Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Meltdown 03: Lost & Found (Part I)

Before we launch into this, my third reckless movie marathon in a series of who knows how many, a small collection of disclaimers is probably in order:   

Disclaimer 1: Without reservations, I find the found footage movement in contemporary horror to be the most promising development the genre has seen in a long while.

Disclaimer 2: Regardless of this belief of mine, I discover many found footage horror films to be execrable, at best.  

Disclaimer 3: This variable quality has to do with the fact that the found footage genre is, by its very format, constructed around the amateur, the consumer, and therefore has inspired even those without talent or inspiration to give it a go.  

Disclaimer 3.5: This is especially true in the current boom with the FF output from professional production studios. To create a found footage film in the era before prosumer HD camcorders was a decidedly unprofessional task that required skill, ingenuity, enthusiasm, and acceptance of the knowledge that your film was probably never going to be shown in theaters (unsurprisingly, The Blair Witch Project's success was sort of unable to be immediately reproduced with contemporaneous technology (the cash-ins were far more frequently straight direct-to-video parodies)--we don't see the current boom start until 2007-2008, when digital video allowed the conceit to be a good deal more practical and attractive). Today, any studio small or giant can crank one out for nothing, make it look and sound roughly as good as any mainstream fare, and watch as it collects a larger return on its investment than anything that they actually put effort into. Unfortunately, the films seem to make bank in spite of whatever their cinematic qualities may be, and therefore those producing them seem uninterested in whether or not they turn out to be decent films outside of the gimmick. This is a flaw. 

Disclaimer 4: Despite everything I've previously said, I believe some found footage/documentary horrors to be exceptional in their employment of the form to tell riveting, effective horror tales, where the style becomes not a gimmick but a legitimate and useful form of storytelling. Films like Exhibit A (2007), Megan is Missing (2011), The Last Broadcast (1998), Lake Mungo (2008), Trash Humpers (2009), Evil Things (2009), Behind the Mask (2006) and of course progenitors such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) stand as exemplars of the format's strengths.  

Disclaimer 5: I have semi-definite plans about attempting to write something long about the genre for publication. I have spent far too much time collecting, absorbing, and thinking about these films to let it all go to waste. I'll keep you updated.

So, that nonsense out of the way, I'll have you know that I spent 48 hours watching 15 semi-obscure found footage/documentary horror films (which is my new two-day record, for what it's worth). These films span this fresh decade and the two previous. One was possibly the best I've ever seen from the genre, a few were admirable, and some were about as creatively bankrupt as one can fathom. So join me in this bout of two-day hysteria, and let's swear off motion sickness together. A final chilling fact: I have enough unseen found footage films after this to fuel at least three more marathons of comparable length. Brace yourselves.

Evidence (2011) dir. Howie Askins


Evidence is a fine beginning to this marathon because it stands as a suitable example of how the FF aesthetic can be used to little effect. In essence, its first 2/3rds is a Blair Witch clone with skunk apes, but there's no real impetus for any of the events shown to be filmed (the camera operator is making a documentary about his friend because... his friend has never been on a camping trip before?). It might be possible to excuse this absence of FF necessity (or logic) if it weren't for the film incessantly reminding the audience of the approach's artificiality. Like several recent FF films (most egregiously Skew (2011)), Evidence decides to have all of its characters whine that "the camera thing is annoying" and treat the camera operator as if he's a maniac for never ceasing to film (curiously, the film also spends an inordinate amount of screetime setting up the C.O. as a genuine sociopath, but fails to pay it off). One might be tempted to label these and other gently meta moments (like when the C.O. self-consciously sets up establishing shows and narrates with soundbites like "EXT. DAY: Pan around to our heroes") as signs of the film's playfuyl awareness of its own methods, but they feel more like fumblings for a rational excuse for the film's existence. The skunk apes are rather effective the first few times we see them (reminiscent in their movements of the pitch-black male aliens from Attack the Block (2011)). Typically, the film's best and worst attempted frights derive from the Blair Witch mold (best: the discovery of the characters' previous night's dialogue carved into the trees surrounding their camp in the morning; worst: the skunk apes sabotaging an RV's engine by gumming it up with dry leaves when no one's looking). The film's most prominent detriment is its gratuitousness: gratuitous bickering, gratuitous female nudity/girl-on-girl makeout sessions, and gratuitous prolonged action sequences. Lapsing into the utterly incomprehensible, Evidence's final act would make for a serviceable video game, I suppose. The same can't be hazarded for its status as a film.

