Thursday, March 28, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part VII)


  The Bay (2012) dir. Barry Levinson


For competent directors, populist horror trends tend to serve as the launching points for Hollywood careers, allowing these filmmakers to prove themselves capable of wrangling a successful product out of an easy formula while under the constraints of a limited budget. Not totally screwing up-- or, even better, displaying a bit of creativity-- in these early genre projects can open up some significant studio doors for aspiring filmmakers. (See, for instance, the careers of most of the young directors who first worked making horror films for Roger Corman (and then went on to become people with names like "Coppola" and "Bogdanovich") or, more specifically to the topic in question, gander at the upcoming projects of successful FF directors like Chronicle's Josh Trank and Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli.) With this in mind, it's curious to see a horror trend like FF being used as a shelter for a faltering career instead. Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson (he of Diner (1982), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997)) has had a rough past decade in multiplexes, and after a few successful TV projects we find him returning to feature films with The Bay, a modest FF/mockumentary horror that in many crucial ways is indistinguishable from other modern efforts in the subgenre made by less seasoned filmmakers. That isn't necessarily a dig at Levinson's skills, as it's actually quite impressive to witness how seamlessly he integrates The Bay into the FF movement's current trends and aesthetics, but-- simultaneously-- it's also disappointing to see how little his four decades of experience behind the camera adds to the film. While in many way an enjoyable film, The Bay still suffers from the same tried and true deficiencies that so many other FF films are afflicted with: terrible amateur acting, preposterous plot points, and themes with the subtlety of wrecking balls.

Like so many animal terror movies, The Bay positions itself as an ecologically conscious critique of the level of pollutants we allow into our environment by demonstrating the effects of an exaggerated consequence (in this case, the appearance of a freakishly large, water-based, tongue-eating mutant parasite, the Cymothoa exigua, in the eponymous polluted zone). Yet, more so than nearly any animal terror film, The Bay appears to fancy itself a totally earnest and, in essence, truthful ecological tract against the abuses of industry, using its horror elements merely as visceral support for its claims (rather than the usual track these films take: legitimizing the horror with an ecological context). This might have been a successful track to take if the film were more thoughtful and accurate than the alarmist fairytale it is, depicting, as it does, a comically evil mayor who colludes to pollute the town's water for profit (and then attempts to prevent panic when townsfolk start becoming infected: another animal terror film trope) and a wildly incompetent and disinterested CDC who really can't be bothered to deal with the alleged "outbreak" in some small town in Maryland. Regardless, the infrequent bits of horror that the film includes are admirably done, and the film's conceptual mutant critters are so squirm-inducing that it would have to try pretty hard to screw them up (it doesn't). In terms of its aesthetic approach to FF, the film is also of interest for its higher-than-average number of footage sources, including that from TV news crews, Skype sessions, FaceTime chats, home videos, scientific research video logs, and police cruiser dashboard cams. How all of this government-suppressed footage of The Bay's disaster winds up in the hands of an amateur-in-every-respect reporter (as seen in the film's wraparound segments) is unclear because the film has no good answer for its conceits, but the variety is appreciated nonetheless.

 

Area 407 (2012) dir. Dale Fabrigar & Everette Wallin


One could suppose that if a person has no other frame of reference, Area 407 might resemble a movie. But that might also be stretching it. Rather, it more closely resembles a belabored string of arguments and reaction shots captured through the lens of a camcorder, sprinkled with ADR'd noises off in the distance and the occasional blurry clipart velociraptor being dragged across an open window. Area 407 is sort of like the pilot episode of LOST, if it were set on New Year's Eve, if the plane had crashed in a field in California rather than an island, and if the shaking trees had indeed turned out to be dinosaurs rather than a mopey smoke monster. It's a poor enough excuse for an FF film (there's no motion towards an explanation regarding how we're seeing this footage (and if we have only the last shot to go on, it was swallowed by a dinosaur); the C.O. more often aims her camera at the faces of other characters when a dinosaur is howling away in the woods directly behind her), so what's even worse is that it can't manage to be at all interesting on any other level. The dinosaurs, which even in a bad movie would be reason enough to power through it, are obscured until a brief final shot (the very expensive camera conveniently malfunctions during all previous attacks), so what else could there even be to latch onto here? A big nil. If two things can be said in Area 407's defense they would be that the majority of the acting is not atrocious and the arguing-- though taking up an unfortunate amount of the running time-- is at least convincingly derived from a stressful and dangerous situation. Yes, the actors who run away from a CGI velociraptor's tail don't embarrass themselves too much. Would they like a noisemaker or a glittery party hat for their trouble?

 

The Dinosaur Project (2012) dir. Sid Bennett


I'd like to think that the directors of Area 407, Dale Fabrigar and Everette Wallin, tucked their velociraptor tails between their legs in shame after seeing The Dinosaur Project, released in the same year as their negligible dinosaur FF film and in every way surpassing it. Granted, the folks behind The Dinosaur Project obviously had a bigger pot of funds to pull from (we actually see dinosaurs!) and there's no denying that the film is aided by some gorgeous, if geographically confusing, location shooting in South Africa. But the film also bothers to anchor its story by establishing a believable central relationship between its estranged father and son protagonists, and the mere effort (so often lacking in FF films of this sort) convinces us to connect to it on a basic level. Moreover, the film cultivates a sense of wondrous adventure commingled with very real terror, resembling a sort of contemporary version of  Doyle's The Lost World and leaving the film feeling more fun than horrifying, much like the similarly successful Chronicle (2012). Also much like Chronicle, with its mind-controlled floating cameras, The Dinosaur Project attempts some snazzy innovation of the FF aesthetic (by way of zooming velcro micro-cameras and a dino neck collar cam) while at the same time pushing or ignoring the boundaries of camera coverage verisimilitude. But small chinks in the armor of the film's FF conceit are not enough to fell the whole. If nothing else proves the film's good intent, witness its denouement, which both satisfyingly hints at the further adventures its protagonist will have in dinoland and actively avoids the easy set up for a sequel by literally dismantling the camera. Much appreciated. Director Sid Bennett is responsible for another FF oddity, the recent Discovery Channel mockumentary Mermaids: The Body Found (2011), and if The Dinosaur Project represents his desire to continue playing around with the form, then let him at it.


The Frankenstein Theory (2013) dir. Andrew Weiner


Andrew Weiner's The Frankenstein Theory is one of the first major FF releases of the calendar year, and if we were to anticipate the rest of 2013 in FF on it alone then the prognosis wouldn't be entirely grim. Conceptually, the film is near ingenious, positing that Mary Shelley's novel was based, in fact, not on then current Romantic-era scientific conjecture but on an actual story of a scientist, here a Dr. Venkenheim, who reanimated a hulking corpse in his spare time to disastrous results. The discovery of this long-buried truth inspires a descendent of Venkenheim to hire a film crew to accompany him on a journey to the Arctic to substantiate reports of the Creature's continued existence. With this focus, the film aims for some literary cachet (there's a passing mention of a Justine-like character who is hanged for the Creature's crimes, and the tireless Arctic quest of the descendent of Dr. Venkenheim and his film crew's threats of mutiny echo the foolhardy pursuit of the novel's Walton) but one can't escape the feeling that the writers were working off the CliffsNotes (the Creature is a lumbering, wordless beast who eats meat, huh?). Still, the effort spent carving out some light themes and literary allusions is welcome, considering the rest of what's here is, at best, middling. For much of the film, little happens, and we're treated to a wealth of landscape beauty shots as our characters traverse the winter wasteland (plus, whoever edited together this-- again-- miraculously recovered footage was kind enough to splice in a few establishing shots). 

