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).

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