I was sitting with my podcasting friend Niall while watching this film. “So it’s a blacked up man in his pants wearing Spock ears?” I remarked. “That seems pretty scary to me” he replied.
And that crystallizes the problem with A Familiar Spirit. Like so many films, e.g. American Backwoods: Slew Hampshire, it suffers an involuntary identity crises. You’re not sure if it’s supposed to be a parody or straight. A Familiar Spirit at least does a better job than American Backwoods in that it does become apparent it is indeed a parody when a character appears named Ashley Williams. Her name is clearly a reference to the Evil Dead franchise’s star, but it takes being hit over the head with an explanation hammer, a direct and obvious homage to the monarch of horror parodies, to identify the film’s aim.
Like American Backwoods, it’s the low quality of many of the film’s key components that gets things off to a bumpy start. If the tone had been established early, decisively and competently in the film then we’d be ready to pick up on the comedy signals and at least judge them by parody, not dramatic, standards. The acting really lets the film down, with each of the key performers absolutely mutilating their lines, body language, expressions and interactions. The script doesn’t help them out and at times it’s very clunky. But writing and acting is a partnership and I’ve seen better actors elevate clunky dialogue and good writing do the same for poor actors. Here neither holds up their side of the bargain. Sound mixing is also dire, with music and effects deafeningly loud compared to murky dialogue. The camerawork is very nice, with some impressive effects, but it doesn’t compensate for the film seeming like a very badly made straight movie. It reveals itself later, but by the time it rolls around you’re already too bored to care and all you’re left with is a blacked up Spock in his pants.