Studio: Wild Eye Releasing
Director: Luis Carvalho
Writer: Luis Carvalho
Producer: Gary Andre
Stars: Jocelyn Padilla, Nicole LaSala, Ryan Boudreau, James Barrett, Rob Roy, Brinke Stevens, Aaron Peaslee, Cesar Pereira
Six teenage friends inadvertently resurrect a vengeful murder victim during a Ouija board séance.
“Jonah Lives” opens cold. A young man hyperventilates nervously while watching his friends convulse with eyes rolled back in their heads. At the center of their circle sits a Ouija board. Without muttering much aside from “Jesus!” and “Lydia,” the young man smashes the planchette, snapping the others out of their trances and ending the séance. Lydia laughs maniacally. Outside, the camera tilts down from the tombstone of Jonah Matthias as a reanimated corpse digs its way up from the dirt.
When this midnight montage suddenly switched without a sequitur to a daytime scene of teenage two-on-two football awkwardly blocked in a 24-square-foot space, I expected “XX Hours Earlier” to appear onscreen and fill out the framing. It didn’t. Clearly, these six friends used a Ouija board and, one way or another, brought the dead back to life. The audience gets it. But who are these kids? Who is Jonah? How are they connected, if at all? Was the Ouija scene foreshadowing? A dream sequence? A premonition? Did the resurrection happen the previous evening and now it is the next day?
The answer to those last several questions is no. Someone seemingly put it in the director’s ear that horror films should start with a scare in the first few minutes, so a scene was pulled out of place and repositioned after the opening credits without context. That’s only the wrong foot, but the remaining limbs and appendages of “Jonah Lives” are no less prone to freshman filmmaking faux pas.
Having filmed in 2011, “Jonah Lives” debuted in 2012, had its film festival premiere in 2013, and finally received wide home video distribution in 2015. In those four years, “Jonah Lives” was the only film made by writer/director Luis Carvalho. Several of the actors did not appear in any other features during that time, either. These notes are relevant because it offers an idea of how entrenched some of the associated talent is (or is not) in professional filmmaking careers. In other words, this is a group of predominantly amateur family and friends making a DIY one-off.
Cuts read like editing room errors, as though arranged how Nostradamus ordered his quatrains by throwing individual shots in the air and piecing them back together according to how they hit the floor. In between kill scenes where the kids battle Jonah in the basement, the camera jumps randomly to shots of parents partying upstairs, even though the separate threads don’t parallel well. New guests arrive upstairs, a teen’s head is bashed in downstairs. Two shrews kibitz about the uselessness of men upstairs, another teenager dies downstairs. The bizarre mistiming creates an off-balance rhythm highlighting a confused concept of how to tell a story through film.
The movie doesn’t even get the basics of a vengeful ghost plotline right. Jonah is resurrected to take revenge against a scheming wife who poisoned him for the inheritance. So what is his reason to waste time plodding around a basement caving in teenagers’ skulls while said wife fishes keys from a swingers party bowl in the main house?
“Jonah Lives” is also chock full of peculiar Christian subtext. One boy implores a young girl to read the Bible for her own betterment. One girl crosses herself while walking past a closed down church. Crucifixes appear on necklaces and set dressing with additional religious iconography appearing in the background. Characters recite the Hail Mary, refuse to play Ouija on spiritual belief grounds, and repeatedly call on Jesus to deliver everyone from evil. Speculation might wonder if “Jonah Lives” has a not-so-hidden religious agenda, except none of this material coalesces into any meaningful message.
First-time writer/director Luis Carvalho knows to open with a relative bang and to cast scream queen Brinke Stevens as a recognizable name, but there is no rescuing “Jonah Lives” from its underdone acting, overbaked dialogue, and derivative setpieces. Lightning flashes illuminate a cemetery during the resurrection. The camera spins dizzyingly over the Ouija board when activity grows hectic. An asthmatic character’s inhaler empties at an inconvenient moment. Most of the movie is similarly contrived, unconvincing, or both.
Genuine passion incentivizes the rookie cast and crew, but there is a fair deal of collective inexperience behind the camera, as well. Effort doesn’t always translate into entertainment however, and the greenness of those involved is what shines brightest on this movie’s screen.
Review Score: 20