Besides a predominance of tedium until the final act, the film's most obvious issue is its deliberate avoidance of FF verisimilitude. Sure, the FF conceit of a film like The Dinosaur Project has a few holes, but The Frankenstein Theory's is a gulch. For awhile, the viewer may not realize that there is a cameraman, as he makes not a peep for most of the duration (there are, in fact, two camera operators at certain points, only adding to the confusion). But the primary C.O.'s professional silence makes the FF aesthetic feel abnormally artificial in the film, as if the filmmakers wanted to make their scenes more "cinematic" by removing the human operator while still having the film broadly conform to the FF trend. What this results in is the camera cutting to different shots and camera angles within a single scene that would be impossible with the crew's established documentary camera setup (and again raise questions about our mysterious footage editor). I noticed at least one glaring instance in which the camera jumped from in front of two characters to behind them without any passage of time or a cameraman visible in either shot, but I recall smaller bits of camera confusion as well (like a plethora of scenes featuring inexplicable shot-reverse-shot editing). Why bother creating an FF film, with all the form's inherent limitations, if you've decided to violate those very limitations for ease and convenience of storytelling? The only occasions in which the filmmakers use the aesthetics of FF are when they desire to obscure the Creature from our view during attacks, which always feel like a cheap shot in these sort of affairs to begin with, but are doubly unearned here in a film that wouldn't otherwise hesitate to cut to clearer footage from some other magical floating camera. Perhaps it's a small quibble, but it seems to be one that matters as FF films shift ever closer to resembling traditionally filmed cinema and begin to lose their unique spark. The Frankenstein Theory isn't the only offender on this count, and probably won't be the last. And, even then, the film redeems its transgressions in its enjoyable final act, in which the Creature plays a game of Occupy Yurt and meets (the descendant of) his maker. This conclusion presents a clever play on the novel's depiction of the Creature's desires, acting as a sort of wish fulfillment for the poor guy and (perhaps unintentionally) laying the foundation for a sequel I wouldn't mind seeing. Let us patiently await Bride of Frankenstein Theory.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part VI)


Noroi: The Curse (2005) dir. Kôji Shiraishi


With (as far as my language-barrier-ed research tells me) at least five mockumentary/found footage films to his name (and three of them in the horror genre), Japanese director Kôji Shiraishi clearly has a certain fondness for the storytelling potential that the format provides, and-- unlike far too many of his peers-- he employs this verite aesthetic to his films in service of the story, rather than constructing a thin scenario to bridge together the handheld frights. This effort is appreciated. The first of his documentary horror films, Noroi: The Curse, was produced in 2005, five years after the initial burst of post-Blair Witch found footage imitators and a few years before the subgenre would rear its head once again. This timing results in the film positioning itself apart from the general trends of either movement and developing its own unique style and concerns (style and concerns that are also markedly distinct from the concurrent and overly flashy J-horror trend, while still drawing inspiration from Japanese folklore). Sure, parts of the film (especially a climactic forest encounter with a sinister force) are reminiscent of The Blair Witch, but not in a manner that feels like a cynical swipe. Rather, those moments only add up to one spooky strand in the complicated web of horrors that the film weaves: other strands include ghosts, possessed women, children with ESP, a tinfoil-hatted psychic, ectoplasmic worms, village sorcerers, ancient demon-pacifying rituals, suicidal birds, and abducted aborted embryos. The fact that Shiraishi is able to reconcile these disparate horror elements into a provocative and ultimately cohesive mystery narrative is miraculous. Furthermore, the fact that he and his cast and crew were able to accomplish the telling of such a coherent story while presenting it through the mediation of multiple forms of found footage is all the more impressive: here we have a film cobbled together from multiple documentaries, TV chat shows, home movies, photographs, and nighttime observation videos, and yet the transitions between them never feel jarring or unnecessarily showy. The position the audience is placed in is akin to that of the fictional documentarian, who immerses himself in the copious data and research surrounding the central puzzle, slowly piecing together the wild and (seemingly) contradictory elements into a unified image of horror. Though Noroi's story is both complex and engaging, it lacks the depth that those films in the subgenre's top tier possess. Consistently tangible throughout the film is the odd tension that exists between the modern technological world and the traditional world of demons and ghosts (and the eerie control that the latter has over the former), but Noroi neglects to make any clear statement regarding the enduring existence of its varied phenomena. Regardless, moments in the film-- particularly the aforementioned forest apparition at the climax-- are among the most unnerving the subgenre has yet produced, and that's worth something.


Occult (Okaruto) (2009) dir. Kôji Shiraishi


A few years later, as found footage was reemerging as horror's aesthetic of choice, Shiraishi released his second documentary horror, Occult. Somewhat disappointingly, Occult uses the same basic approach to the FF genre as Noroi does, with its "Documentary Filmmaker Explores an Occult Mystery Involving Japanese Folklore" premise and smorgasbord of seemingly dissimilar horror elements (here we have: UFOs, stab-happy psychopaths, everyday miracles, a leech child, patterned scars of demon possession, wispy bird ghosts, a squid faced ghost, a camera falling through a portal to another dimension, and (possibly) hell itself). Luckily, what keeps Occult an enjoyable romp, one that manages to stand somewhat apart from its successful forebear, is how nutty it is. Though twists are an expected attribute of any mystery, odds are that even the most seasoned consumers of paranormal enigmas will be unable to fathom the bizarro places that Occult travels to. The film's coda is unlike anything I've ever seen outside of Hausu (1977). What else distinguishes this later film from Noroi is its weird and welcome sense of humor, the most exquisite bit being one in which the documentary's subject, Eno-kun, a possessed man who has been compelled by unearthly forces to suicide bomb a bus station, decides to catch a showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) before committing his diabolical deed and afterwards reports that the movie helped to "cement his resolve." Shiraishi casts himself as the documentarian who films Eno-kun's descent into madness, which adds a smidgen of self-reflective fun, but even better is a cameo by fellow director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure (1997), Pulse (2001)), whose off-kilter and elusive horror films are an obvious influence to Shiraishi. A final aspect of note is the film's fantastic experimental score (some of which you can sample in the below trailer). The soundtrack grates and lulls the ears in equal measure, keeping its listener in a constant state of quiet agitation.


