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 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 expendability 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).

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