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).

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