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The secret diary of Katie Vanderhurst
A solid but sometimes by the numbers entry into the still ongoing urban ghost story cycle, RESTORATION, the directorial debut from actor Zack Ward, launches on US VOD tomorrow. Stateside reviewer Tim Obrist is not too surprised by what unfolds.

Just once, I'd love to watch a horror film in which a couple move into a new house and it really is everything they hoped it would be. They'd find nothing odd in the cellar, no strange memorabilia left in a box in the attic, and no untoward objects buried in the garden or stuck in the crawlspace. And they'd be happy there. But this never happens. If a horror film starts with a family moving into a new home, you've got twenty minutes at best before strange things start happening, and by the halfway mark you'll likely be placing bets on how many of them will get out alive.

Such is certainly the case with Restoration, the feature directorial debut of actor Zack Ward, who also plays a key supporting role here. The couple in question are Rebecca and Todd (Emily O'Brien and Adrian Gaeta), who've moved to the area because Rebecca, a doctor, has landed a residency at the local hospital. Todd, on the other hand, is gamely staying home to work on the house, a task that provides the film with its first and biggest mystery. When we first catch sight of him he's hammering through a partition wall, and a short while later he's showing his ambitious plans for the house to invite-themselves-round neighbours Harold and Francine (Zack Ward and Sarah Ann Schultz). And the movie is titled Restoration, which although is clearly intended to have more than one meaning, does tend to imply that Todd's big project is to restore this old and run-down property to a liveable state. Except that every room we see is in immaculate shape, and is nicely decorated and warmly furnished. So what is Todd aiming to do with this already market-ready property? We never find out. Frankly, it keeps me awake at nights.

Emily Roya O'Brien and Zack Ward

What Todd does discover behind the one wall he tears down is a button-eyed teddy bear, sewn inside of which is a young girl's diary. How, I wondered, did it get sealed behind this wall? It doesn't really matter. Uncovering the diary and spilling blood on it whilst clumsily trying to prise open its latch with the biggest knife in the kitchen (personally, there is no way I'd let this doctor even prod me with a spatula) seems to unleash something supernatural into the house. After making fried eggs behave as if they were breathing, it then it follows the lead of all house-bound movie spirits and intermittently pops up in interesting ways (on a laptop screen, reflected in a wine glass), seemingly just to go "Boo!" at the new owners.

In many respects, Restoration sticks to the modern urban ghost story template, and if you've already seen your share of these films (and TV series – let's not forget American Horror Story) then surprises are going to be thin on the ground. As expected, the ghostly encounters increase in severity, prompting Todd and Rebecca to investigate the dark history of the neighbourhood and work out what they have to do in order to lay this troublesome spirit to rest. Elsewhere you'll find a number of familiar genre tropes also getting a workout – filmmakers have been asking us to quickly bond with characters by having them play giggling games with each other since The Exorcist in 1974, and pushy neighbours who turn out to be more than they first seem go all the way back to 1968 and Rosemary's Baby.

That said, Ward does turn one well worn genre cliché on its head by having Rebecca instantly believe Todd's tale of a ghostly encounter that leaves him traumatised and physically scarred, something that never seems to happen when the gender roles are reversed. And early on (skip to the next paragraph to avoid a major spoiler) he uses a home improvement montage to set up a climactic Chekov's Gun moment involving a circular saw, only to have the bad guy disable it before it can be used by simply disconnecting the power cable. Mind you, if you're going to catch an approaching villain unawares with a noisy power tool, it's probably best not to loudly rev it up and bellow "COME ON!" before your intended target shows his face.

Pam Hyatt

As you would hope from a director with an acting background, the performances display a pleasing level of restraint, though Todd does occasionally lose his rag so suddenly and without persuasive reason that I began to suspect he was suffering from a multiple personality disorder. The nicest turn also provides the film with its most effective and unsettling scene, when Rebecca and Todd pay a visit to a psychiatrically confined Linda Caruthers (Pam Hyatt), a woman whose past misdeeds prompt the volatile Todd to go off on one before they've got a single word out of her.

Restoration is ultimately another variation on what has long since become a too familiar story, albeit one that may well find (and indeed has found) favour with devotees of this horror sub-genre. I also have little doubt that others will find the film scarier, more surprising and more compelling than I did. Then again, I've seen a lot of urban ghost stories in recent years, enough, indeed, to have me secretly pining for the large gothic country houses to which these tortured spirits once seemed to be confined.



USA 2016
92 mins
directed by
Zack Ward
produced by
James Cullen Bressack
Kenneth Gust
Shahen Jordan
Shant Jordan
Ace Underhill
Zack Ward
written by
James Cullen Bressack
Zack Ward
John DeFazio
James Kondelik
Alex Csillag
production design
Casey Merritt
Spencer Plamondon
Emily O'Brien
Adrian Gaeta
Zack Ward
Sarah Ann Schultz
Anna Harr
Pam Hyatt
USA release date (VOD)
3 May 2016
USA release date (DVD)
5 July 2016
review posted
2 May 2016