Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Kevin Gates, Michael Bartlett
Writer: Kevin Gates
Producer: Kevin Gates
Stars: Craig Stovin, Criselda Cabitac, Rob Whitaker, Mark Jeavons, Caitlyn Ramos-Stovin, William H. King, Ruth Stratton, Mark Knight, Gerry McGovern
A paranormal research team investigates the reportedly haunted ruins of Old St. Mary’s Church in Clophill, England.
The proliferation of ghost hunting programs on cable television and “found footage” movies in green-tinted night vision gives the impression that discovering paranormal activity in the real world is easier than shooting fish in a barrel. Simply find an Indian burial ground, a spooky graveyard, or better yet, an abandoned hospital haunted by urban legend, and watch an EMF detector light up like a Christmas tree. Shedding these overdone trappings of phony theatrics, “The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill” favors pseudo-documentary over purely fictional horror entertainment to present what a real-life ghost chase would actually be like: frightfully boring.
Clophill is a small village nestled in the Bedfordshire county of eastern England. Residents there celebrated the 500th birthday of their Old St. Mary’s Church in 1850 by letting the building fall into disrepair while parishioners moved into a new House of God for weekly worship. After becoming a rumored hotbed of poltergeist sightings and fire-lit occult ceremonies, the formerly hallowed grounds then unsurprisingly began drawing outsiders comprised equally of paranormal enthusiasts and mischievous teenagers.
1963 was a particularly notable year in the site’s history of churchyard desecration when the 1770 grave of Jenny Humberstone was found disturbed and her bones were arranged in a pattern said to be used in a Black Mass. Whispers of devil worship and reports of black magic were commonplace thereafter, though more than one knocked over tombstone could likely be attributed to an inebriated college punk.
Directors Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett present much of the above as factually accurate and at least the first two acts of their film are presumably true events. Presumably true because no horror filmmakers would intentionally want three-quarters of their movie to be as uneventful as this.
“The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill” blends authentic documentary with a faux conclusion meant to ratchet up the tension that was nonexistent during the first 75+ minutes. Without doing any Internet sleuthing to verify the identity or the backgrounds of the talking heads introduced, “The Paranormal Diaries” begins as an actual investigation of paranormal activity at Old St. Mary’s complete with Ouija board and ghost box séances and grizzled locals recounting spooky tales from their youth.
As a supposedly genuine ghost hunt, it is quite spot on, even though nothing happens or simply because nothing happens. There are no gimmicks or digitized shadows artificially inflating the atmosphere to create scares where there are none. In fact, the mixed team of skeptics and believers are refreshingly candid about their on-camera experiences. Rather than a lot of imaginary “did you see that” moments and feigned expressions of terror, the participants more often than not explain away strange sights as “a trick of the light.” For once it is easy to take the crew as rational minded when their first explanation for an odd occurrence is something natural or “a coincidence.”
The converse effect of this approach is that thrills are hard to come by. Mood still has to be generated by cinematic tricks such as audio stings and underlying ghostly intonations that sound like a whistling teakettle. Granted, the true documentary aspect does give the “found footage” format a more realistic feel here. But what is the point if the ultimate effect is something that is not scary?
“The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill” pulls a bait-and-switch with a fictional finale. The humdrum documentary wraps up by tacking on a scripted ending that has a lukewarm chill, but more than anything cheapens the value of everything before it as a real documentary. Gates and Bartlett were smart to concentrate on the ethereally grounded tales of Clophill involving verifiable occult rituals instead of unsubstantiated ghost stories. But the clash of intentions between documentary and entertainment compromised both. The dull nature of an actual ghost hunt involves less gape-mouthed apparitions and more misreading of radio static as phantasmagorical communications.
Review Score: 60