Shirome (2010) dir. Kôji Shiraishi


For his third crack of the found footage horror whip, Shiraishi went for Something Completely Different. Shirome features, at the very least, the most bizarre premise of any FF film yet produced: the real-life, all-teenaged-girl J-pop group Momoiro Clover is persuaded by a director (Shiraishi, once again casting himself in his own role) to be filmed entering a haunted and abandoned school to test out a spooky urban legend about a wish-granting demon, all in order to secure (through demon magic) a spot for the girls to perform on the popular annual television special Red and White Song Battle. In contrast to both Noroi and Occult, Shirome has some rather blatant subtext involving the exploitation of minors in the Japanese pop music industry. Whether intentional on Shiraishi's part or not, the inherently sinister quality of this exploitation is highlighted through both the girls' ultimate selling of their souls in order to achieve fame and their management's callous desire to coerce the girls into dangerous situations without concern for their welfare. The adults in the film also take it upon themselves to psychologically torture the girls: the fictional Shiraishi and his cohorts spend most of the film trying to scare the girls to tears, all in order to fashion a better cheap reality TV program. (In addition to these story-specific critiques of the industry, there are also moments that illuminate the systemic exploitation of young girls in the Japanese music industry as sexual objects. All of the members of Momoiro Clover are disconcertingly simplified, boiled down by their management to a few set characteristics and emotions that they must constantly display and personify. This isn't anything new for pop music, but it becomes more troubling when a 13-year-old girl describes herself (in a sung bio clearly prepared for her by her almost certainly adult male management) as the "little bit sexy" member of the group.) The fact that Shiraishi casts himself as the director exploiting the girls within the film (which, in recursive fashion, he actually is doing by making Shirome) appears to be an implicit acknowledgement of his own culpability, while at the same time using the film to stage a fairly scathing indictment of the absurd lengths the industry pushes pop idol groups to go to in order to achieve fame and success. Then again, it seems just as possible that cultural assumptions are skewing my interpretation towards critique, and that the film might merely be having goofy paranormal fun with a group of spirited pop idols. Either way, Shirome isn't all that fun. At about an hour and twenty minutes long, the film is rather brief and yet still aimless, with the sort of subtle supernatural creepiness that Shiraishi has established his reputation on failing to appear until far too late in the film. But the film is certainly a curiosity, one preferable to yet another FF film in the Noroi mode, even if the end product seems a few significant steps backwards with regard to story, pacing, and genuine horror.

Coming up, in our final installment: The Bay (2012), Area 407 (2012), The Dinosaur Project (2012), & The Frankenstein Theory (2013).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part V)


Long Pigs (2007) dir. Nathan Hines & Chris Power


Nathan Hines and Chris Power's Long Pigs would probably seem more revelatory in a world that didn't already possess Man Bites Dog (1992). Sub out a murderous thief for a murderous cannibal and the situation prodding forth the narrative in Long Pigs is nearly identical to that of its spiritual predecessor: a documentary film crew chooses as its subject a dangerous criminal and becomes complicit in his crimes while documenting him as he demonstrates his process and extolls the virtues of his own twisted life philosophy. Yet, this substitution of the documentary subject's profession leads Long Pigs down some unique pathways of contemplation concerning (of all things) the morality of our dietary choices. The need for food-- or, more specifically, the desire for tasty food that provides gustatory pleasure in addition to sustenance-- creates in some human beings the mindset that exquisite cuisine is an unalienable right afforded to those who can acquire it. The moral dimension of consuming other living beings merely for the taste that they provide is neglected entirely by the connoisseur mindset. The dictum become "I eat others because I can." This is a position not unfamiliar to the majority of Western citizens who, whether consciously or not, eat cheeseburgers while driving their children to the petting zoo, and who turn a blind eye toward the mechanized horrors of the slaughterhouse they purchase from while being unable to inflict the same damage on a living animal to produce a meal for themselves. For these people, the taste of meat overrides any ethical quandaries that would stand in the way of enjoying it, which allows them to never meaningfully engage with the cognitive dissonance they should be experiencing. But there is also a more advanced specimen of this mindset, the civilized hunter, who is so deeply deluded by his desire for new tastes that he no longer views other creatures as anything but objects, products, and walking foodstuff. 

Long Pigs' cannibal subject, Anthony (Anthony Alviano) has simply taken the unreflective carnivore's consumption practices to the furthest limit they could possibly achieve, tossing off the final shred of human morality in his quest for good eats. In one scene Anthony calmly, almost lovingly field dresses the corpse of one of his human victims, narrating his progress and stressing the importance of tying off the anus in order to prevent contamination of the meat. In a later scene, "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" plays over sped up footage of yet another human field dressing. He tells his documentarians, with assumed authority, that "one animal is as good as the next," and that there's no point in considering the morality of what we eat when "even broccoli has feelings." His logic is obviously daft, but what frightens is that though he may be attempting to justify his horrific eating practices to his observers, he needs no such justification for his own conscience. If we independently decide or are culturally indoctrinated to look at animals as nothing more than food, and if we simultaneously recognize that humans are merely animals, what is to prevent one from not assuming that the consumption of other human beings is not also acceptable? Despite this blatant subtext, the film does not at all resemble a smug, satirical tract against the consumption of animals on the grounds of ethics. Though it's an exploration of a character who has chosen to ignore the taboos of society and twist its own assumptions (perhaps accurately) to satisfy his own greed, the film doesn't appear to take a very clear position against anyone other than the exploitative filmmakers, who get what's coming to them. This ambivalence leaves the film unanchored to any solid basis of ethics, but not necessarily to the film's detriment: the character of Anthony remains a personification of the philosophical ills of society that we are all, in fact, complicit in. How can we mount an argument against his practices that is not, at its base, hypocritical? And when his practices include killing and eating a child, it's safe to say that we have a problem. Though the film is disinterested in the formal experimentation and metafictional genre probing of similar Man Bites Dog-influenced mockumentary horror films like J. T. Petty's S&Man (2006) and Scott Glosserman's Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), Long Pigs nevertheless makes an intriguing and often disturbing entry into this curious emerging sub-subgenre.


100 Ghost Street: The Return of Richard Speck (2012) dir. Martin Andersen


Examining their upcoming slate of feature films reveals that The Asylum production studio does not appear poised to revitalize their poor reputation. The company was founded upon the production of an endless stream of what has been dubbed "mockbusters," or films that feature titles and content roughly similar to recent major studio fare, released concurrently if not before the bigger pictures they're aping. Though the studio has branched away from this formula on occasion, it's clear that creativity is not their strong suit. In recent years they've produced seven FF films (what they call, amusingly, "reality" films), and while not every one of them has a clear blockbuster that it's mocked up to resemble, they all still manage to capture the general trend of the genre at the moment. Their latest, 100 Ghost Street, is in the Grave Encounters haunted asylum mode and, perhaps astonishingly, is really no worse than any of the other films sporting that featherweight premise. It's a shallow and mostly unengaging film, though dotted throughout with moments of, if not outright fright, certainly the desire to produce fright. The recurring motif of a plethora of black feathers discovered in bizarre locations (inside the asylum's walls; in its toilets) is almost creepy, and the discovery of a trail of fresh blood leading from the floor, up a wall, and into a hatch in the ceiling certainly is. As is the case with most of The Asylum's "reality" films I've seen thus far, 100 Ghost Street is needlessly exploitative, using sexual violence to titillate rather than disgust or unnerve. (I will take this moment to remind you of the tasteful scene in their earlier effort 8213: Gacy House (2010) in which John Wayne Gacy's ghost anally rapes a young man.) In this case, the film features two fits of repugnant The Entity-styled ghost rape (the second of which being, at the very least, a surprising narrative callback to the legend of the titular Richard Speck, made all the more icky by the fact that the person assaulted is a corpse). The lousy CGI, though present throughout, is understated in a way that The Vicious Brothers obviously weren't capable of when creating Grave Encounters, so in that one respect it's an improvement. But, ultimately, all we're doing is applauding a perpetual failure for failing slightly less spectacularly this time around.


