk, the friends steal a shrunken head sitting near the register. They track down Hunter (Rob Jaeger), a local paranormal podcast host, who verifies the head’s authenticity as Lilith Ratchet (Crissy Kolarik), a practitioner of the dark arts who had been decapitated by local occultists ages ago. After swindling the pair of the head, Hunter devises a rating boost with his girlfriend/assistant Bree (Angela Cole). They use the podcast’s live Halloween episode to play hot potato with the head while calling Lilith’s name, subsequently releasing her malevolent spirit on those singled out.
From the get-go it is obvious that the film shouldn’t be taken all that seriously; at the same time it attempts to impress as a slow-burn atmospheric experience. This is a great idea, but squanders its own potential just by revealing the complete design of the ghost and its corporeal limitations within the first few minutes—no suspense or fear exists from the onset. Lilith’s design is pretty basic when thrown in stark relief, (long nails, sharp teeth, chilling eyes), and could have been utilized more effectively if the filmmakers actually played heavier with light and darkness. In fact, the whole movie would have been distinctly more resonant if a more experimental attitude was applied to the cinematography, color pallette, and sound design. However, even if the film was heavily exploratory in these design elements, it still would not help the narrative—mainly because the narrative undoes its own rules and conventions whenever the plot calls for it. A ghost with the power to appear everywhere at a whim to kill her victims is fooled by a bathroom stall door? Really?
“…all of the film’s shining moments and character traits are thrown aside for ungodly standard violence…”
It’s a hodgepodge of Bloody Mary, Lizzie Borden, with a dash of Final Destination, and when the onslaught commences, I was was willing (at first) to forgive the rushed introduction of the cast through its non-human-like dialogue exchanges and exposition dumps. It was interesting how they initially utilize Lilith’s influence over humans through suggestion, puppetry, and environmental properties. Buttressed by these unique choices, the strongest scene (and character, played by Layla Cushman) is a seance with Hunter’s Aunt Jane, a medium. This scene is infinitely more interesting and tense than any of the film’s toothless chase-and-hide scene from the spooky baddie out for blood. It allows us to really question what the end result may be, finally injecting some suspense into the mix, but it never returns to capitalize on it. While Newberry, Cushman, and Roger Conners do pretty decent jobs with the material they’re given, the rest of the cast are mostly just mobile planks of wood, and I couldn’t care less.
Because all of the film’s shining moments and character traits are thrown aside for ungodly standard violence—neck snaps, slashing at peoples faces like an oversized cat, and doors slamming shut only to see blood splatter coating the other side. If the film was about a ghost driving people insane and had an atypical visual and audio aesthetic to compliment that angle, American Poltergeist: The Curse of Lilith Ratchet would have been far more immersive, and at least worth the runtime.
American Poltergeist: The Curse of Lilith Ratchet (2018) Directed by Eddie Lengyel. Written by Eddie Lengyel. Starring KateLynn E. Newberry, Brianna Burke, Rob Jaeger, Crissy Kolarik, Angela Cole.
3 out of 10