Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ESSAY: The Sacrament (2014), Willow Creek (2014), & the Shape of Found Footage Horror to Come

Abstract: An essay on the current state of the found footage subgenre of horror. Prognosis: Fatal, probably, but that death nerve keeps on twitching. An examination, in particular, of two recent and once-promising FF films (The Sacrament [2014] and Willow Creek [2014]) that fail to add much new to the subgenre while basing their approaches to the form in those of a couple of films over a decade old. The found footage movement appears stagnant, but does any opportunity for advancement or maturation remain? There are slow-burning glimmers of hope.

This essay features discussion of:
The Sacrament (2014) dir. Ti West
Zero Day (2003) dir. Ben Coccio
Willow Creek (2014) dir. Bobcat Goldthwait
The Blair Witch Project (1999) dir. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick

Back in 2012, after the release of the non-FF but sneakingly like and advertised-as FF horror film Chernobyl Diaries (2012), I predicted that as found footage horror films began to fall from favor, as Hollywood studios and independents alike began to realize that the success of Paranormal Activity (2009) was not quite as repeatable as they'd hoped (even for further Paranormal Activity films), what we'd begin to see was something akin to osmosis. Screened alongside mainstream fluff at the multiplexes for long enough, found footage horror would begin to rub off on its more traditionally filmed peers to the extent that the two would soon become indistinguishable, I imagined. The handheld, documentary style would pop up in films that weren't intended as faux-documentaries, and the emphasis on "character" and "narrative" in traditional horror would evolve into an emphasis on the audience's "experience" of the audible and visual horror. I will pat myself on the back for this one: the fingerprint of the found footage movement is omnipresent as of 2014. You'd have a smaller list by simply noting those films that don't in some way utilize the found footage aesthetic, but for the sake of supporting my claim here's a collection of relevant films that do: Sinister (2012), The Conjuring (2013), The Banshee Chapter (2013), Lovely Molly (2012), The Apparition (2012), Oculus (2014), The Purge (2013), The Quiet Ones (2014). None of these films could reasonably be classified as a found footage horror film, and yet each either contains sections that utilize the FF aesthetic or are traditional horror movies filmed in an FF-reminiscent style.

So my glimpse into the crystal ball of horror cinema's future proved me correct that once, but could I manage a repeat performance of foreseeing? Later in 2012, while fuming over the detritus released to the general public under the working title of The Devil Inside (2012), I posited that all of the creative potential in the unadulterated FF form hadn't been evacuated quite yet, and I was certain that those storytelling champions of the subgenre were riding their horses into view from off on the horizon. Any second now, they'd be here, and found footage horror would find its redemption in the public's eye through their efforts.

I'll admit that I was maybe less of an oracle on this matter. The last two years of found footage films, both major and minor, have been pretty much what I had hoped they wouldn't be: hours upon hours of paranormal investigation or Satanic happening found footage with ambitions stretching no farther than "BOO!" As the gap between consumer and professional digital video fast closes, another sort of osmosis is happening in the realm of budget horror cinema, in which narrative inspiration seems to be derived from supernatural Youtube Gotcha! videos with the highest number of views. The creative bankruptcy of the majority of FF films being produced and released at this moment signals that the subgenre is undoubtedly at its lowest point.

Yet, I wasn't entirely foolhardy in my prediction. In the last few years, a handful of genuine filmmakers have indeed seen the value of the non-traditional found footage form in communicating their stories on screen and thus have produced found footage films of their own. For instance, Barry Levinson (The Bay [2012]) , Renny Harlin (Devil's Pass [2013]), and Bernard Rose (Sxtape [2013]) have all directed found footage horror films within the last two years. Sure, those three aren't exactly visionary filmmakers (as each of their FF films indicate), and, moreover, their embrace of the FF form might be rooted in practicality (promising an FF film's budget might be the only way these relative old-timers can find work within the ever-youthful genre), but the point stands. Filmmakers raised and practiced on traditionally filmed cinema are turning toward the found footage form for some reason or another. Notably, this year saw the limited releases of two promising found footage films from two very different but equally legitimate directors: The Sacrament, directed by Ti West (The Innkeepers [2011], The House of the Devil [2009]), and Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America [2011], World's Greatest Dad [2009]). Perhaps, I imagined, these bonafide filmmakers, whose previous features I find to be both intelligently and artfully crafted, would indeed be the subgenre's ghoulishly pallid white knights, rescuing it from the clutches of insipidness.

My imagination was a bit too romantic. The Sacrament and Willow Creek are both fine films, and in style and execution are among the most satisfying the found footage crop has produced in the past few years. Yet, while watching them, I couldn't shake the vague sense of disappointment that comes with reliving a once-fond experience after years spent apart and finding it somehow diluted, cheapened in the interim. Against my hopes, the majority of what these two films bring to the subgenre is a rehash of what had already come before, over a decade earlier, in a pair of superior films (namely, Zero Day [2003] and The Blair Witch Project [1999]). Despite the best efforts of these talented artists, the subgenre in their hands remains a set of carnival rides eroded with age and held together with rubber bands.

Allow me to explain:

First, there's Ti West's The Sacrament. Heading into it, I held an unreasonable amount of hope for this one. I felt the subgenre needed a savior, and who could be better equipped to accomplish this salvaging than one of our best contemporary horror filmmakers? I nearly peed myself in anticipation when I found out West was making an FF film. Sure, his first effort in the subgenre (the "Second Honeymoon" segment from the FF anthology V/H/S [2012]) wasn't revelatory, but it was the shining pearl of relative intelligence and creativity in that turd pile. I hoped that a full-length effort, unencumbered by the anthology format, might prove even stronger. But The Sacrament is a disappointment. It's been accused of being a slavish faux-reproduction of the Jonestown Massacre, and that it is, but that fact alone doesn't make it a wasted effort. The Jonestown Massacre is a bizarre and perplexing event in American history that no number of talking head documentaries can suffice to make total sense out of. Thus, The Sacrament poised itself to be an enlightening, if fictional, dramatization of events that could attempt to explain, on some level, the damaged human minds that caused it.

