Spirit Stalkers is a great example of modern indie horror's promise and peril. Writer/director/star Steve Hudgins' spook story about a team of ghost-debunking TV personalities who encounter a real-life poltergeist is anchored by a few great performances; some crisp, interesting visuals; and a kernel of an idea that would make a great, non-fiction reality show. But the anchor is buried deep in this case, leaving a bunch of gaudy, not-ready-for-prime-time distractions bobbing on the surface.
The titular Spirit Stalkers are a team of skeptics who travel the country refuting a new claim of paranormal activity each week. From faulty high school heating systems to amplified pet sounds, they have yet to encounter a "presence" that could not be explained away rationally--if unusually. All that changes when they meet Gloria Talman (PJ Woodside), a divorced mother whose new house is haunted by the ghosts of several murder/suicide victims. Crusty, middle-aged head Stalker, Reuben (Hudgins), sees Gloria's case as a challenge and an opportunity to improve his show's sinking ratings: turns out audiences really do want to believe--or at least watch attractive young people wave cool gadgets around in lieu of evidence.
The film's premise is terrific, and would have been much stronger if presented as either a found-footage movie or a faux-reality-TV-show. It's insane to propose such a thing, since both filmmaking styles are universally reviled. But Hudgins chooses a bizarre hybrid path, wherein half the movie is an Office-style mockumentary, while the other half is a poorly executed, by-the-numbers haunted house picture. The television angle works incredibly well--so much so that every time the focus switched back to Gloria seeing dead people in the hall or arguing with her hilarious, hysterical ex-husband, I wanted nothing more than a Phantom Edit-style version of Spirit Stalkers featuring only the Spirit Stalkers.
The problem with the non-TV material is two-fold. First, Hudgins packs too much "business" into his story. "Business"--an easily mistaken, cheap imitation of "plot"--is a series of unnecessary complications that pushes an already robust storyline into overkill territory. To wit:
Reuben has a secret past involving an ill sister--who seized up once during an illicit game of Ouija with some neighborhood kids. Fellow Stalker Angie (Jessica Dockrey) has frequent nosebleeds that she never tells anyone about; they're supposed to portend an unsettling, supernatural presence, but come off as a series of ersatz Kleenex commercials instead--regularly interrupting the cool storyline with a minute or so of zero consequence. Gloria hires a psychic who may or may not be a scam artist--or who may have gifts and be a scam artist. Gloria's daughter comes home early from dates or during visits with her father with such frequency that one wonders why she ever leaves the house. Spirit Stalkers suffers from too much "muchness" when, in fact, the main plot would have moved along just fine without any of these weird dead ends cluttering up the run-time.
The second problem lies in the actual filmmaking; specifically, the Foley work and Hudgins' staging of the non-TV portions of his story. Let's start with sound. Spirit Stalkers has one of the flattest sound tracks I've heard in a movie. The score is fine; I'm talking about the incidental creaks, door slams, and bits of rustling that typically make for great jump scares in these kinds of pictures--scares that are sold by a rich depth of sound.
If a character walks from the kitchen to the living room, as Gloria does in the beginning of this film, and something falls over in the cupboard she'd just closed, the audience's experience of that sound should mirror the character's--the object should sound just distant enough to cause alarm and prompt an investigation. This film's audio plays like a Foley artist jostling props in front of a microphone while standing next to the rolling camera. The effect is unsettling, alright, but not in the way it was intended.
Compared to the staging, though, the sound issue is a nitpick. Unless you're a master visual storyteller, it's very important to lead the audience into your film on an even footing. Chances are, the people watching your movie have been around the horror block a few times, and are bringing with them a set of expectations (i.e. "baggage"). Failing to set the table ahead of your cinematic feast can lead to a gigantic mess that detracts from the quality of the dinner itself.
That food metaphor was terrible and confusing, much like the way Spirit Stalkers establishes Gloria. When we meet her, she's getting spooked by weird sounds coming from the kitchen of her big, dark house. Hudgins paints her isolation so convincingly that when we learn she has a daughter, Kellie (Jessica Reynolds), a few scenes later, it's jarring.
Not as jarring, though, as what the daughter does in this scene. She bursts in, has words with her mom, and then dashes upstairs, vanishing into the darkness. Gloria follows her into an empty, quiet hallway, triggering the "Oh, I Get it: Her Daughter is Really a Ghost" Alarm. A minute or so later, though, Kellie runs out of a dark room after having grabbed something. This means two things:
1. Kellie is not a ghost.
2. She finds light switches too annoying to use.
Tricks like these are peppered throughout Spirit Stalkers and serve no purpose other than to clog up the main story (see "Business"). I'm not a fan of people turning off their brains at the movies, but an audience shouldn't have to work continuous over-time deciphering story choices from two scenes previous. I found myself playing catch-up for at least half the movie.
Though I've spent a lot of time bagging on this film, I still recommend that you seek it out. The four Spirit Stalkers are performed to the quirky, neurotic hilt by actors whose naturalism sheds quite a harsh light on some of the supporting players. Even in the last act, when the screenplay turns some of our heroes into unnecessary villains, I wanted to spend time with them. He also deserves a lot of credit for making his low-budget production look much more lavish than it is; the house interiors, especially, reminded me of Ti West's eerie The House of the Devil. Had Hudgins trimmed seventy percent of the fat from his script and approached the haunted house stuff from an original angle (the dead twin girls are a, um, Shining example of what I mean), he might have delivered an interesting movie--not just half of one.