Paranormal Entity (2009) dir. Shane Van Dyke

 

Paranormal Entity was The Asylum's second blatant FF mockbuster, coming a year after their Cloverfield homage, Monster (2008). Because it's essentially a domestic drama spurred on by a ghostly demon infestation, Paranormal Entity contains some slightly more interesting thematic content than the bulk of the studio's FF offerings, but only very slightly, signalling that any weight we detect was probably accidental, at best. Its opening text Revelation of Fate spoils all of what's to come after, as it doesn't take long for us to realize that the rape and murder of Samantha Finley (Erin Marie Hogan) by her older brother Thomas (Shane Van Dyke) is supernaturally tinged and not at all influenced by the sleazy doubly incestual angle that it hints at once or twice. At certain moments Paranormal Entity appears to be poking fun of its source material's lapses in logic by humorously amending them: in this film the characters at least try to go to a motel after the ghost shenanigans begin to intensify (though it does not go well), and at one point an exorcism of the house is about to be performed by a psychic before the scene smash cuts to a shot of the same psychic lying dead on the ground. But mostly this is an earnest affair, the filmmakers replacing Paranormal Activity's successful bits with worse ones. Ineptitude is running pretty high when the most frightening static shot jump scare you can muster is a crucifix falling down from a wall.

 

Invasion (a.k.a. Infection) (2005) dir. Albert Pyun


Albert Pyun, director of Cyborg (1989), Captain America (1990), and Dollman (1991), is a master of schlock and Invasion is that exactly. It rides (literally) on its one-take, COPS-inspired police cruiser dashboard camera gimmick. Though, unlike the also seemingly one-take Last Ride (2011), I detected many points in Pyun's film at which a cut could have occurred, and I suspect they did. Unfortunately, any such cuts don't help to make the film less of a drag. Communicating much of the small town alien invasion story through police dispatch banter is a novel concept, making the film feel like an effective radio play bolstered by occasional on-screen action, but all too often even the dialogue drifts away and we're stranded inside the car as it cruises up and down forest dirt roads. At these moments, accompanied as they are by the film's over-dramatic orchestral score, you'd be hard pressed to find an FF film more sleep-inducing. Budget stock sound effects, alien slugs that crawl into people's ears, and a nuclear holocaust fill out the rest of the story. (What's frightfully unclear is how exactly the footage from the police camera survives the atomic blast. Do police cruisers double as refrigerators?) Invasion concludes with a perhaps record-setting 20 minutes of end credits. What more need I say?

Next time, a tsunami of Japanese found footage: Noroi: The Curse (2005), Occult (2009), & Shirome (2010).

Monday, March 18, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part IV)


Eyes in the Dark (2010) dir. Bjorn Anderson


For a godawful film, Eyes in the Dark sure does manage to pack in an inordinate amount of entertainment value. It features everything that you'd expect from a bad FF film (shockingly childish dialogue, characters who hate one another but vacation together regardless, long stretches of nothing, constant squabbling), but then it also manages to transcend these glaring flaws through what I can only describe as a helping of scruffy, no-budget abandon. An unremarkable (if typical) first hour suddenly gives way to some of the flat out corniest monster movie mayhem I've ever witnessed. Watching a pack of shoddy monsters with glowing red LED eyeballs suddenly decimate our cast while burping and slurping in ADR corrects any perceived faults. The wolf-like creatures' mythology is surprisingly well-conceived (a pack of ancient beasts that have roamed the remote area in question every 365 moons since the Earth's creation), but the most marvelous things about them is that they are portrayed on screen by actors wearing costumes below the quality level of the discount rack of a suburban mall's Halloween store in early November. They appear to share a faint kinship with Sabre, the monster puppet from the Goosebumps episode "Welcome to Camp Nightmare," but devolved several notches. (One character sums up probably exactly the instructions given to the film's costume designer: "Here's what we know: They're big. They have teeth.") The fact that the filmmakers not only decided to use these cheap-o costumes, but also to display them in all their pitiful glory as frequently and as clearly as they do is beyond admirable, as well as comprehension. These decisions (while bad ones on any artistic level) make for an endlessly amusing final act, and even helped to warm me to the film overall. I feel like there may even come a time in the future when I'll want to watch it again, to marvel once more at its deeply flawed, gleefully stupid, and totally earnest attempt at creating frightening monsters on the screen. Also of note is the film's novel (if brainless) presentation style, in which footage from various sources is accessed from a DOS command line on a FBI terminal. Who exactly in the FBI is documenting and reviewing evidence of ancient wolfish moon beasts is never made clear, but it does inspire one with a couple ideas.


Last Ride (2011) dir. James Phillips


One couldn't accuse James Phillips's Last Ride of being slow to fire off the starter pistol. Within the film's first ten minutes, the forest ride of a group of high-spirited cyclists is interrupted by a woman having her throat ripped out by some unseen creature, who then proceeds to chase down the survivors of this initial attack. It's a bold and sudden way to begin the film's main action. (Some clever misdirection, too: from what little we'd already seen, we'd expected the relationship between the soon-to-be-dead girl and our C.O. to be one of the film's main concerns.) But pressing the button on the action and horror so soon into the film is also, perhaps unavoidably, its downfall, when considered in conjunction with its primary aesthetic conceit: we watch this frantic pursuit from the camera strapped to the headgear of our lead cyclist, allowing us to view, in real-time, only that which he sees. This adds a touch of suspense during moments in which the creature gurgles and growls somewhere out of sight, but more than that it makes the next hour and change exceedingly dull. Our lead cyclist and his few surviving pals (the number of which decreases steadily over the course of the film) wander endlessly through the forest with no clear goal besides finding a major road. I don't recall seeing any cuts (and if there were, they were well enough concealed), so what's possible to be filmed by a group of amateur filmmakers and actors without shutting the camera off is precisely what we receive. It is not riveting material. The actors spend large swaths of the film either in silence or arguing without conviction about which direction to aimlessly chug along in. (The closing credits inform us, "All dialogue performed was improvised by the cast." Would never have guessed.) Every death, without exception occurs off-screen, with a character screaming and then stumbling into frame clutching a bloody throat or being found lying on the ground all torn up. Similarly, with regard to our creature, gurgling and growling added in post-production is all we receive, its identity remaining a complete mystery up to and including the final scene. This absence of any direct view of the creature, coupled with all the off-screen deaths, makes fairly apparent the peanuts in the budget that Phillips & Co. had to work with in fashioning their horror. They most likely couldn't afford anything that looked any good, so the only other options would be to toss in the cheap stuff (a la Eyes in the Dark's Goosebumps costumes) or avoid it all together. I believe they chose wrong. An entire FF film conceived and filmed in a single take is a novel idea and in fact feels like a totally natural fit for the handheld verite horror aesthetic (so much so that I'm surprised this is this first time it's been attempted, to my knowledge). But making the conceit work requires more than the duct tape needed to strap your camera to your helmet.