The Wicksboro Incident (2003) dir. Richard Lowry


There's something to be said about the charm of a mockumentary that follows around an amiable drunk old codger with his patented alien detector (looking more like an ostentatious child's toy zapper than a genuine electronic device) while maintaining a more or less straight face. The Wicksboro Incident is not great cinema, but as an early entry in the subgenre that's clearly putting in effort, it earns some good will. While beginning as a talking-heads documentary horror about a a subtle alien invasion and the government-instigated vanishing of an entire town (call it Errol Morris' UFO Abduction), the film then cleverly segues into an FF film (replete with a camera confession à la Blair Witch) as events progress, with the implication that an off-camera party edited the footage together after the fact. I say clever because this move shifts one's expectations for the film and its characters-- if they completed the doc, we assume that everything turned out alright for them, while the gradual revelation of the FF method prevents the typical evacuation of tension that several FF films (and their opening title cards of impending doom) often suffer. The narrative's background and mythology are fun enough, but it's a shame that little of it is resolved through the documentary crew's investigation (the film's latter half is solely composed of scenes wherein the group is pursued by shadowy men in black--which do manage to be fitfully suspenseful). The film's major recommendation falls upon the presence of Lloyd, the old, kooky codger. He's the sort of chap who purchases all of a roadside convenience store's ancient cheap wine, falls asleep with lit cigarettes in his hand, and makes sure to scan a seafood restaurant for aliens before the crew chows down. In short, an American treasure.

Welcome to the Jungle (2007) dir. Jonathan Hesleigh

The ludicrous opening title cards inform us that, "People go missing every day. But not the son of the Vice President of the United States. And not in cannibal territory." So we're off on an adventure. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd of T2 and Aliens fame, Welcome to the Jungle (a.k.a. Cannibals) is an early entry in the prosumer boom of the genre and, while aesthetically on par with anything being produced at the moment, seems interested in being little more than an obvious throwback: Cannibal Holocaust lite. "Lite" for numerous reasons: the violence, conflicts, and displays of American brutishness are all significantly neutered variations of the former film's attributes. Even skimpier is the social commentary which--while arguably scathing in the earlier film--is entirely absent here. Rather than displaying the brutal cultural resemblances between the "civilized" and savage societies through the exploits of a violent documentary film crew, Welcome to the Jungle quickly launches two cloying young couples from a vacation in Fiji into a money-making manhunt in cannibal-infested New Guinea (I knows it's what I'd do on vacation!). But this omission is fine because the film is much more concerned in fashioning a no-frills nail-biter than a film with a social agenda. Unfortunately, it places more dramatic weight upon interpersonal conflicts than the obvious--and much more compelling--situational conflict (most of the film's running time is occupied with the straight-laced, mission-oriented couple loudly squabbling with their hopelessly inebriated, jungle-party loving companions. One suddenly begins to wonder why they don't simply kill each other and be done with it). The film is competently shot and occasionally effective in constructing horrific images (I'm thinking particularly of the long scenes of the cannibal tribesmen creeping along the shore, warily stalking the protagonists floating down the river on a raft), but there's little compelling and nothing creative about it. In consideration of the subgenre landmark that it's ripping from, it's difficult to say its scant ambitions earn it a pass. I've just now noticed that I've gone this entire capsule review without mentioning the film's use of FF, which should tell you how integral it is to the narrative. A section in the first act is framed like and contains all of the cinematic ingenuity of an episode of The Real World.

Stay tuned for the next installment (of five), featuring The Black Door (2001), Blackwood Evil (2000), and June 9 (2008).

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