Studio: Tortilla Flats Productions
Director: Kathleen Behun
Writer: Kathleen Behun
Producer: Kathleen Behun, Jessica Villegas Lattuada, Fernando Barreda Luna
Stars: Max Hambleton, Whitney Rose Pynn, Mickey River
Three friends filming a ghost hunting documentary attempt to be the first persons to stay inside a reportedly haunted house for 21 consecutive days.
The house standing at 127 Cedar Road in Fillmore, California is so haunted that no one has been able to live inside it longer than 21 days. Since its construction on an Indian burial ground in 1890, terrified families have repeatedly fled in fright, leaving their possessions behind and their mouths zipped shut for fear of what a demon might do if they ever told their tales.
Enter intrepid paranormal investigator and aspiring young documentarian Jacob Anderson. Accompanied by his girlfriend Shauna, their friend Kurt, and a whole host of cameras and ghost detecting equipment, including an EMF reader with the most annoying audio alarm imaginable, Jacob plans to seal the trio inside the cursed home for three consecutive weeks and dig to the bottom of the supernatural urban legend once and for all.
As can be guessed by the setup and the summary, “21 Days” cribs the crux of its content from “Paranormal Activity” (review here) and “The Blair Witch Project” (review here), with a healthy portion of “The Amityville Horror” filling in the backstory for good measure. By the filmmaker’s own admission, “21 Days” is a project born from frustrated necessity to produce something economically feasible and commercially viable. Even with that goal motivating the inspiration, and a no-deviation approach to the “found footage” template, “21 Days” nevertheless gets the basic job done as a thriller with more effort onscreen than most movies of its ilk.
The film is formulaic to be sure, but it delivers precisely what is expected. An opening full of candid conversations with local townspeople. Escalating tension driving wedges between core characters. Even classic clichés such as creepy old dolls and empty rocking chairs creaking find their way into frame. Yet there is earnestness to the employment that while nothing has a fresh scent, everything is executed with sincere intent to entertain. None of the beats border on bloated either, with the runtime cycling through the three-week period in fast fashion: Days 1, 3, 5, 9, 16, and then 18 through to the end.
While the production itself never comes across as half-assed or careless, not every element is entirely up to snuff. This is a narrative designed for justifying cinematic structure instead of rational story sense. For instance, sidekick Kurt sets up live surveillance cameras throughout the house, but only a still camera to take time-lapse photos in the adjacent barn. It makes no sense for a paranormal investigation to shortchange that single camera, except to design dread into moments where objects inexplicably move from one still photo to the next so as to be subtly scary and not give away too much to the viewer.
Scratch deeper into the logic and similar occurrences continue to be uncovered. During a frantic finale featuring as much shaky camerawork and shrill screaming as it does suspense, Kurt and Shauna turn to their cellphone for help. Call #1 sensibly goes to 911. Call #2 goes to previous tenant Carolyn Warner, a woman who refused an earlier interview request with a firm “I’m not interested” attitude. It would make real-world sense to call a parent, friend, or even the person who let them into the house in the first place to come to the rescue. It only makes movie sense to call someone who can provide eleventh hour exposition and clues about the haunting.
When each character is given a generic last name like Warner, Roberts, Anderson, Thompson, or Johnsen (sic), it is clear that certain details only received a surface coat of paint before everyone moved on to meatier matters. These are the kinds of things given shoulder shrugs behind the scenes when you are shooting 93 pages of script in a 10-day schedule. Though this lack of more thorough creativity is what keeps “21 Days” at a level of exceptional mediocrity instead of simply exceptional.
If you see only one horror film this year, then you probably are not much of a horror fan to begin with. In that case however, “21 Days” stands a solid chance of giving you goosebumps and raising your nape hairs as it features the style of scares that work exceptionally well on anyone susceptible to loud noises, or who experiences this kind of movie infrequently. The film hits creeptastic tones and strikes unnerving chords with plenty of jolts for the easily startled. The trouble for those of us who have already feasted on our fair share of the format is that it is too much of a bother to be excited about another first-person fright flick set in a haunted house on an Indian burial ground, no matter how competently it might have been created.
If “Paranormal Activity” and its countless successors/imitators were never made, then “21 Days” might stand out as more than a movie fated to be misremembered as a Sandra Bullock vehicle with the passage of time. Of course, if “Paranormal Activity” did not exist, then neither would “21 Days.”
Fun Fact: One of the film’s executive producers is La Toya Jackson. Yes, that La Toya Jackson. However, she came aboard after the project was completed and thus did not have input on the creation or production sides of the film.
Review Score: 65