It's at this point that I'm reminded of Ben Coccio's faux-Columbine shooting found footage film, Zero Day. What that film and The Sacrament have in common is the use of the found footage form to bring immediacy to a historical tragedy, to allow our camera eye to witness the events firsthand without the glossy layers of Hollywood filmmaking separating us from the very real (if, again, slightly fictionalized) carnage. But, in contrast to Zero Day, The Sacrament doesn't succeed in this goal of making real the horrifying unreality of the actual events. Being a "Horror Film" first and foremost, The Sacrament keeps its cult members frightening and alien to us, and thus we're never presented with the opportunity to know or understand them. We are made to become firsthand witnesses to the events, but we leave them knowing no more about why they happened then those real-life viewers watching television news reports of the Jonestown Massacre's aftermath. It's a problem of perspective: Zero Day utilized the found footage form as a video diary of its Columbine-esque killers, and we, aligned with them as viewers, were encouraged to identify with them and their deeds. The film doesn't justify the actions of its teen murderers, but it allows us to, on a human level, understand a bit more about these killers (both real and imagined) beyond the sneering villain yearbook photos burned into our brains. The Sacrament, released a decade after Zero Day, neglects to forcefully provide us that human identification, and thus its use of this particular history-pilfering form fails. By the close of the film, we know nothing about the motivation of Gene Jones's supernaturally charismatic Father, nor do we truly understand what it took for his many followers to blindly live and die by his dictates, against their better sense and reason. The Sacrament strives to be a Creepy Cult Found Footage movie, not a Chilling Investigation of the Human Condition and Mass Suicide, and thus reeks more of "exploitation" than "examination." This observation doesn't render The Sacrament's most powerful scenes, like the inevitable Kool-Aid guzzling, any less visceral, but it does make them feel significantly more hollow.

And if the connection between The Sacrament and Zero Day feels more spiritual than direct to you in this argument about found footage's inability to advance, then consider Bobcat Goldthwait's found footage Bigfoot hunt, Willow Creek. Before Willow Creek, Goldthwait had never made a  horror film. Regardless, it was difficult for me not to be intrigued by the prospect of what he could bring to the subgenre. His previous, darkly comedic features proved to be winning satires with a keen eye focused upon the shallowness of our current media. Could Willow Creek enact a similar critique, perhaps with that keen eye focused on the innumerable Bigfoot Hunter or Paranormal Investigator "reality" television programs littering the broadcast schedule? Somewhat unfortunately, Willow Creek is a straight-up Bigfoot hunt found footage flick. Bigfoot FF is some of the worst out there at the moment (beaten for the title only by Abandoned Asylum Ghost Hunter FF), so as this realization about the film's intentions dawned on me about a third of the way through my viewing of Willow Creek, I feared for the worst. Fortunately, Willow Creek's steadfast return to the basics of the found footage form reveals the lingering potency of the subgenre's style.

But, simultaneously, Willow Creek reveals the subgenre's unwillingness to move that style forward. As a Supernatural Documentary Gone Awry FF, Willow Creek follows, beat-for-beat, the exact structure of the subgenre's chief progenitor, The Blair Witch Project. As in The Blair Witch Project, we witness the intrepid protagonists of Willow Creek preparing for their documentary shoot, filming introductory footage, entering the relevant town and interviewing the locals, heading to a famous local spot and filming more footage, camping out and being relentlessly terrorized at night while in a tent, getting lost in the woods, and perishing in an enigmatic ending in which much camera-whirling carnage is had and a vague callback from earlier is made. Goldthwait's film is not as succinct as The Blair Witch Project (the townie interview section of Willow Creek drags on far too long), but despite sharing an identical structure, the film doesn't prove grating. While more ramshackle and amateurish than I would have banked on, the film features amiable performances and enough suspense to justify its existence. But still, the question must be begged: is aping (pun intended) another decade-plus-old entry in the subgenre the best that a legitimate filmmaker can muster in 2014? Does such an obvious purloining of previous source material (however effective in isolation) herald the death knell of found footage? Has the shaky well run dry?

I'm still unsure. Considering The Sacrament and Willow Creek in retrospect, I realize that each film's most effective scene provides something to the viewer that traditionally filmed narratives would be extremely reluctant to and that most FF films of yesteryear would also most likely shy away from in their push toward kinetic, nausea-inducing camera movement: the extended stillness of frame. We see this in The Sacrament's horrific stationary long shot of the force-injection of cyanide between once-loving family members. We see it in Willow Creek's remarkable, nearly 20-minute-long tent-entrenched long take. (Actress Alexie Gilmore's face throughout this shot is the film's MVP). These shots may not be new uses of the form (even each of Paranormal Activity films makes occasional use of the camera that lingers), but they're by far the most prolonged and effective uses of a stationary camera that I've seen in the subgenre. Each of these scenes (though brief when considered in the larger running time) remind us of FF's effectiveness as a form, of the squirm-inducing splendor of the camera that won't flinch, and of the filmmaker whose presence is felt only through an absence of interference, who refuses to give us relief through a cut to quieter pastures and instead leaves us as helpless as a camera dropped to the ground. Moving forward, I hope the FF movement embraces this stillness of stationary horror. Let the cameras fall-- and remain-- where they may.

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