The Skeptic -- Film Review

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A rare old-fashioned supernatural suspenser that proceeds without gore or anything explicit -- including, unfortunately, suspense -- this modern-day haunted-house story about a cold-hearted lawyer with a repressed memory is reminiscent of those fondly remembered, spooky 1970s TV-movies including "Trilogy of Terror" or "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." Or, in reality, all those other supernatural telefilms that aren't remembered much at all.

Filmed with tight compositions and a brisk pace, writer-director Tennyson Bardwell's "The Skeptic" indeed looks made-for-TV. In fact, the film debuted Wednesday on pay-per-view before its theatrical premiere Friday.

Part of what made those old TV movies so memorable, of course, is the age at which most people first saw them: usually about 14 or younger. And not in a bad way, but that seems to be about the audience for this unrated but PG-toned tale. Horror buffs will rebuff it, and you have to wonder whether today's youth can be torn away from blasting off heads in "Grand Theft Auto" to watch a film with this mild a mood of menace.

Older audiences, conversely, will be shaking their heads at the plethora of questionable and even idiotic actions of the supposedly intelligent characters. Piece of advice to the protagonist's law-firm partner: If you're genuinely concerned that your friend might be going over the edge, don't sneak inside his house, put on a creepy-old-lady mask and lie in wait to scare him when he comes home.

Then again, you might if you're Tom Arnold, who plays the latter half of Becket & Sullivan, a law firm in an unidentified New England town (Buskirk and Saratoga, N.Y., in real life). Sully believes in everything that the hyper-rational Bryan Becket (Tim Daly) does not. When Becket's elderly aunt dies, leaving behind an antique-filled Victorian house, Sully warns that something's not right with the place. But with his marriage rocky, Becket moves in and soon starts seeing and hearing things that a local scientist (Bruce Altman) and Becket's psychiatrist (Edward Herrmann) explain away.

But both the doc and a local priest (the late Robert Prosky) know more than they let on. The insomniac and ever-less-skeptical Becket allows a psychic (Zoe Saldana) to come in and help him wrestle with the ghosts -- metaphoric and perhaps otherwise -- of his childhood.

Bardwell writes and directs carefully though without inspiration, leaving open the question of whether the house is really haunted. Daly, a talented enough dramatic actor who might have benefited here from more takes, can do little with the bald and blatant dialogue that tumbles out sans subtext or subtlety. The score is as obvious as the childhood secret quickly becomes.

It's all an earnest effort, three decades too late.

Opens: Friday, May 1 (New York) (IFC Films)
Production: Saratoga Studios, DayDreamer Films, Intrinsic Value
Cast: Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Andrea Roth, Robert Prosky, Bruce Altman
Tennyson Bardwell
Producers: Mary-Beth Taylor, Tennyson Bardwell, Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof
Executive producers: David B. Silipigno, Paul Bardwell
Director of photography: Claudio Rocha
Production designer: Susan Block
Music: Brett Rosenberg
Costume designer: Sarah Beers
Editor: Ann Marie Lizzi
No rating, 89 minutes