The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008)
Rated PG-13 for strong thematic material, violence and terror, brief strong language, and some teen drinking
Oh boy... do we have a bad one today. The Haunting of Molly Hartley is a film that shows a few glimmers of promise in the first act (as in, it's just kinda crappy, and doesn't outright suck yet), but then spends the next hour squandering them on cheap scares, thin writing, terrible acting, a story that drags forever, plot twists that make no sense, characters who have no purpose whatsoever, and to cap it all off, an utterly godawful ending. When I saw this film in the FYE bargain bin (where it belonged), I wondered if it was really as bad as I remembered it being when I first saw it. I had my doubts for the first half-hour or so, but by the end, I had swiftly come to realize that yes, yes it was.
Our heroine is the titular Molly Hartley, a seventeen-year-old girl who just moved from Boston to what I can guess is Georgia, going by the license plates and the palm trees. (Remember this for later.) She and her father moved down there after her mother stabbed her out of religious mania, hoping to start a new life. Unfortunately, Molly is being plagued by nosebleeds, voices in her head, and the odd strange vision, and also seems to be suffering from some kind of severe anxiety disorder going by the number of times she jumps in fright at the most innocuous things (this film loves its jump scares). At first, it seems that it's being caused by a tumor in her head, but even after it's removed, it isn't long before the weird shit starts happening again. Unbeknownst to Molly, her parents made a Faustian bargain to save her life when she was born prematurely, and now, the Devil is coming to claim her soul on her imminently-approaching eighteenth birthday. This was why her mother tried to kill her: she was trying to save Molly's soul before she turned 18 and fell into Satan's grasp.
But who cares about that, when we have all sorts of shit to pad this movie out with? We have the bitchy queen bee Suzie and the "bad girl" Leah, a pair of stereotypes that always show up in these sorts of teen horror movies, only here, they don't even get killed off, dropping out of the film almost entirely shortly after a ten-minute party scene that does nothing to advance the plot nor give any insight into our heroine. The prologue, meanwhile, likewise spends eight minutes padding out the runtime, existing only to cast Jessica Lowndes in a bit part and lure in more fans of 90210. It also undermines the whole subplot about Molly's tumor, which drags the film to a tortoise's crawl and acts as needless misdirection. The film's attempts to imply that Molly's problem might be medical in nature are counterproductive, as a) that subplot is fully resolved and then dropped in the course of twenty minutes, b) this film has the word "haunting" right there in the title, and c) the prologue makes it very clear that this is a supernatural/religious horror film in case b) wasn't enough. All told, at least half of the first hour or so of this 85-minute film is nothing but worthless padding, the film waiting until the start of the third act, the point at which it should be wrapping up, just to tell us what the hell is going on. It's J. J. Abrams' obnoxious "mystery box" style of storytelling crammed into what should be a straightforward teen horror flick, only Abrams, to his credit, knows how to make it interesting before the story starts to fall apart. Here, the film can't help but go off on all manner of useless tangents, without even using that time to create an intriguing mystery. If Abrams is like a successful and skilled Vegas stage magician, an expert at concealing the mundane machinations of his plots under layers of truly exciting spectacle and mystery, then this film's creators, director/producer Mickey Liddell and writers John Travis and Rebecca Sonnenshine, are like that hack who shows up at amateur hour and can't even pull a rabbit out of a hat without giving away the secret through his own incompetence.
At least the film can figure out something to do with Alexis, the vocally Christian scholarship student who Molly turns to upon realizing that it's the Devil that's after her, as well as her skeptical but well-meaning father Robert. Unfortunately, in both cases it's to have those characters make monumentally stupid decisions that exist solely for plot convenience. Alexis, who's portrayed sympathetically for most of the film, suddenly turns into an antagonist because her grandmother just so happened to work at the mental hospital where Molly's mother was locked up, causing Molly's demonic backstory to find its way to Alexis, leading her to try and kill her in order to save her soul. (And just to remind you: Molly and Robert moved to this new town in Georgia from Boston, Massachusetts. Why was Molly's mother locked up a thousand miles away, and why oh why would they move to the very same town that Mrs. Hartley is in?) As for Robert, his skepticism of the supernatural goes far beyond what is normally expected for dads in horror movies, going to a level that would make Agent Scully shake her head and laugh at him for being so closed-minded. Again, I'll repeat: the man made a deal with the Devil to save his infant daughter's life, so he should be the last person doubting the supernatural, especially the fact that Satan is now coming to collect on his end of the deal. Of all the stories about deals with Satan that I've ever seen or read, this is the first one I'm aware of in which the mortal who made the deal goes on to flat-out deny the very existence of the demonic entity he made it with.