7 Nights of Darkness (2011) dir. Allen Kellogg


What is it about the FF subgenre that makes so many of its films averse to narrative? The recent flock of practitioners appear to have derived their storytelling abilities from low-end reality television, imagining that what film audiences are craving is episodes of Ghost Hunters but if, like, the ghosts were real, man. In these formless blobs of handheld footage, characters are incidental, subtext is nonexistent, and plot only exists to bridge one "boo" to the next. You might imagine that this makes these less narrative-minded FF films more accurate to the format in which they're presented (for example, delve through your own home movies and cell phone videos and attempt to construct a coherent narrative). But your argument would fall flat when considered against the sheer amount of deliberate construction that goes into these films when attempting to make their audiences gasp. They are, in essence, long form versions of those videos your friends link you to on Youtube in which the frame is calm and lulling before an image of a demon or Linda Blair pops up on screen and screams at you. This isn't story; it's a gag. 7 Nights of Darkness-- whose alternate title could be The Real World: Ghost Asylum-- is hardly the worst offender when it comes to neglecting any semblance of story or character in favor of presenting a dire string of poorly constructed jump scares, but it's not at all innocent. (Those worst offenders, excepting the uniquely terrible Greystone Park (2012), are still to come later this month.) Exactly everything that 7 Nights of Darkness has to offer is present in the above poster: it's a reality show-influenced, Grave Encounters-esque abandoned asylum flick that hits all of those predictable notes, and if by "It's The Blair Witch Project meets The Ring" the writer means that the film blatantly rips off defining images from both films within minutes of each other at its conclusion, then yes, it is like them. It is also (and this the poster fails to mention) a negligible film, about nothing whatsoever.


Re-Cut (2010) dir. Fritz Manger


Of the four films looked at today, Fritz Manger's Re-Cut is easily the most technically accomplished, sporting decent production values and a professional sheen without totally sacrificing verite verisimilitude. In brief, it's a decent film, with some arresting imagery, a simple mystery plot, and likeable (if shallow) protagonists. But, considering its total absence of supernatural entities, we must read Re-Cut as a thriller, and as a thriller it's unfortunately deficient, adhering far too closely to a lingering FF convention that sucks away tension. In fact, Re-Cut gives us a perfect opportunity to consider one of the foremost staples of the FF horror film outside of its camcorder aesthetics: the opening Revelation of Fate. Innumerable FF films feature an opening text screen that informs us, right from the word "go," that the characters we will spend the next hour and a half watching will die horribly. The origin of this convention in the subgenre isn't difficult to pinpoint (Blair Witch), but its preponderance in most recent descendants is puzzling. Of course, The Blair Witch Project's opening text doesn't tell us that Heather, Josh, and Mike all died, simply that they'd gone missing and only their footage was recovered; viewing the footage, then, would give us the opportunity to unravel the mystery of what happened to them on their fateful documentary shoot in Burkittsville. This creates suspense. What does not-- and what the majority of FF films using the Revelation of Fate text screen fail to grasp-- is knowing that our characters don't stand a chance. Revealing as much from the film's beginning makes whatever comes after an exercise in pacing: how long until each character's inevitable demise, and how entertaining is it in the interim? The Revelation of Fate, handled without care, is destructive to horror, obliterating the one thing absolutely necessary for it: a sense of the unknown. At this point, we have to assume the Revelation of Fate keeps cropping up in these films simply because it's become an established convention, an easy and recognizable tactic that requires the least amount of work on the part of the film's audience. This is distressing. (The Revelation of Fate also ties in to one of my main points of grief in re: the films covered thus far: the plethora of time-wasting post-incident interviews with family members, friends, and authorities, which again spoil the ending and drive me to tears of boredom. See: The Bucks County Massacre (2010), The Tapes (2011), In the Dark (2004), The Bake Street Hauntings (2011).) Re-Cut's approach to the Revelation of Fate is unique, though no less destructive: the linear progression of the film's story (concerning a team of news reporters/documentary filmmakers investigating the deaths of two young girls) is intercut with handheld scenes of this same crew being graphically murdered in Saw/Hostel-lite industrial torture chambers. Sure, these horrific sequences don't explicitly reveal the identities of the slabs of human meat being strung up on meathooks and stabbed to death, but there's never any real doubt. Our heroes were doomed from the start, and thus so was our attention and appreciation.

Next up: Long Pigs (2007), 100 Ghost Street: The Return of Richard Speck (2012), & Paranormal Entity (2009), Invasion (2005).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part III)


The Tapes (2011) dir. Lee Alliston & Scott Bates


Like the later Amber Alert (2012), The Tapes is structured around a trio of unusually obnoxious teenaged characters filming a reality show audition tape (in this case, for the UK edition of Big Brother) who happen to stumble upon something far more sinister than the debasement of popular culture in the process. That sinister thing is, in this case, (brace yourselves) The Brotherhood of Beelzebub, a group of English hick farmers who convene on weeknights for blood sacrifices and the like. Naturally, our idiotic teens fail to figure this out until it's too late, imagining, instead, that all of these middle-aged Satanic worshipers of varied sex are convening for a wrinkly swingers party. Our trio decides to stick around after dark so as to capture the supposed sweaty action on film, which they can then duplicate and sell... at the local pub. Indeed, it's a flimsy excuse to keep this squabbling group put, but much more disagreeable is the fact that nothing of mild suspense (or even mild interest) transpires over the film's first 55 minutes, and the remainder doesn't show much improvement. In place of such, we're subjected to a barrage of adolescent humor and pranks, as well as some clunky relationship drama involving our insecure C.O. and his noxious girlfriend, the applicant in question. Much like The Bucks County Massacre (2010), the film also pads out its brief running time with dull, substanceless interviews with the victims' families and the local police. The Tapes is a mind-numbing effort in the subgenre, failing as it does to elicit a strong emotion in either direction. It has no story to tell, no characters to develop, no formal innovation to offer. (Its one (arguable) stylistic touch is a brief passage filmed from the perspective of one of its villains, who is using a stolen camera's night vision to document the heroine groping around blindly in a pitch black room. Unfortunately, this particular approach to perspective dates at least as far back as the climax of Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and, moreover, was already employed to great effect in the earlier FF film, Evil Things (2009)). In one moment of grand stupidity, the C.O., when watching his tied-up friend being stabbed repeatedly by the Satanists, happens to loudly and uncontrollably blurt out, "fucking bastards!," alerting the Satanists to his presence and thus precipitating his inevitable demise at their hands. If The Tapes had ears, my cover would have been equally blown.


Hollow (2011) dir. Michael Axelgaard


It's not the most complimentary praise a film could receive, but by merely being decent Hollow seems like a revelation. Among recent entries in the genre, it stands as one of the better attempts to forge a spooky, provocative mythology and populate it with moments of genuine unease. The story revolves around a hollow, monstrously sized tree in the center of a perpetually misty field in East Anglia. Over time, this tree has developed quite the ghoulish reputation as the site of multiple apparent suicides by young couples who have hung themselves from its spindly branches. Two more young couples go on a weekend long double date to a cabin owned by one of their recently deceased grandfathers, not far from the tree. After an ill-advised visit to the tree and its cursed interior, the couples begin to unravel the history of the tree through clippings discovered at the cabin and must battle off the fright produced by the bloodcurdling screeching of foxes in the night. The primary human drama stems from the C.O. who, while clearly always a little bit unhinged due to romantic troubles, devolves even further into madness under the tree's influence and is succeeds in being quite creepy in the process, going so far as to film the others while their sleeping and to wander the fields alone at night. There is a regrettable amount of squabbling to be found here, and the four-sided love triangle at its center is not the most fascinating of subjects, but one appreciates the slow build up of these tensions, allowing us to experience at least part of the film without these characters clawing at each other and making it all the more natural (and tolerable) when they finally do. Such flaws can be overlooked when in the thrall of the film's final act, a supremely intense siege from the inside of the group's car as it's rendered inoperative at the base of the haunted tree as something lurks outside and drags the unwilling passengers, one by one, to their fates. When writing about The Lost Coast Tapes (2012), I complained about the ambiguity of many recent FF films, noting their almost willful insistence on delaying coherence in the hopes of making a sequel desirable to their audiences. While Hollow employs ambiguity, it doesn't do so in the same way that those films I take issue with do: rather, we know exactly what the haunted tree does to people, we just don't know why. And that sort of ambiguity-- one of origin and intention, rather than the specifics of the manifestation-- are the foundation upon which much effective supernatural horror rests. The English countryside possesses a unique disquiet with its chilly, fog-drenched atmosphere. Hollow knows how to exploit its landscape, unlike the similarly located The Tapes, with its reliance on cheesy Satanic rural folk: it's not the people that frighten, stupids, it's the trees.


