The Jersey Devil

Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his essay on interior design and specifically about American ideals of aesthetic good “[A] man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in it.” While Poe may be speaking of a lack of culture and taste, specifically represented in Republican manners, this description is particularly apt when discussing Nigel Bach’s low-budget found footage movie Bad Ben. The soul and the purse are the hidden subject of the movie. The premise is simple as the title. Tom Riley buys a house from a sheriff’s sale and gradually discover it’s haunted by a malicious spirit. The movie has the momentum of a videologue of a single parent’ staycation away from the kids. A monotonous span of hours and days that build to discoveries Tom piddles through without any sense of repercussions. Within the stale discovering phase of the movie, we see a quintessential American character in Tom. Stomping through the house in his cabana wear, the viewer gets a running commentary that is the equivalent to a game of The Prices Right. Perhaps the price of things is the point here. Tom unravels this story with a cell phone camera in one hand, speculating on profit margins. Worried about the big score, paralaying his life’s savings into a inflating nest egg, he ignores the onerous signs. So much so that when paranormal activities escalate, Tom shows a ridiculous lack of concern. Confronted with a makeshift grave, a child’s toy resting atop the mudhole like a tiny headstone, Tom speculates about how old the music box could fetch online.

The malignant spirit lives in the things it possessed. The rubbishy pictures in the storage shed, the box of knives the previous family tried to play keep away with. Tom lays claim to what he’s purchased, wanting to make a killing on the ugly memory of the dead. Finding the sacrificial candles and ornaments Tom goes about cleaning up for potential buyers. Discovering the candle that has mysteriously comes alight, Tom sighs and exclaims “Great”–like the soda machine just stole his dollar. Tom rages as the supernatural, not because of fear, but because the uncanny spirit might foul up a real estate deal. Once the spirit stencil words in dust, “Not Your Home” Tom screams like a schoolyard bully, makes threats, tells the spirit to bring it on. The spirit consequently assaults him, bloodies his lip, bust his nose. Answering the challenge, Tom buries the murder artifacts, sloping them in the mud hole, ridding the house of  the voodoo dolls that resemble the family. Even then, Tom’s reaction is bravado, reading the bible to the demon casting it out of the house like a low-grade Father Merrin, evicting the demon like a bad renter.

The story is less about demons and more  about a deal with a devil. Bad Ben is a leathery id that takes murderous revenge on a family. Yet, Tom’s foolhardy walk through the house and hilarious diffidence  evokes the arrogant trespasser. Meaning and commerce only collide when the profit margin is large enough. Tom doesn’t understand the danger. He walks into the last ring of the inferno pitching a hissy fit. Only in the final frame does Tom realize the mistake. Life has teeth and some secrets are beyond exploitation.  They can’t be bought or adulterated. Trauma is real– genuine as a bloody thumbprint, a makeshift headstone, or a family ravaged by malignance. Tom’s death is like his life on camera, a casting of lots, a summation of all that he was. In the case of Bad Ben, the penalty for living like everything has a price is that sometimes it costs you everything.            

 

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