Oh, but I haven't even gotten to the best part of the film's writing! The ending... oh, wow, the ending. It's revealed that Joseph, Molly's hunky love interest, and Dr. Emerson, her guidance counselor, were both members of a Satanic cult, and had been guiding her to her destiny as a devoted servant of the Dark Lord come her eighteenth birthday. Again, I'll repeat: Molly is supposed to be a new student who's moved to town from far away. How could this cult have predicted that Molly would fall into their laps just like that, since her mother was a religious fanatic and her father an equally fanatical skeptic? (I guess it can be insinuated that this cult is a fairly wide-reaching and powerful organization, almost Illuminati-esque, but we never see, or are even told, any of this.) Furthermore, Dr. Emerson just so happens to be the very same woman who acted as the Devil's agent in the bargain with Molly's parents, which makes it absolutely unbelievable that Robert wouldn't recognize her as his daughter's new guidance counselor. Finally, Molly is given one last chance to break the deal by killing her father (who Joseph and Dr. Emerson have helpfully kidnapped), as the exact terms of the deal stated that Molly's parents would get to spend eighteen years with their daughter, ending with their deaths or with Molly's soul falling into Satan's hands. As Molly had killed her mother in self-defense earlier in the film, now all that stands between her and salvation is her father's life. As the clock chimes midnight, Molly raises the knife above her father...
...and stabs herself in order to save him. Only it's already past midnight, and just seconds too late. Molly is in Satan's hands now, the stab wounds do nothing, and like that, she turns evil. Cut to several months later, where Robert is in the loony bin while Molly is graduating valedictorian, with a life of luxury awaiting her as a card-carrying member of what we can guess are the Secret Masters of the World. A cheesy pop-rock song plays for the soundtrack, and then the movie ends.
And meanwhile, I was screaming two words. "Bull. Shit."
Seriously. Dafuck? What the fuck did I just watch? This movie just got interesting, and now you roll credits? I mean, I can get that Molly was supposed to be possessed at midnight (a planned sequel for this is titled The Possession of Molly Hartley), but after spending eighty minutes giving us a plodding, meandering bore, you end the film right after the first truly interesting moment? It reminded me of the fatal flaw of another filmmaker, M. Night Shyamalan, cramming in a "shocking" twist ending for its own sake at the expense of the rest of the film's plot, pacing, and overall quality. That moment should've come at the end of the second act, with the finale involving Molly's father and her classmates (like, oh, I dunno, Suzie and Leah, who otherwise vanish from the face of the earth towards the end?) fighting to either find a way to save her soul or otherwise stop her and the rest of the cult from doing anything nasty. Yes, it would've been a cliche, but it still would've been better than the catastrophic anti-climax we get here.
All this discussion of where the writing trips and faceplants from the word "go", and I haven't even gotten into whether this movie succeeds on a technical level. Spoiler: no, it doesn't. It's directed lifelessly, with a non-stop torrent of jump scares and all the oldest, most cliched tricks in the horror filmmaking handbook, the ones that the book usually has in a separate category under "please, if you're gonna use this, at least put some kind of twist on it". Mirror scare? Check. Shots ripping off The Shining? Check. Angry dog startling the heroine from behind a fence? Well, it was either that or a damn cat. The heroine seeing something scary across the street, only for a big truck to drive along, and when it's passed by we see nothing there? To the letter. I joked earlier that Molly must be some kind of nervous wreck going by how everything seems to startle her, but honestly, I wasn't joking in the slightest -- it gets so ridiculous that I was wondering at times if Molly had a serious problem. (That would actually be an interesting horror film, surely a lot more interesting than this one.) Worse, these cliches aren't even handled with any sort of craft, instead feeling as though the film was just going through the motions. The deaths feel like they were thrown in just because they were expected of a teen horror movie, with only three occurring over the course of the entire film and all of them being completely and utterly lifeless. Religious symbolism, too, is there just for creepiness and attempted shock value, its messages concerning faith and redemption shifting as the plot demands. At times, it's telling us that Molly can only be saved by being "saved", but the whole plot hinges on Molly's parents having already made that decision for her, and it's left open whether the attempts by Molly's mother and Alexis to kill her were justified. But hey, we get a spooooooky baptism scene out of it, plus the obligatory fundamentalist character that every fifth-rate religious spook-show seems to have.
And finally, we come to the acting, and to put it kindly, none of the cast rose above the material. AnnaLynne McCord as Suzie and Jake Weber as Robert probably came out looking the least awful, in the sense that, when given utterly one-note characters to play, they actually played that one note halfway decently. I can't say the same for the rest of the cast. Chace Crawford was as wooden as Joseph as he was on Gossip Girl, and when he becomes a villain at the end, he isn't menacing in the slightest. The actresses playing Alexis, Leah, and Dr. Emerson were just as bad as he was -- Alexis looked just mildly inconvenienced in her death scene, Leah had none of the edge that her "bad girl" role called for, and Dr. Emerson, like Joseph, failed to convey in any meaningful sense that she was a servant of evil incarnate. Pretty much all of them were cast for their looks and the fact that, in the case of McCord and Crawford, they were on popular teen dramas at the time, not on whether they could actually act. Finally, we come to Molly herself, Haley Bennett, and to her credit, she tries on occasion, but the few moments when she gives any sort of watchable performance are outweighed by the times when she sinks to the same lifeless level as nearly everybody else in this film. She's pretty, but that's about it, utterly failing to carry this movie to a point where it can be called anything close to decent.
Score: 1 out of 5
And it's only getting that one point because I don't give zeroes. There is absolutely, literally, nothing worth watching in all the eighty-five minutes of this film, except for a lesson on how to do it completely wrong when making a teen horror film.