By Mike Watt | April 19, 2013

Real-life ghost hunters straddle the line between sublime and ridiculous for me. Having met members of TAPS and other organizations, and being familiar with the numerous cable “reality” shows, I’ve often been amused at the way the hunters, bathed in the green glow of infra-red photography, manage to whip themselves into mass hysteria no matter where they go. All the “what-was-that?”s and “did you hear that?”s make them seem less in tune with the supernatural and more in need of anti-anxiety medication. I can’t imagine myself making a living as a professional para-investigator. Would I end up in a padded room or simply desensitized like Paranorman or Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town?

In The Cemetery, from the same group that brought the surprisingly-good Cross Bearer, a team of filmmakers present themselves as I’ve imagined “real” ghost hunters to behave off camera: it’s-just-a-job, it’s-all-bullshit technicians and one or two “genuine sensitives” jumping at every shadow and every falling leaf. As producer Bill (Brown) and his partner, Tim (Huss) like to intone, it’s all about “getting paid and getting laid” when they lead their photographers Andrea and Mike (Jean, Cronin) and their real psychic Sandra (Ray) to an ancient cemetery, five miles into the heart of a forest, to record the weird happenings that will hopefully happen.

As per usual in our godless times, Christians are to blame. A group of not-so-well-meaning missionaries built a church on hallowed ground and gave the natives the choice of either accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior or being tortured and mutilated to death. (As a recovering Catholic, I can relate.) But what fun would a ghost story be if the Indians said, “Sure, what the heck, slice me off a piece of that Messiah of yours.”? The hitch in the priest’s giddy-up comes after they’ve finished “purifying” the tribe, when members of their own congregation are suddenly possessed and all but indestructible. So down go another couple dozen men, women and children, all in the name of purging demons from their souls

Bill’s reason for assembling these tattooed and often stoned avengers is two-fold. One being, of course, the money the documentary would bring in. The other with a huge bone he has to pick with the church. His proof that it was all a cover-up for a land-grab on the part of the missionaries comes from the diary of the head priest, which Bill stole from a special archive, to use as further proof against the Holy See.

After the first night of ghost stories and sex-and-drugs debauchery, the team awakes and Andrea is missing, last seen on tape in the lustful embrace of Tim, much to boyfriend-Mike’s dismay and outrage. Before too long, Andrea reappears with a new occupant behind her eyes—a very freaky Indian spirit played by Billy Gram (“Revenge is Her Middle Name”)—and hellbent on ruining the day for everyone else.

As they did in Cross Bearer, Ahlbrandt and cast/crew started with a well-worn horror premise and planted some subtle subversion. Yes, the characters are pretty much stock but the actors play their parts so close to the vest that they all come off like real people. Unpleasant people in some cases, and unbearably whiny in Sandra, but they’re definitely people you’d bump into on the street, rather than simple meat-bags for demons to split open in awesomely-horrible ways.

In the script, Ahlbrandt also imbues his characters with something all-too-rare in horror: rationality, particularly on the part of Bill. When one character is stabbed with a sharp pointy thing, Bill prevents the poor impale-ee from immediately yanking it out. His reasoning—that removing the spearing tool would only serve to hasten the victim’s bleeding to death—is so contrary to horror movie logic that it’s more startling than the scare that led to the stabbing. When Sandra suggests that one or two of them make for the car, he reminds her that they’re still five miles away from the road. Leaving friends behind would be ill-advised and carrying the wounded next to impossible. And when informed of the inevitable—“I’m going to bleed to death. And even if we do get out, you’ll be arrested for murdering my girlfriend”—taped evidence or no, Bill has the good grace to look not only stymied for a move, but actually helpless, which he quickly overcomes not just for survival but so that he’ll have living witnesses come trial-time.

It’s little touches like this that allow Ahlbrandt’s movies to stand out. Again, the majority of the performances are solid, the sound is clean, and there’s a terrifically creepy atmosphere courtesy of Ahlbrandt and Zafer Ulkueu’s excellent nighttime photography. Just as he and film family had done on Cross Bearer, Ahlbrandt takes a well-loved horror cliché and injects some logic and realism into the mix.

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