In the Dark (2004) dir. Slater Kane


Having been independently filmed and released by an amateur cast and crew in 2004 makes Slater Kane's In the Dark one of the earlier entries in the FF subgenre post-Blair Witch, leaving it to stand among other flawed but always enthusiastic low budget efforts like The St. Francisville Experiment (2000), The Collingswood Story (2002), and The Wicksboro Incident (2003). Perhaps surprisingly, In the Dark was most of a decade ahead of its time: its action concerns a group on teenagers breaking into an abandoned insane asylum in which Bad Things have happened, and then they're all killed, which has been the general plotline of about every other FF film released in the past two years. Kane's film was also prescient in predicting what those later films have since amply demonstrated: the abandoned insane asylum is the FF setting of choice for those filmmakers with low ambition and talent. A medical facility, especially one crumbling with disuse, is an inherently creepy location, right, so one doesn't even really have to try to make whatever action takes place in it compelling! Just let those cameras roll and encourage your teenaged cast to act like trained swine. The film's footage is alleged to have been filmed-- seemingly without logical storytelling reasoning-- in 1989, though the bland early noughties fashion and the advanced quality of the home video camcorders would argue against it. The protagonists, a group of oily juvenile delinquents, decide to visit the asylum-- their old community service stomping ground-- on Halloween and film themselves having sex with their girlfriends on whatever stained cots they can find. A tasteful holiday with loved ones, surely. Unfortunately for them, they happened to rape and humiliate a "mildly retarded" inmate named Lizzie during their tenure at the asylum. Lizzie was caught in a disfiguring blaze that caused the building to be shut down, though apparently no one told Lizzie about this, as she (who happens to be played by an overweight he in a scraggly costume shop wig) still occupies a room and decides to reap bloody revenge when the jerks barge in. It feels as if each new bad FF film I watch hits a new character low, but In the Dark's juvies are some of the most repugnant one can create, constantly calling each other "fags" and "retards" while traumatizing their own mothers into fainting. The action in the asylum is uninspired and confusing, with the camera often seeming to take off on its own, abandoning the FF aesthetic. (I think some of this confusion might stem from poor post-production audio, but who really knows.) Another surprising bit of prescience on the film's part (this one formal) is its use of an oscillating camera to create tension, much like Paranormal Activity 3 later would, though the superior use of the conceit goes to the latter, considering Kane's film seems unsure how to utilize it, causing the scene to stretch on far past the breaking point. I recall being turned on to In the Dark by an older article on the web about the most underrated FF films out there, written by some poor delusional soul who claimed it was a film both subtle in its menace and effective in its use of creepy atmospherics. I can only suppose this writer viewed the film from the confines of a comforting hyperbaric chamber while the film-- with its blaring heavy metal soundtrack and cussing juvies-- played in the other room.


The Bake Street Hauntings (2011) Michael Rocco

  
The Bake Street Hauntings is an amateur FF effort from director Michael Rocco that manages to produce some wildly effective-- if conventional-- horror imagery at the cost of what would probably buy you a couple breakfast sandwiches. The film is deficient in all the areas you'd expect: the premise is unoriginal (Paranormal Acitivity with a gameshow twist), the storytelling is misguided (more godawful post-incident family interviews), and it's cheap. But more impressive is what the film does right and the flat-out chilling moments of horrific restraint it creates, which most other FF films would have used as opportunities to yell "boo." The lead actors, director Michael Rocco and his wife Kathy, while not quite flawless thespians, are of a likeable enough sort, and their real life relationship adds a good deal of genuineness to their (I'd imagine) improvised conversations. Additionally, though the origins of the haunting revealed in bits and pieces throughout the couple's moneymaking stay in the haunted Bake Street house is less than compelling, it's nice that the film makes the attempt to develop a coherent reason for its ghosts to be there, and presenting that reason as a mystery that unfurls (rather than as a line of exposition spouted in the first reel, like in many other ghost-centric FF films; I'm looking at you, Asylum) is a smart choice. And, really, the film wouldn't be worth it if not for its clever ghosts: Early ghostly encounters (particularly those involving a pale, black eyed girl ghost who has taken the command "stand still" far too literally) gave me real chills that lasted long after the brief film concluded, even if later attempts at producing more of the same fumbled all over the place (upon seeing a rotund ghost up too close, we notice the gap of neck flesh between his "creepy" mask and his t-shirt, ejecting us from the film for good). It ends with a lame shock ending and a humorless blooper reel-- as these things sometimes do-- but, whatever, let them have those. Even if its truly thrilling moments add up to approximately one minute of its running time, that total has it demolishing the combined totals of most of its peers.

Coming up: Eyes in the Dark (2010), Last Ride (2011), 7 Nights of Darkness (2011), & Re-Cut (2010).

Monday, March 11, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part II)


Bigfoot County (2012) dir. Stephon Stewart


A trio of amateur bigfoot hunters travel to California's infamous Bigfeet-laden Siskiyou County (home of the world's only bigfoot trap) in order to catch the cryptid on film. As with Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes (2012), the big guy's name being prominently featured in the title does not guarantee him a starring role, and here he's reduced to a brief tent attack and a Patterson-Gimlin film punchline in the final shot (a shot spoiled-- if a shot as obvious as this one even can be-- at the conclusion of the below trailer). Bigfoot's a background diversion from the real horror faced by the trio on their expedition: violent backwoods Californian hillbilly pot growers. Yes, what begins as a dull Blair Witch clone-- enlivened only by the too-brief presence of Sam Ayers as Travis, a prayin', poem writin', and emotionally unhinged bigfoot witness-- devolves in its final act into Deliverance-style human torture and sexual violation. Bigfoot County might be the only FF film to end with its Camera Operator's anal rape rather than his gory off screen demise (a dubious distinction if ever there was one). Obviously the film has some problems with tone, but what's worse is that this problem feels deliberate, as if the film is attempting to surprise us with its ingenuity. Its pals-on-a-mission goofiness gives way to melodramatic moaning (after the woman in their team is abducted, the two men wander around together, one telling the other-- through tears-- how much he's always admired him), but this then makes an abrupt shift into tactless sadism that proves to be neither emotionally affecting nor satisfying on the narrative level. (And, again, surprise appears to be the major reason for the inclusion of said sadism and its hillbilly perpetrators, despite the fact that we're warned about gun-toting pot growers within the film's first fifteen minutes, and we all know that we can expect gun-toting pot growers mentioned in the first act to make an appearance in the third. Call them Chekov's Marijuana Maniacs.) There's also a brief and perplexing interlude during which the group discovers the remnants of an occult goat sacrifice in the forest. (After spotting sticks and stones in unnerving man-made formations, one of the group gasps, "and there's a candle!") I have no recollection of this tidbit ever being resolved, so I must assume it's a piece from another film, as lost in the woods as we are, stumbled upon only by happenstance. One supposes the filmmakers imagine themselves clever for continuously tugging at that rug beneath our feet, attempting to subvert expectations that they've barely managed to establish, but they fail to notice the reality: we are all standing on linoleum in another room altogether.


