After the debacle that was The Warning, I was just about ready to throw in the towel on “micro-budget” horror available via Amazon Prime’s streaming service (until the itch demanded to be scratched again a few months down the road, of course) , but as Al Pacino once famously said : “Just when I thought I was out — they pull me back in.” And the flick that pulled me back in? Writer/director Steve Hudgins’ 2012 Madisonville, Kentucky-filmed effort — made for the princely sum of $10,000 — Spirit Stalkers.
On paper, of course, there’s nothing here that sounds like it should be better (or worse, I suppose) than anything else : the cast and crew of our titular ghost-hunting paranormal “reality” show need a big ratings boost to avoid cancellation, and they think they’ve “found a winner,” so to speak, with the story of Gloria Talman (played by Hudgins’ producer partner P.J. Woodside), who’s got an eye toward turning an old home she’s purchased into a bed and breakfast — but first she’s gotta take care of this little ghost problem that’s plaguing the joynt. Nothing we haven’t seen any number of times before, right?
The smart thing about Spirit Stalkers is that they know their only chance to stand out from the pack is to get the little things right : the crew, led by Hudgins himself as Reuben, is smart and skeptical and won’t jump at every inexplicable noise or flickering light, thus ensuring that when scary shit over and above that does happen it’s worth being scared about; genuine twists and turns are put at the forefront while cheap “gotcha!” moments are kept to a minimum; “found footage” POV camerawork is interspersed (fairly seamlessly, I might add) with standard “point and shoot” scenes so you don’t get bored with hand-held, “shaky cam” nonsense; effectively-staged shots lend the production a genuine sense of ambiance and dread; characters are given a reasonable amount of depth and personality rather than conforming to simple one-note archetypes; best of all, there’s an actual plot underpinning the events here, and just when you think you know what’s happening, well — rest assured, you don’t.
Sure, you could argue that “I guess it all comes down to execution,” but there’s definitely more to it than that in this instance — Hudgins has a good eye and more ability than your average “homemade horror” filmmaker, it’s true, but there’s also a fair amount of imagination at work here, and at the end of the day something very akin to a wholly unique take on tried-and-true tropes emerges, the likes of which Hollywood has been trying (and largely failing) to find for some time. I guess if you want to do this kind of thing right, you need to go to Kentucky.
Do you have to make some of the typical allowances for amateurism with this flick that you do with most “micro-budget” productions? Sure. The acting is competent but hardly Oscar-worthy, certain effects don’t come off as well as the filmmakers would probably like them to, a handful of wayward sounds creep in here and there, and the quality of some of the camerawork can be dodgy on occasion — but elements of obvious “cheapness” are surprisingly few and far between here. This is, by and large, a very well-executed piece of work and everyone involved, whether in front of the camera or behind it, should be — and hopefully is — justifiably proud of their efforts.
So, yeah — I guess I’m not done with “micro-budget” horror quite yet. Spirit Stalkers is far and away the best of these sorts of flicks I’ve caught on Amazon so far, and offers proof positive that some of the best would-be auteurs can be found right in our own neighborhoods. I highly encourage anyone who values imagination over spectacle to give it a shot; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.