One hundred and eleven minutes.
One hundred and eleven nerve-nulling, soul-deadening minutes. That’s how long Zak Bagans felt his preposterously inept “documentary” Demon House should run. I’m not sure whether to marvel at his audacity or laugh in disbelief, as the last thing one can do with this film is take it seriously. And why should we? The film is essentially an extended episode of Bagans’ Travel Channel series Ghost Adventures, one of those chintzy shows that always pop up around the Halloween season where hapless visitors strapped with thousands of dollars of high-tech gear bumble about abandoned buildings in the hopes of finding ghosts. But even though his investigative methods are the same here, Bagans insists that this is no ordinary case, as he so succinctly explains in the opening narration: “This is the case that really f**ked me up.”
As well it probably should. The film explores the 2011 Ammons haunting case where a family of five in Gary, Indiana were reportedly tormented by demons. The case gained national notoriety when they contacted a Catholic priest named Father Michael Maginot to perform exorcisms on the house following an incident where an agent from the Department of Child Services reportedly witnessed one of the family’s children walking up a wall backwards. After the family moved out, Bagans did the only sensible thing for someone in the ghost-hunting business: he bought the house, filled it with cameras, harassed witnesses and neighbors for interviews, and exploited it for the single worst documentary on the occult and supernatural I’ve ever seen.
And it could have been amazing. I commented on twitter that Demon House felt like The Room of paranormal documentaries. I do not say this lightly: this film feels like it was made by an alien with little to no concept of good taste, no interest in competent filmmaking, and a curiously affluent access to money. I was literally laughing aloud at the very first shot, a warning disclaimer saying that audiences should watch at their own risk because demons can apparently attach themselves to new victims through recorded images. Then comes the aforementioned narration from Bagans delivered in such a monotonous, bored tone of voice one wonders if he was trying to impersonate the opening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Then come the reenactments. Oh, the reenactments. It’s one thing to use actors to recreate scenes that weren’t captured on camera, particularly in investigative documentaries. It’s quite another to film them like they were 90s music videos complete with schizoid editing, repellant extreme close-ups, and hilariously terrible special effects. Bagans actually got little children to reenact getting possessed by demons by having them role up their eyes, shake, and scream menacing gibberish right at the camera like they were members of NSYNC mugging at a fisheye lens. But the pièce de résistance are the shots of the supposed demon infesting the house. Bagans dressed some poor schmuck in a 12-foot goat costume and had him wander throughout the house and down a flight of stairs like he was a cast member on The Muppet Show. (In one of the film’s most uproariously funny moments, Bagans shows us a text message from a fellow demon hunter who nonchalantly describes the goat demon as “8 out of 10 on the demonic scale below satan himself when it comes to possession like one of the generals.” [sic])
These scenes are delightfully, compulsively watchable. You can’t help but stare at them in slack-jawed wonder at the miscalculated insanity. Does he want this film to be taken seriously? Is it, as Bagans’ own wikipedia filmography insists, a mockumentary? No, he’s playing the whole thing straight. And even more, he wants you to believe it.
Fat chance. After the thirty minute mark the film’s manic momentum grinds to a halt when they run out of family members and witnesses to interview. The last hour of the film is almost completely comprised of footage of Bagans and his crew sitting around the house, listening for obviously ADRed ghost whispers, studying blatantly doctored “found footage” of CGI specters, and trying not to go insane. Oh yes, despite Father Maginot’s ostensibly successful exorcisms, the demons still seem sprightly enough to momentarily possess them, usually resulting in flustered spells of odd aggression and catatonic wandering. At one point one of the cameramen goes crazy in a hotel hallway, starts banging up against the doors, and yells “Is that all you can do you demon m**********r?!” Even Father Maginot falls prey to the demons after giving a few interviews and participating in one last exploration of the house. At the end, we see him strapped to a hospital bed on death’s door from sudden, unexplained multiple organ failure. Of course, judging from the lack of online obituaries for the man, I’m judging he made it out alright, just like any other average senior citizen whose organs unexpectedly short-circuit.
Demon House is patent balderdash; it’s paranormal snake-oil salesmanship that degrades the real life unfortunates involved in the case. But here’s the rub: I’m not so sure something evil didn’t happen in that house. For full disclosure, I am a practicing Christian and do believe that there are literal evil forces in this world. And come to think of it, if I was Satan and I wanted to drive more of the faithful away from God towards skepticism, revealing my demonic servants in front of a yahoo with a camera like Bagans wouldn’t be the worst idea. Maybe the greatest trick the devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist: it was proving he did to the people the world would take the least seriously. In that case, I blame my own doubt on Bagans’ directorial incompetence.