Greystone Park: The Asylum Tapes (2012) dir. Sean Stone


In a subgenre as occasionally bereft of creativity as FF, to be the standard bearer of incompetent, plodding, smug, unimaginative trash is a fact worth touting. Sadly, nowhere in Greystone Park's promotional verbiage will you find such a pronouncement. In fact, you might actually enter the film assuming that those behind it were trying, which would be a big disappointment for you in the end. The film was conceived and directed by Oliver Stone's son, Sean Stone, which probably explains why the film has received a decent home video release and an incomprehensible amount of press. This is, boiled down to its essence, the product of wealthy but talentless children. (Even when removed from its proper context, the film's best quote might be "It's not exactly the NYU library.") These chumps cynically exploit the FF fad, but what's most amusing is how poorly they accomplish such a modest goal: they pepper their film with uproarious, hookah-influenced "spiritual" pronouncements in their characters' dialogue, overlay the audio track with a twinkly nondiegetic score, and allow their expensive camera equipment to glitch up in post-production at the exact moment anything of paranormal interest occurs on screen. One scene blatantly rips off the corner-staring conclusion of The Blair Witch Project; another presents a truly raggy Raggedy Ann doll as a unironic object of fear. Here's a sampling of some choice dialogue: a) "what if all the explorers get turned into dolls?" b) "no, that's the smell of shadows," c) "if you stay in a labyrinth long enough, you'll go mad," and d) a text message: "Jesus Wept." It would all be highly humorous if there weren't 83 minutes of it. I'd be interested in watching Greystone Park again only under the influence of heavy spirits while playing the unfathomably pretentious commentary track included on the home video release (so lovingly reviewed over at The Onion's AV Club).


388 Arletta Avenue (2011) dir. Randall Cole


In consideration of its subgenre, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about 388 Arletta Avenue: its "spy cameras installed throughout a house" conceit was already employed to great effect in the Colin Hanks-starring stalker drama Alone With Her (2007) and its "creepy, motiveless killer with a bank of monitors in his editing station" pops up in both Evil Things (2009) and Re-Cut (2010) (the latter of which I'll be covering here soon). But the lack of any innovation of the FF aesthetic hardly matters when presented with a well-made film, and that is precisely what Randall Cole's polished feature is. It's clear there's a bit more money than usual invested in this one (look at the cast, prominently featuring accomplished actors Nick Stahl, Devon Sawa, and Mia Kirshner). This above-average expenditure adds some welcome talent and attention to quality to the film without giving it an artificial Hollywood polish. 388 Arletta Avenue makes the potentially troublesome choice of aligning our perspective throughout with its villain, rather than our ostensible hero (Nick Stahl). But it pulls off an admirable balancing act, making us complicit in the stalker's voyeurism while sympathizing with Stahl's plight as he attempts to discover the whereabouts of his missing wife and decode the stalker's cryptic (and rather elaborate) messages. This works because, throughout, the stalker remains an anonymous entity without motivation or defining characteristics. Besides some occasional heavy breathing, he's merely a seemingly endless array of omnipresent hidden cameras tormenting Stahl, giving us a tension-ripe tactical advantage on our hero without creating any overt identification with the stalker. An easy complaint might be Stahl's character's lack of good sense when taking action against his tormentor and when explaining his situation to the proper authorities, but this seems acceptable upon the revelation of his prior struggles with alocohol and aggression. One must temper any praise of the film with the fact that I've watched far too many of these things for my own good and the mere breath of competence sends me into euphoria, but 388 Arletta Avenue sets out to be no more than an effective if substance-less thriller, and, by gum, in that it succeeds.


Grave Encounters 2 (2012) dir. John Poliquin


The original Grave Encounters was an inevitable development for the subgenre. It was the big, dumb, glossy, easily imitable, CGI-infested scarefest that existed entirely for the pleasure of impressionable teenagers. What a surprise, then, that the sequel revolves around an impressionable teenager who becomes obsessed with the original film and the possibility that it it wasn't a fictional FF film after all, but a slice of documented reality. This is what's called the Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) approach to a sequel, which isn't totally unwelcome (Blair Witch 2 roolz). And, unsurprisingly, the first two acts of Grave Encounters 2 are its most enjoyable, featuring a plethora of meta in-jokes among which are scathing Youtube reviews of the first Grave Encounters and snide comments about its sketchy CGI (chief among these good-spirited jabs is the presence of the Viscous Brothers-- the directors of the original film-- cameoing as incompetent interns at Grave Encounters' production company). When Grave Encounters 2 transitions to another ill-planned expedition of the abandoned psychiatric institution of the first film, it ends up resembling, well, the first film. Beat for beat, it becomes a mini-remake, covering all of the drab action of the original (plus a little extra phantasmagoria involving disintegrating doors) in about half the time. Did you enjoy Grave Encounters? If so, it seems hard to imagine you'd be disappointed with the follow-up. In fact, in one or two ways, I'd call it the superior effort, whatever faint praise that amounts to. I found myself most bemused by its perpetually self-deprecating sense of humor. The film's hero, film student Alex (Richard Harmon), bemoans the fact that there isn't "any class" in the horror genre anymore, calling it all "quick cuts and lens flares," crying out "where are the Carpenters and Cravens in our generation?" He says all this before calling himself a "visionary filmmaker" and embarking on production of his student film that will "reinvent the genre": a gore-drenched torture porn in the played-out Hostel tradition, replete with jump scares and grungy attitude. One almost appreciates the Vicious Brothers and director John Poliquin's overt cynicism regarding their own trend-riding work in a moment like this.

Next time: The Tapes (2011), Hollow (2011), In the Dark (2004), & The Bake Streets Hauntings (2011).

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Meltdown 07: Found Footage Rewind (Part I)

2012 was a productive year for the found footage genre. The number of films produced (by both professionals and Youtube-based amateurs) and uncovered (by the assiduous online fan community) during the year was staggering, easily doubling the total number of found footage films known to exist previously. If you've been reading the blog for awhile now, you'll know that I have a great deal of affection for the genre (despite the gross overabundance of crud littering its recent history) and you may recall that I tackled a slew of found footage and documentary horrors last summer. This go-around, I'll be writing about 27 more, almost all of which have become available to the FF-connoisseur only in the last year. This will merely be scratching the surface of the genre's recent offerings, with the additional threat of many more cropping up in this next year always palpable. I won't bury the lead any further: this latest Meltdown will be a bumpy, shaky, nauseating journey (and not at all because of the camerawork), but a few lost video cassettes buried deep in the box will (hopefully) make the magnetic tape's journey towards the rewind button a worthwhile one.


Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes (2012) dir. Corey Grant


While I find myself most anticipating Eduardo Sanchez's forthcoming Exists (2013), there has certainly been no dearth of bigfoot-or-bigfootesque-centric FF flicks in the meantime to give one an impression of how the big guy fares under the aesthetic. Following the same sequel-minded track taken by Evidence (2011), Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes teases us with the promise of bigfoot and then gives us something else instead. It's hard to say exactly what that something is (a bright light? a scaly ape? a teleporting yellow square?), primarily because director Corey Grant and his writers don't want us to know: they want us to be tantalized just enough to be suckered into watching another one. This recent trend in FF films of structuring themselves around frustrating ambiguity masquerading as conceptual ambitiousness (call it the "Paranormal Activity Sequel Generator Syndrome") is a real drag and seems at least partially derived from a faulty comprehension of The Blair Witch Project's "less is more" ethos. (Their twisted-around notion is more like "less is easier/gives us more leeway when we have to write another one.") Looking past this unsatisfying over-reliance on ambiguity concerning the creature and its abilities, it should come as little shock that The Lost Coast Tapes has scant else to offer but telegraphed jump scares and goofy jokes. The film leans harder on its humor than these affairs usually do, incorporating much hamming for the cameras, episodes of spazzy humor from an obscenely nerdy audio tech residing somewhere along the Autism spectrum, and some mildly clever metacommentary (a black character who is part of the documentary crew at the beginning of the film explains to the others that he's aware of his cinematic expandability on a horror movie-esque excursion like the one they are about to embark on, and so promptly exits the film, never to return). The film's major theme (if you want to call it that) is the tried and true "Emmys over safety" hubris, which leads to much disaster for all involved. Like all the other FF films adopting the subject and style of paranormal investigation reality television programming, it finds no angle from which to meaningfully explore or critique the phenomenon, instead using it for mere misguided character motivation (who is harboring delusions that Finding Bigfoot would ever receive an Emmy?) and creaky justification for leaving the cameras rolling.


Bucks County Massacre (2010) dir. Jason Sherman


Following a trend we'll see developing throughout this Meltdown, Bucks County Massacre begins with a text backstory concerning the existence of the "real footage" as we see it, under the assumption that justification is needed. And, boy, is it convoluted: the police discovered the footage at the crime scene and, instead of reviewing it themselves, sent it to a non-police affiliated production company to edit it down to a manageable length in order to "expedite the investigation" (because, yes, this happens all the time), but then it turns out one of the employees at the production company saw fit to leak the gnarly footage to the Internet, upon the discovery of which "numerous legal actions ensued" between the police and the company and the footage was removed from the Internet, only to then be re-released to the Internet by the police themselves because... well, why not? This back story has no actual bearing on the film proper, but it's demonstrative of its overall emphasis on including bits and pieces that add little or nothing to the very simple FF tale we've been presented. For instance, the film routinely cuts to after-the-fact interviews with friends and family members of the victims involved in the titular massacre, but we never learn anything nuanced, revelatory, or even intriguing about our deceased characters in any of these talking head cutaways. So why include them, other than to vary the content and pad out the running time? Why make such a big deal out of other aspects of the story, like the fact that the primary camera operator (C.O. hereafter) is an Iraq war veteran, only to have them come to noting, while playing other bits out in a purely conventional fashion (like with the introduction of Chekov's Rifle Collection in the first act and its later use in the third)? Such sloppy storytelling decisions obscure the fairly decent scare story locked in here, viewable in fits and starts as the film progresses. Bucks County Massacre follows the events of a meathead birthday party at a house deep in the woods (beer pong immediately, homophobic humor shortly thereafter) as it is terrorized by a savage wild man who "looks like it was human, but it wasn't." Mildly charming and believable party footage soon gives way to atrocious overacting and fits of hysterics, just as earlier subtle background shivers are dropped in favor of obvious, tension-deflating jump scares. The film's most interesting scene is one in which the C.O. hooks his camera up to a TV in the house's living room soon after a forest attack to review the frightening footage for the assembled partygoers. As they watch the footage we've just witnessed, their reactions are intense as they flail about in fear, and for a moment we wish we felt the same way.


Crowsnest (2012) dir. Brenton Spencer


Like Bucks County Massacre, Crowsnest centers itself around an excursion to a remote cabin for a birthday celebration. Unlike Bucks County, with its vaguely likeable bros and ladies, Crowsnest's protagonists are repulsive and annoying, the type who make dreadful puns ("I cunt hear you, I have an infucksion in my ear") and drink wine coolers in automobiles. What begins with some tasteless Rear Window-styled peeping and an attempt at making a sex tape soon evolves into a standard but suspenseful Duel-inspired pursuit. (Though the earlier FF film Evil Things (2010) has it beat on this count and, really, on every other count too.) It's hard to screw up such a premise, and Crowsnest doesn't muck up the stew until tossing in a Wrong Turn-ish backwoods cannibal spice, which is less cliched than poorly executed. Occasionally inspired visuals are hampered at all times by the general unlikeable nature of the film's protagonists, who squabble constantly and barely seem to enjoy each other's company (when one of the characters runs off to get help for another in a precarious situation, the latter yells out to make sure the former knows he's a "fucking faggot"). We find out (pointlessly) of an affair carried on by two members of the group, and of course we do not care. The driver of their car is often blamed by the others for being reasonable and for failing to prevent events he has no control over. When our cannibalistic killers take hold of the camera and have their own fun with it, we are grateful. Because it would prefer that we're never satisfied, the film closes with a godawful original song, which has thankfully already slipped from my memory, but I vaguely recall it sounding like the product of someone who had heard a couple (and only a couple) Nine Inch Nails songs. My final evaluation of Crowsnest will be fulfilled by the best note I took when suffering through it: "a goodly amount of vomit."


Amber Alert (2012) dir. Kerry Bellessa


Amber Alert is a fantastic example of a thrilling, creative concept sideswiped and then obliterated by some of the worst acting on the planet's face. It's a frustrating film: there's a lot to like about it, but it actively prevents itself from being recommendable. It begins with a couple of platonic friends having one of their younger brothers film them for an Amazing Race audition tape. They're an overly cutesy but amiable enough pair for the first fifteen minutes or so. But when they're cruising on the highway and glimpse a car being sought after in an amber alert message (a.k.a. a special bulletin informing citizens of a child abduction), the two launch into a screechy bout of logorrhea that lasts the duration of the film. Endless inane dialogue is yelled out by stars Chris Hill and Summer Bellessa (director Kerry Bellessa's better half)-- "there might be a child being molested in there!" "molestors have phones!"-- and we soon forget to regard them as human beings caught in an endeavor worthy of our support. They tail the car as an unbelievably inept police force fails to save the day, and despite a tension-filled encounter with the suspected child abductor and the shockingly clever employment of a wireless microphone in the backseat of the suspect's car, we're left in agonizing aural discomfort as the pair (but particularly the character played by Bellessa) pursue this situation to a grim conclusion, despite the lack of any solid motivation (a problem that could have been alleviated with some throwaway line about a cousin who was abducted in a similar fashion or what have you). A coda attempting to aggrandize the pair's partially successful but foolhardy endeavor falls woefully flat. Their good intentions are hard to miss, but inexplicable stupidity colors their every action.

Next Monday: brace yourselves for Bigfoot County (2012), Greystone Park: The Asylum Tapes (2012), 388 Arletta Avenue (2011), & Grave Encounters 2 (2012).