We’re in the midst of a trend in horror movies, with producers scrambling to cash in on “Paranormal Activity” fever, furthering the use of the “found footage” technique to generate realism while adhering to pure formula. “Apartment 143” is a rather unabashed rip-off of “Activity,” but a film that works to unearth its own identity as a psychological study of supernatural chaos, rather than simply erecting another haunted house viewing experience. The concept has potential, but the picture is lackluster and, at times, completely absurd. Trying to overthink a ghost story, “Apartment 143” goes from appealing to ridiculous in a hurry, saved slightly by a handful of good frights.
Directed by Carles Torrens and scripted by Rodrigo Cortes (who returns to the genre in the upcoming “Red Lights”), “Apartment 143” is going to feel like déjà vu for fans of “Paranormal Activity.” Here we have a story of a spectral disturbance, recorded with various cameras that pick up increasingly violent ghostly antics, often in the still of the night. Loud noises and shocked reactions occur, all intended to keep the audience sufficiently unnerved while the characters take their time figuring out the root of all evil. The deviation here is a sense of science, with the proton-packless ghostbusters attempting to examine the nightmares, dissecting the visitations with video cameras and assorted recording devices. It’s a potentially interesting turn for an exhausted trend, with “Apartment 143” acting as an hourly diary of investigation, capturing the camaraderie of the scientists and the decay of the family, finding Alan and Caitlin locked in a hostile father/daughter battle for reasons not immediately understood. Why the footage has been prepared and edited for our entertainment is never explained -- always an irritant when dealing with this nonfiction fiction.
Unexpectedly, Cortes and Torrens keep the ghostly troublemaking real, or at least perceived by all of the characters, leaving no doubt that something alarming is occurring in the apartment. Photos are shifted, chairs are dragged across the floor, and loud bumps keep the household on edge, presenting the filmmakers with a chance to goose the viewer with cheap jolts and extended silences, a few quite effective, but all of them derivative of similar productions. What’s infuriating about “Apartment 143” is Dr. Helzer, who refuses to believe in a supernatural answer to obvious supernatural problems. Clinging to a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the character is a baffling addition to a clearly defined poltergeist tale. The production could be playing a joke on the audience, creating an intentionally stubborn personality to rile up the viewing experience, or perhaps the doctor is a comment on the futility of science in the face of extraordinary events. Or maybe Cortes just isn’t a very thorough writer. Any way you shake it, “Apartment 143” crumbles once doubt enters the picture, especially when the rest of the feature bends over backwards to stage extravagant evidence pointing towards an authentic haunting.
It also doesn’t help to have O’Keefe stumbling around the frame, looking utterly bored with the proceedings. His performance is in dire need of coffee and some commitment.
Making good use out of a limited location, “Apartment 143” offers of a few high points of suspense, but it never sustains a fascination with the unknown. By straining to play naysayer to peculiar events, the effort comes off confused and amateurish, as though two different films were stitched together to form an exploratory whole.