While watching "The Spirit Box," yet another previously-unaired episode of Fear Itself, I could not help but hearken back to the convoluted origins of one of America's favorite cartoon characters, Bugs Bunny. The mischievous rabbit was not the creation of any one man, though several directors at Warner Brothers have taken credit for him over the years. Instead, everything we know about the character -- his name, his appearance, his personality, his trademark comedy bits -- took shape over a number of cartoons released between 1938 and 1940. Even Bugs's deathless catch phrase was a collaborative effort. Bob Clampett came up with the first draft -- "What's up, duke?" -- which Tex Avery would later refine to "doc." Years later, talking to a biographer, Avery would remark on the effect the phrase first had on audiences: "They expected the rabbit to scream or anything but make a casual remark. For here's a guy pointing a gun in his face! It got such a laugh that we said, 'Boy, we'll do that every chance we get.'"
I retell that story because it offers a snapshot of how clichés become clichés. Quite simply, clichés work. For whatever reason, they get a measurable reaction, so they reappear endlessly for years or even decades. An episode like "The Spirit Box" -- in which two bored teenage girls construct a Ouija-board-like device out of a pizza box and subsequently investigate the mysterious death of a classmate -- consists almost entirely of tropes borrowed from countless other horror and suspense movies. The setup feels contrived. The dialogue is heavy on exposition and never feels spontaneous or believable for even a moment. The acting seems rather lethargic, even though the cast includes up-and-comer Anna Kendrick (Twilight, Up in the Air) and veteran character actor Mark Pellegrino (beloved for his role as the dimwitted blond thug who has trouble identifying a bowling ball in The Big Lebowski). The direction, production design, and cinematography seem rote at best. And despite all this, I must admit that I was intermittently wrapped up in "The Spirit Box," mainly because of its use of stock situations which have worked well in other movies.
Let me give you an example. You know those scenes in which the hero sneaks into someone else's home, looking for some clue to a mystery, and then the owner unexpectedly shows up, and the hero's accomplice (waiting outside) knows it but the hero doesn't know it? Well, "The Spirit Box" has one of those scenes, and even though I couldn't honestly say I cared about any of the parties involved, I did sort want to know how it played out. Maybe it's because we all secretly wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. How would we get out of there? What's our strategy? Hide in the closet? Jump out the window? What now?
The problem with "The Spirit Box" is that the resolution to this scene (and many others) is fairly lame both in conception and execution. This story has nothing going for it except for those stock situations and horror movie tropes. It boasts no good original ideas and not a single memorable character or line of dialogue. Once you have watched it, unless you are composing a review for Unloosen, there is no need ever to reflect upon it again. In fact, it offers so little fodder for contemplation that I had to include a wildly irrelevant anecdote about Bugs Bunny in the first paragraph of this brief precis.
P.S. - The mark of a good twist ending is that you can watch the story a second time and all the elements of the plot will now make perfect sense. "The Spirit Box" does not have a good twist ending.
Much as I am loath to admit it, Joe is absolutely correct when he writes that the twist ending of "The Spirit Box" is not a particularly good one. Of course, this has been de rigueur for the series from the get-go, so I don't know why he was expecting to see one magically materialize in week 11 of Fear Itself. In fact, this entire episode can be summed up by the line "God, this is beyond lame," which star Anna Kendrick utters within the first few minutes. The fact that she does so while dressed in a silly Halloween witch costume -- which, in light of her nascent interest in Wicca, is totally, like, ironic or something -- is simply the icing on the cake.
Directed by Rob Schmidt, whose 2003 horror outing Wrong Turn has gone unseen by me and will continue to go unseen by me, "The Spirit Box" is a ghost story for the Twitter age, a moderately facetious designation that contains a germ of truth since it appears to have been made for and by some grade-A twits. The story is about a stereotypical goth chick (like, she totally wears black nail polish and everything) Kendrick and her best friend, cheerleader Jessica Parker Kennedy, getting in touch with the spirit of a dead classmate who insists on using irritating abbreviations like "L8R" -- because when you're dead you obviously don't have the time for niceties like spelling out entire words. Kendrick also has to contend with being the daughter of overprotective cop Martin Donovan, who apparently has no problem with letting her do laps by herself at the school swimming pool at an obscenely early hour of the morning. After all, what better time is there for her to be menaced by a Commedia dell'Arte character in a parka? (Either that, or they're the Tatooinian informant from Star Wars, take your pick.)
Unsurprisingly, "The Spirit Box" has room for many such gaps in logic. For example, if you're going out to the place where a dead girl was found in order to get "more bars" when you try to contact her, wouldn't you want to tote your homemade Ouija board with you instead of having to go back to the car to get it? The scene where this occurs also features one of the most easily anticipated jump scares in the history of jump scares when Kendrick gets some mud on her hands and goes down to the water's edge to wash it off. As soon as she leaned over I literally counted the seconds until a disembodied hand reached out of the water to give her a jolt. What especially amused me was the way Schmidt uses a loud noise to provoke the scare not once but twice. The first time is when the hand springs out, causing Kendrick to jump. The second happens immediately after when we come back from commercial (a device, it must be said, that loses whatever impact it may have had when the episode is viewed on DVD or online). As Count Floyd would say, "Ooh, scary."
As for the scene Joe mentions above, I know for a fact that he really got caught up in the suspense of the moment since he sent me a bewildering pair of texts ("OMG HES GOT A LCTRIC KNIFE" and "DONT TASE HIM SIS") while it played out. And later on when the lame twist was about to be revealed, he sent me one that simply read "OMG IT WAS TTLY BECCA." Dude, next time don't forget the SPLR ALRT. KTHXBAI.