Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

What can you say about an effective ghost story… without spoiling the effect?  And what can you say about a story’s artistic and spiritual significance… without spilling key plot points and character arcs?

The answers are: Not Much, and Very Little.  So prepare for what may be the shortest film review I’ve ever written, as I have no intention of ruining the very simple and intense pleasure that is a screening of The Presence.

Here’s the basic setup:  A troubled young writer schedules a secluded week or two holed up the remote cabin where she spent time with family as a child.  The catch: the cabin is now inhabited by a ghost.  The other catch: the writer ends up with some additional unwanted company, human and otherwise.

So just a few things to note.

First: While this was writer/director Tom Provost’s feature-film debut ten years ago, he was hardly a greenhorn in the business.  His background in theater is on display here with the creative staging of the copious cabin interior sequences—but his lengthy (if spotty and varied) experience as a TV actor, screenwriter, and editor/producer/director of commercial films really paid off with this debut.  This is really a pretty brilliant first film, one with which any director would be immensely pleased.  Even though Provost talks of his awareness of the film’s many shortcomings (so says he), I can’t think of a single significant thing he could have done to improve the effect.  Certainly, a larger budget wouldn’t have helped a bit—and it’s not often you can say that.

Second: The major roles are brilliantly cast.  In the past, I’ve usually felt that Mira Sorvino has been given a free pass by directors (and critics) because she’s just so darned attractive and appealing as a performer.  The camera just loves her.  But she’s really working here, and contributes immensely not only through her performance but through the influence of her craft.  The synergy that’s created between her character backstory and Provost’s script is pretty remarkable.  It is, in fact, what really lends the story’s climax its weight and significance.  In addition, Shane West, Justin Kirk, and Tony Curran are all seasoned vets and turn in A-list supporting work here.  Again this reflects well on Provost.

Third:  It’s worth pointing out that this is a film that really nails what a good ghost story should do.  Yes, it works at a metaphorical level—as Sorvino’s writer gets a chance to work through her “inner demons”—but also takes seriously the notion of the metaphysical world.  And it also takes that extra step, taking very, very seriously the idea that the metaphysical world has both a bearing on the here and now and, literally, the hereafter.  It’s a stirring vision of mercy and redemption.

This is a wonderful film to not only watch and enjoy but talk about and think about for days afterward.  If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking in the form of a ghost story, invest in The Presence.

You won’t regret it, unless you suffer extensively from either clinical or culturally-induced ADD.  Don’t expect chase sequences, blood and guts, zombies, or slasher gore.  This is a smart film that takes its time getting under your skin.

Well, now… I guess that wasn’t so short after all!

You can watch The Presence for free on Tubi. It’s also available to stream for a small charge at the usual outlets.

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