Tuesday, September 2, 2008
SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR (2007) d. Lisa Comrie
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Once upon a time, the film industry produced movies for the Silver and Small Screens that often had an all-ages quality whether they were action, suspense or thrillers. What set films like BENJI (1974) and THE MYSTERY IN DRACULA’S CASTLE (1973) apart from today’s more pedestrian fare is that the child characters were likable, the stories were wholesome and the themes were connected to all-American values that were accessible, not preachy and certainly not polarizing. Somewhere during the 1980s, that changed as film families had to be dysfunctional, kids were rude, obnoxious and asinine and the stories of all-ages cinema incorporated topics and elements that were often crass and unsavory. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is a film that hearkens back to a time when the whole family could go out the theater or sit down and watch a TV movie on THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY, be entertained and not feel like you had been through a wood chipper massacre.
SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is the story of 17-year old Sarah, on her way to Pine Valley, CA to briefly visit the grandmother of her recently deceased best friend Megan. It is on the way to Pine Valley that Sarah’s car gives her some trouble, forcing her to stay with Mrs. Shaw for the weekend. It is while Sarah is staying in Pine Valley that she hears of its terrible tragedy and ugly secret. Sarah becomes enmeshed in the heartbreak of the Woods and Baker families, a misfortune that seems to involve spirits and possible curses. Sarah and her new friend Matt Baker race to save the life of his brother David and in doing so, try to set Pine Valley, its residents and its restless spirits free from the gloom that has been hanging over the town for more than 13 years.
In a world where movies for youngsters must be filled with rampaging rhinos and other gigantic juggernauts, violent special effects, excrement humor, insufferable and intolerable characters and ludicrous story lines, SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is probably going to miss its audience and it is a shame. Not that SARAH LANDON is a first-rate film with no weaknesses. That is not the case. It is just that SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR has some surprising strengths and it is hoped that more than just “family values” types will check this film out, since that would be preaching to the choir. SARAH LANDON is one of the most wholesome films I’ve seen in a very long time. All of the youthful characters are nice kids, polite, good-natured and pleasant. It was so refreshing to see young people whom you’d want to know, who are caring and respectful, patient and responsible. Even the adults were generally enjoyable people who were not buffoons, morons and thoughtless fiends, as adults are too often portrayed in “children’s films”. The story was not dependent on an abundance of gaudy special effects or lavish and grandiose plot twists, nor was it a “thrill-a-minute” rocket ride. This was a film that felt like it should have been made 30 or more years ago. It was dialogue-driven and the narrative was very patient, possibly too much so at times, but at least I felt like the principal characters were developed to a greater degree than in most films. None of the characters possessed super powers or uncanny abilities or knowledge. They simply worked at solving problems through effort, teamwork and friendship. Think of that for a modern film! A good collection of interesting and appealing exterior settings was chosen for this film and it was attractively shot. There is no “shakey-cam” disease and when it is night time, I can still see all of what is going on. There were few painful close-ups and some good establishing shots of sets and characters. All of this adds up to a film that I would want my ten and eleven year old students to see and would recommend to friends with intermediate age children. Why is it then that this film grossed less than $900,000 in its theatrical run of a little over 1100 theaters and why can’t I give it overwhelming praise now? The answers lie in some of the nuts and bolts of the acting and writing, and the audience that it was intended for that no longer exists.
