Creating a medieval period piece with a limited budget is tough. You can’t just go to a local thrift shop for clothing, you can’t just use normal locations, and don’t even get me started on the historical accuracy of props and accents. It’s no wonder that most microbudget filmmakers choose to make films set in the present or, at most, a few years in the past or future, so they don’t have to deal with looking like an Andy Milligan opus that doesn’t even have the benefit of having a nifty 16mm look.
Kurt Knight’s THE APPEARANCE, which made its world premiere at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse this past week, is then an admirable feat. A full-length horror epic taking place during the time of the black plague, THE APPEARANCE was clearly made on a minimal budget, but outside of the digital video look, rarely shows its origins. It’s well-acted, featuring a couple of familiar faces, and it clearly comes from a mind with both the knowledge and willingness to adhere to the era. The execution of the plot itself, however, leaves something to be desired.
The issue isn’t the plot, mind you. THE APPEARANCE is the tale of Inquisitor Mateho (Jake Stormoen, of the MYTHICA series) and his assistant (Game of Thrones’ Hodor, Kristian Nairn) who come to a monastery after the death of one of the monks. The monks have imprisoned a girl (Baylee Self) as a witch, calling her responsible for the death, but the science-minded Mateho has more logical ideas. These logical ideas start getting questioned when additional monks start dropping dead.
It’s a relatively basic premise, but one that certainly has the capacity for being done in an interesting manner, considering the setting. The monastery locale has been used effectively in suspense films before–notably THE NAME OF THE ROSE and David Schmoeller’s solid CATACOMBS, so THE APPEARANCE should have been able to produce some effective moments on a minimal budget. To a certain extent, it succeeds–there are a few nice shock sequences and, if you’re looking to get scared by watching characters walk down darkened corridors with a torch in their hand, THE APPEARANCE has them in abundance.
The problem is that, ultimately, very little of it really matters. The monks themselves aren’t well-developed enough to tell them apart (one of them is into self-flagellation, the abbot played by HALLOWEEN 4’s Michael Flynn is relatively cruel, and…then there are all of the others) so when they start dropping off, it’s less a shock and more of an obligatory plot point. The worst of it is Kristian Nairn’s assistant, who gets virtually no character development or backstory, giving Nairn barely more dialogue than he had in Game of Thrones. A few truly compelling leading characters could counter this loss, but Mateho and the woman on trial never rise above being garden-variety leads in a rudimentary exorcism film. The film’s humorlessness doesn’t help either – everything about the film is dour, not even allowing any minor character-based moments to slip through that might have helped the audience distinguish between the similarly-robed folks on screen.
In the end, THE APPEARANCE takes a potentially interesting premise and then ends up churning out a film as generic as its title. This could be partially attributed to the budget, which failed to allow for a more wide-ranging vision, but the issue is more that the story and characters involved are given less attention to their individual traits than ones played by a disinterested Dungeons & Dragons player who’s only joined the group because his girlfriend was part of it. Period horror doesn’t have to be confined to the realms of higher budgets, but THE APPEARANCE doesn’t do the genre any favors.
–Paul Freitag-Fey (@Dekkoparsnip2)