Studio: Phase 4 Films
Director: Israel Luna, Josey Wells
Writer: Israel Luna
Producer: Josey Wells
Stars: Justin Armstrong, Belmarie Huynh, Swisyzinna Moore, Carson Underwood, Eric Window
Review Score :
Five friends use a Ouija board to unwittingly open a portal to the spirit world and discover a mystery that threatens their lives.
NOTE: "The Realm" was released on DVD in America under the title "The Ouija Experiment."
If ever a “found footage” movie deserved an “A for Effort,” then “The Realm” is it. Usually the formula calls for two acts of watching paint dry and grass grow until the home stretch finally unleashes gape mouthed apparitions and dropped bodies. “The Realm” goes in the opposite direction by opening with a strong first hour that delivers an uncharacteristically well-paced setup filled with real personalities and the promise of a frightful film. And then everything goes to pot when it comes time for a third act that packs as much punch as a windsock and unravels the atmosphere completely.
Also known as “The Ouija Experiment,” the film was re-titled “The Realm,” presumably after someone discovered that Parker Brothers and its parent company Hasbro own a trademark on the name “Ouija.” It is unclear if that trademark also includes the mispronunciation “wee-gee.” Despite a shout out to the Kevin S. Tenney film “Witchboard,” the characters here forgot the scene where Stephen Nichols explains the word’s origin and corrects the man who says “wee-gee” instead of “wee-jah.” Anyone who does not know enough about the board to say the word correctly is just asking for trouble by starting off on the wrong foot.
Michael has summoned an uncommon group of friends to his Dallas, Texas home for a night of séances via the infamous spirit board. Brandon is conveniently a film student who has a camera in tow to document the event. Ditzy social butterfly Shay is dating Michael’s best friend Calvin. Calvin’s sister La’Nette joins in on the spirit summoning fun, as well.
With their fingers on the pointer, the planchette whirls around the board to tell the tale of little Gracie and her mother Lisa. Lisa reportedly shot a bad man named Joseph after he drowned her precious child. But another lesson this group forgot from “Witchboard” is that spirits tend to lie. Of course, there is more to this story than the board lets on. And when they neglect the rule about saying goodbye to the ghosts, these five friends open a doorway to the spirit world that they may not be able to close.
According to the film’s website, “The Realm” was reportedly shot in nine days for $1,000 by having the actors improvise their dialogue from an outline provided by the director. If true, those facts make the first hour’s accomplishments even more impressive.
The five main characters are so radically different from one another that they are not once believable as a genuine circle of friends. However, their disparate personas bounce off each other in an endearing way that keeps even their most mundane interchanges lively. Knowing that the opposite end of the spectrum would be interchangeable cardboard cutouts, the philandering player, finger-wagging diva, and cameraman with the game show host voice at least keep the scenes flowing smoothly, even if they do seem a little too much like playful caricatures.
Having actors improvise their dialogue is standard practice for “found footage.” So is having a first hour that is traditionally droll while the pace ramps up. “The Realm” is able to flip this expectation with fast cuts that pack a lot of story into the screentime before quickly jumping forward to the next scene. Shots that would typically be occupied by endless minutes of walking down hallways and long gaps between talking heads are replaced with rapid-fire dialogue sessions that would make Trapper and Hawkeye envious.
The actors are so good at rarely stuttering or stepping over another’s lines that it is difficult to believe that the takes used in the film were not rehearsed at least once before. Yet even the aimless banter amuses with crackling sass and popular culture references. It makes for a balanced blend of authenticity and entertainment that prevents watching expository scenes from becoming a chore.
Where they could have used more rehearsal time is on the physical side of their performances. Watching fingers fall off the planchette as they stumble to move it across the Ouija board is one thing. Watching a surprise lack of freaking out when two characters are found cuddling dead in bed and a decapitated head falls on the floor is another.
“The Realm” has one critically fatal flaw that cannot be ignored. It is not scary. But not for lack of trying. Nearly every intended scare, and there are more than a few, comes from a jump moment. Usually an audio sting accompanies a figure that suddenly appears while panning or a character stumbles upon a conveniently misplaced Halloween yard haunt prop in the attic or in the garage. Sadly, none of these moments are effective. “The Realm” also tries emulating moments from “Blair Witch” and J-horror movies, but has real trouble making the mood land.
The complete unraveling begins after witnessing one character’s ghostly encounter in a bathroom. When he plays back that same footage afterwards for his friends, something entirely different is on the tape that the audience just watched. This is a minor cheat of the “found footage” format when considered against how “The Realm” then completely shatters the atmosphere for the viewer. To reveal the true story behind the Ouija board haunting, the film moves to a flashback sequence that plays like a traditional movie. Worse than the fact that the idea is misplaced is that it breaks the illusion of “The Realm” being better than its look and budget would indicate.
The flashback is staged with poor production work and acting that is not up to the level of the main storyline. It plays as an amateur effort that makes the rest of the movie feel just as cheap. From this point forward, “The Realm” goes into a freefall from which it is never able to recover.
Israel Luna and his crew are to be commended for what they managed to put together with a pocket change budget and a cast of unknowns that turned in admirable performances. Unfortunately, the sum of those parts make for a disappointing whole. The bottom line is that “The Realm” is unsuccessful as a frightening film and as “found footage,” a conceit that the film itself abandons. Watching hands move a pointer around a board has only so much horror potential to begin with, and taking a bite out of that idea was more than “The Realm” could chew.
Review Score: 60