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).

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