While looking over the film credits, I noticed that a large percentage of the cast and crew had the last name “Comrie”, the same as the director. This is just a guess, but it felt like SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR might have been a family project, which on the surface sounds like a nice idea and I am sure that it was a very rewarding experience. Part of the problem with such an enterprise is that there isn’t much in the way of “external” opinions and brain power during production. During a recent interview with a director of a motion picture I’ve already reviewed for this site, I asked her why she didn’t have her hands on all the controls and only directed and co-wrote for her film. The director’s answer was that she felt getting a few more perspectives and minds into the mix would help to increase the possibility of success. Even though Lisa Comrie didn’t have her fingers over all the buttons, a Comrie wrote, directed or produced for SARAH LANDON and such a confederation may make it hard to see mistakes. One of the greatest mistakes of this flick was a lack of experienced actors. In addition to having several of the Comrie clan in the cast and playing principal characters, the rest of the cast, including Rissa Walters who played the title character, had few or no screen credits and it showed. Rissa Walter’s performance was probably the best in SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR, and Dan Comrie as Matt Baker put in a sincere if stiff effort. Other performers were not so lucky. Brian Comrie as David Baker alternated between very forced portrayals and terribly overacted efforts, some of which made his “disturbed” character more humorous than dramatic at times. Jane Harris as Mrs. Shaw was even more lifeless than some of the dearly departed characters mentioned in this film. Since the story was dialogue-driven, in such a case the dialogue has to be scintillating. At best, it was simplistic and at worst it was trite. While the cleanliness of the screenplay was impeccable, the interest level for most modern movie goers is going to be low and if you don’t have the acting talent to pull off a dialogue-driven narrative, it is going to be a tough sell. What saves SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is that the story concept is a good one and any movie about a ghost story is going to have its supporters. In addition, it is a short film whose paces steadily picks up as the movie progresses. You genuinely feel for the characters because they are so nice and want them to win their fight. Had the cast been a little more experienced and talented and had the dialogue been a little livelier and more substantial, this film could have fired on all its cylinders. There is no question the potential was there.
The other weakness of SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is possibly in its marketing. For most movie-lovers steeped in the lore of horror films, this movie may seem hokey at best and very possibly it will come across as dull. For most average parents and children today, there won’t be enough vile and unpleasant content to catch their eyes, tickle their grotesque-loving fancies and fire the MTV-ruined endorphin centers of their brains. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR is almost a paean to films of the past like those by William Castle or Robert Wise and for today’s excitement-enslaved movie-goers that is probably an unpardonable sin. Speaking of sins, those who purport to be subscribers to family values or religious morals would probably like this film. There is only one gentle kiss in this flick and the main characters have modest clothes on their bodies throughout. There is no objectionable language or music and the kids even go out for a slice of apple pie. Since the story is about the paranormal and ghosts, I am sure that most potential viewers of the fundamentalist Christian persuasion found reason to stay home and not see this film either. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR would have been a fine addition to a theater marquee back in the late 1960s right up through the 1970s and would have probably succeeded brilliantly. SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR has been compared to a modern equivalent of a Nancy Drew mystery and I think the parallel is somewhat appropriate. “Sarah” doesn’t have all the talents and skills “Nancy” had and that is all to the good since it makes her more realistic and viewers can identify with her. Having said that, few students in the school where I teach read the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries anymore and it is for all the same reasons why SARAH LANDON failed at the box office. It isn’t totally the fault of the film, it is just as much a fault with us.
As a result of being given a “screener” copy, I was not able to plumb the bonus features section of the dvd release. On the press release, one feature that was mentioned is “Frida's Psychic Readings Game”, which will probably be a fun experience for families to delve into.
SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR has some very obvious benefits if you are looking for a film for the whole family that isn’t animated animals or monsters or blazing thrill rides that have little or no story. It requires a little self-reflection first however. If you and your family are patient types who are used to waiting for something good and don’t need instant gratification, this film might be for you. If you like stories about nice people, in nice places trying to do the right thing, this movie might also be your cup of tea. If you like a little bit of suspense mixed with some dialogue and a gently applied layer of atmosphere that whispers of ghost stories, you might be looking at the right film to rent or buy for your family. If you can’t say yes to these questions, you will probably be disappointed with SARAH LANDON and THE PARANORMAL HOUR. It isn’t without its faults, but I think the greatest fault is that we are a people who have fallen from our high estate and embrace that which is low and mean now. SARAH LANDON needs to find a way to get into Dr. Who’s Tardis and take a trip back to a time when she would have been more appreciated.