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For those wondering just what's left to explore in the haunted house subgenre of horror, THE PRESENCE offers a somewhat new take. Instead of the predictable angle of introducing a character into a house or cabin that we subsequently learn is haunted, writer/director Tom Provost lays his cards on the table in the film's first scenes, showing us the ghost (Shane West) first, and moving on to bringing in the unwitting party, in this case a nameless woman played by Mira Sorvino. Doing this admittedly eliminates the obvious scares and suspense usually found in a movie like this (after all, we're always aware the ghost is there), but it's at least a semi-fresh take on a tired tale.
A remote island somewhere in Oregon is the setting: A woman has come to a cabin where she grew up with an evidently abusive father in order to get some work done. What her work specifically is is left vague, another interesting decision by Provost. (In fact, almost all of the characters in the film are nameless and their histories are mostly a mystery.) What isn't obvious to her is that her negative childhood memories aren't the only thing awaiting her in the cabin: a ghostly presence in the form of a white, stern-faced young man lurks within. The presence isn't a malevolent one, at least, not from what we can tell initially. He simply stands and watches, apparently powerless to interact with the woman, or even leave the cabin.
The first act of THE PRESENCE is the movie's best. Played almost silently (there's no dialogue in the film until approximately 18 minutes in), Provost is content to let the ambiance of the chilly woods and the eerie atmosphere in the house consume us. Less patient viewers will be turned off; the pacing is deliberate and the fright factor is nil. But there's certainly something peculiarly affecting in this opening passage; a quiet, steady spookiness that drew me in.
Where THE PRESENCE goes wrong is when it breaks that spell: the woman's boyfriend (Justin Kirk) stops by, uninvited, and is mostly a nuisance, serving as sort of a comic relief with his city-boy cluelessness. While indeed it would have been difficult for the film to keep on with the slow, weird pace of its first half hour, that somber mood is missed when we move into the flick's second half - especially after the introduction of another, sinister specter (Tony Curran), who acts as sort of a devil on the shoulder of the ghost and the woman, whispering negative words into their ears in order to win their souls. This character is a frustrating presence (pardon the pun), and his involvement ushers the film into opaque territory that leaves us more puzzled than anything else. In particular, the film's final scenes are, frankly, silly.
It's a shame that, overall, THE PRESENCE isn't a totally satisfying experience, because it's really onto something for a small while. At the very least, Provost displays a talent for conjuring up an offbeat version of a familiar story. Hopefully the next time he's more successful with the follow-through.
VIDEO: Widescreen presentation. As it was shot digitally, the blacks aren't quite crisp, but otherwise the picture is just fine, especially when we're given over to some of the beautiful Oregon scenery.
AUDIO: English 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital. Nothing to complain about.
Making of THE PRESENCE: A nicely in-depth featurette that takes you through every phase of production. Interviews with the cast and crew, location videos, the works.
Audio commentary with writer/director Tom Provost: Provost is a very entertaining voice; he's very honest about his mistakes on THE PRESENCE, his directorial debut, while he also doesn't mind flaunting the movie's attributes. For fans of commentaries, this is a very informative and enjoyable listen.
Storyboards with commentary by Provost and editor Cecily Rhett: An interesting comparison between some of the film's sequences and the original storyboards, while director Provost and editor Rhett discuss their decision-making process. Another cool extra for people who like learning about what goes on behind the scenes of a movie.