January is traditionally a crummy time for new releases. Coming off a banner year at the movies, a la 2015, this crusty old truism isn’t a big deal; there remain many worthy films running at your local art house or at the closest multiplex, and now, as we close in on the AMPAS nominations announcement, is the perfect time to catch up. Consider this a warning more than a recommendation, because the alternative is watching stuff like Eytan Rockaway’s The Abandoned. If you’ve ever wondered why studios treat this month like a celluloid landfill, The Abandoned presents a compelling case study on its own lack of merit.
The film does have one good thing going for it among a scattered handful of well-composed images: Jason Patric, playing an irascible, wheelchair-bound security guard named Cooper, who works the night shift at a deserted and crumbling all-in-one residential complex. He’s having fun, such as it is, or at least he gives the appearance of having fun. Cooper might not be a terribly original character, but Patric, crawling up on his 50s, maintains a boyish charm that gives Cooper a spark beneath his prickly exterior. The problem is that The Abandoned is neither Cooper’s nor Patric’s film. Instead, Rockaway has settled on Louisa Krause as his protagonist, Julia, a vaguely disturbed young woman who is given next-to-zero tangible backstory beyond her vague disturbance. She’s also just starting out as Cooper’s partner in the derelict building, so there’s that, but not much more.
In fairness, she has a daughter, but like every other intended mystery in the film, this fact clumsily telegraphs itself as a major tell. Most horror movies either go balls out and leave little to the imagination, or spend their time fostering intrigue alongside dread. The Abandoned does a sloppy approximation of both: Portent is layered so heavily upon additional portent that you may go cross-eyed from having Rockaway point out his foreshadowings at every possible opportunity. He leaves clues haphazardly all over the place, signposts that give away rather than suggest the film’s future payoffs. There’s a bad storm rolling in for the night. Julia is on medication. The building has been having trouble with electricity. Vagrants have been caught squatting in its countless rooms. We’re told by Julia and Cooper’s employer that this colossal tower was designed so that its inhabitants would never have to leave, so homeless people are quite possibly the least of their earthly concerns. The list goes on.
Horror clichés, like all clichés, exist for a reason. We need people to go check the basement when they hear inexplicable scraping noises from upstairs. We need them to hang out in areas where cell reception sucks. We need them to make habitually terrible decisions. But the trouble with The Abandoned is that Rockaway weaves clichés into its DNA. Nothing substantive links the story together, just prosaisms. Worse still, the film never holds back on them or tries to disguise them. We’re overwhelmed by tropes before Julia and Cooper meet for the first time. No sooner does Rockaway tease his audience with loops of hushed children’s laughter than we’ve already run out of patience for him and for his movie. Ten minutes in, we’re desperate for him to upend his own story and redeem the picture. The feeling lingers 10 minutes after that, and 10 minutes after that, until there’s only 10 minutes left and we can only do a Hail Mary and hope for the best.
But the best never happens. Instead, The Abandoned loses its mind. At least in that brief spat of schizophrenia, we see flashes of what might have; there is a decent movie in here, or, more specifically, ideas that could have led to a decent movie had Rockaway pursued any of them in earnest rather than jam them all in at the end. (There’s a good bit of Shyamalan in here, plus a healthy dollop of Adrian Lyne.) But the film introduces too many new and discordant concepts at once, and with no time left to do them proper justice, we’re left only with the sense that Rockaway didn’t quite have a handle on the kind of movie he wanted to make. That’s too bad. There are a couple neat twists on convention here that, more fully explored, could have given the film a clearer identity as a haunted house flick. Julia talks to ghosts, for example, instead of only fleeing from them, a soft detail seen in films as recent as The Conjuring.
It’s a nice touch, but if only it mattered. The Abandoned might as well have been called The Forgotten, because it likely won’t be remembered even a week after it premieres on iTunes. The good news is, it’s only January. Horror in 2016 can only go up from here.
Director: Eytan Rockaway
Writers: Ido Fluk, Eytan Rockaway
Starring: Louisa Krause, Jason Patric, Mark Margolis
Release Date: January 8, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.