2018’s “Demon House” is a horror documentary about possibly the most haunted house in America, described as a “Portal to Hell” containing a multitude of demonic entities. Most passers-by who know its reputation would avoid looking twice at the place, let alone buying and filming extensively in it, but most people aren’t alpha ghost-bro and director Zak Bagans.
The creator of long-running Travel Channel spookshow “Ghost Adventures”, Bagans has a disarming charm in front of the camera, able to give off the air of someone who’s engaged and serious, but kind of “Over” what he’s seeing in front of him. It’s a skill that serves him well, as he’s effortlessly able to get former house residents, cops, and priests to open up and spill their terrifying takes on what makes the titular house so damn freaky.
Bagans makes frequent use of dramatizations in the doc, cutting in scenes with the horned, 12-foot-tall demonic entity that he claims entered his dreams before he started filming and breathed black smoke straight in his face, possibly cursing the whole production. While those scenes are effectively unsettling, the recreations of a former tenant’s children being possessed were badly acted and fell flat, poking a hole in the gloomy atmosphere.
The candid shots are much more effective. Even those who’ve visited the house briefly leave with lasting mental and even physical scars, from a former tenant being kicked by an unseen force on camera, to one of Bagan’s cast members suffering an apparent mental breakdown in a hotel after “absorbing” an entity. The house itself isn’t the most imposing setting, the most outwardly weird thing about it being the dirt under the stairs in an otherwise concrete basement. Don’t expect pentagrams carved in the floorboards, or gallons of blood running down the walls.
Despite the film’s location being mundane and the demonic material somewhat understated, “Demon House” still manages to be entertaining. Bagans is good at pinpointing the dramatic moments in the interactions with his subjects, as you’d expect from his “Ghost Adventures” tenure, although it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s a lack of real scares in this doc. The way the narrative is constructed around the obviously affected townspeople creates the real atmosphere and tension here, although it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s stretching his source material kinda thin.
And that’s really my main gripe with the doc. Not a lot actually happens, which doesn’t help with the suspension of disbelief we’re being asked to make. Is it too much to ask for a few flying dinner plates or dolls that move by themselves? Bagans even resorts to literally shutting himself into the house overnight to prod the house demons into taking action (spoiler: bad stuff happens). There’s definitely a sense that this film plays to Bagans’ pre-existing fan base, as many of the conclusions he draws require some real authority to be believed, like the random trash under the basement stairs being remains of a Satanic altar. That said, the few moments of outright weirdness and oppressive atmosphere of the movie might be worth the price of admission to you, even if the promise of a house with “200 demons” floating around in it isn’t exactly delivered.