Judge Gordon Sullivan has a presence at a remote cabin.
Don't Believe Everything You Hear
The ghost story is a venerable genre that trades on our hopes and fears about what waits for us when we shuffle loose this mortal coil. Often slow, deliberate affairs, ghost stories survive on atmosphere and by hinting at what lurks in the dark. The best of them (like Henry James' The Turn of the Screw or Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House) teeter on the edge between a realistic explanation and a supernatural one. In contrast, The Presence bypasses any ambiguity—from the film's opening scenes we know there's a ghost in our remote cabin location—but still tries to rely on a sense of atmosphere and dread. This combination—of obvious ghostly figures with attempts at atmosphere—will be a volatile one for audiences, making the film hard to judge.
The film opens on a woman (Mira Sorvino, Mimic) in her late grandmother's remote cabin. She's going about her business, doing remote-cabin-like things. We can see, though she can't, that's always attended by a pale young man (Shane West, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), a ghostly presence in the cabin. When the woman's boyfriend (Justin Kirk, Weeds) shows up, she becomes erratic and we learn that the ghost might not be the only presence in the woods.
After a 3-minute credit sequence that gives us some soaring shots of the woods, The Presence opens with a 15-minute series of scenes that completely lack dialogue. We see the Woman going about her business (which includes, incidentally, trips to the outhouse where the structure is assaulted regularly by a dead bird). She makes tea, plays records, and discovers the cabin's hidden treasures. Of course, she's attended by a ghost. Not a scary ghost, but one who is just there. There is no attempt to have him jump out to surprise us, or any attempt to gross us out with any idea of his state of decay. Also, the Woman seems entirely ignorant of him. Then, we get a short scene where the Woman talks with an elderly gent, explaining that she likes the lonely cabin setting before she tries to call someone unsuccessfully. It's almost 30 minutes before the Man (her boyfriend) appears and the actual plot gets rolling. However, "rolling" is a relative term—even after all the players are in place it's a glacial move towards the film's climax and the revelation of what exactly is going down at the cabin. In between, we see the Woman becoming increasingly erratic, and the Man putting up with a saintly amount of abuse from her.
For some viewers, though, this view might be a little harsh. Rather than a boring first act of just watching a woman go about her day, they might see a haunted woman whose life is given meaning by the presence of a spectral entity. The film's geological slowness—instead of being frustrating—would allow for tension and atmosphere to build as the triangular relationship between Man, Woman, and ghost develops. The eventual revelation of the cabin's place in their lives is a heart-wrenching moment of poignancy. Instead of a guy taking a ton of abuse from his girlfriend, they see a man willing to do anything for his love. I'm not one of those viewers, but I can see how someone could be sucked into the world of the film thanks to the decent performances and visual style of the film.
Because of this tension, I don't see a lot of room for lukewarm responses to The Presence—audiences will either turn the film off in the first 20 minutes in disgust, or survive them to enjoy the film's final moments (unless, like me, they're duty bound to stick it out until the credits roll).
On DVD, The Presence offers a decent presentation and some fine extras. The film's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks really good, especially for a low-budget film. It has a stylized look to it, emphasizing cooler tones, but things warm up in the cabin interiors or during the occasional outdoor scene. Black levels are pretty deep, and noise isn't a significant problem. The 5.1 track is solid, with clear dialogue and good separation for the effects and score. The extras start with a commentary by the director, Tom Provost. He's a likeable sounding guy, and dishes info about low-budget filmmaking along with how The Presence came to be. I often found his commentary more enjoyable (and the story of the making of the film more engaging) than what was on the screen. The 22-minute making of goes over some of the same material, but includes a few other voices to round out our understanding of how The Presence came to the screen. Finally, there are 13 minutes of storyboards with commentary by the director and the editor (Cecily Rhett). The feature pairs the storyboards with the scene from the film, while the editor and director discuss the scene in question.
The Presence is a love-it-or-hate-it film. Some will enjoy the languid pace and ghostly suggestions; others will be turned off by the long stretches without dialogue and slow buildup. However, the strong presentation and informative extras make this one easy to recommend for a rental—even if you don't enjoy the feature, director Tom Provost gives a good commentary.
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