Barrett & Wingard Deal Another Terrifying Blow with BLAIR WITCH

Blair Witch. 2016. Directed by Adam Wingard. Screenplay by Simon Barrett.
Starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, & Valorie Curry.
Lionsgate/Room 101/Snoot Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 89 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
posterThis movie was a loaded gun for me when it hit. First, since I first saw The Blair Witch Project I’ve loved it completely. In all honesty, the marketing got to me when it was released, and for those who experienced it in the early days of internet there’s this buzz that still gets you going every time the movie plays. You get taken back to those trailers, the opening scenes, all the faux-reality, but the terrifying faux-reality that gripped horror lovers.
Second, I dig Adam Wingard and his frequent collaborator writer Simon Barrett. They haven’t reinvented the wheel, yet every project they take on is unique. They have such an excellent rapport as a director-writer team, which translates well into each film. A Horrible Way to DieYou’re NextThe Guest; each of these, for me, was a thrilling experience, albeit in their respective ways.
When it came out finally that The Woods, their latest collaboration, is in actuality Blair Witch… well, needless to say, I got excited. Taking on a sequel to one of the most groundbreaking horror films ever made, after the first fairly miserable sequel Book of Shadows failed to impress, is a monumental task. Not everyone is going to love Blair Witch. People seem to fall into a couple categories: either they think it strays too far from the original (to which I smirk questionably), or they think it’s too similar (there goes that smirk again).
Me, I find Wingard and Barrett’s film admirable, in a lot of ways. It gets more intense than its predecessor, that alone is saying something; hard to beat, but this sequel gives many of the best scenes from the original a run for their money. More than that Barrett’s screenplay, as opposed to the improvised and looser style of The Blair Witch Project, does wonders for the tension and gives the actors good stuff with which to work, ultimately allowing for better performances. Not every last person is going to love this. I do, and I hope others were as thrilled as me when they sat through its terror.
screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-8-29-18-pmOne of the immediate aspects I noticed, and enjoyed a ton, is the great sound design, helping to put it above the intensity of the first film in specific moments. There’s a feeling of being lost in the woods alongside these people because of the sound; a hovering, pulsing sound wraps the audience up, as it surrounds the characters. This, in conjunction with the camerawork – chaotic and frenzied in the more mortifying moments – makes for good scares. The original movie does well with its bare sense of reality, having the actors sent out into the woods relatively on their own and manipulated into being scared. Blair Witch succeeds in its mission to creep people out partly due to the sound and the visuals together, plus the fact Wingard did things similar to The Blair Witch Project‘s directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.
Mainly, Wingard used an air horn in the background of scenes in order to attain the right amount of jump from actors. And some will say, “That’s what an actor is for, they should just act!” – I say nonsense. Sure, don’t go William Friedkin and fire a gun next to somebody to scare them. I feel like the air horn is fine, it did elicit appropriate reactions. There are honest places actors sometimes aren’t going to get simply because they need to be genuinely scared to get there, not pretend scared, and Wingard gets the actors under his care to that place, manipulating horror from them in an unexpected way. Moreover, the actors just haul you to the darkness of that woods and far too many times, in the best kind of sense, you’ll feel as lost as they do, disoriented, frightened, paranoid; the whole gamut of terrifying emotion.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-29-03-pmscreen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-30-23-pmThe acting is great, aside from any of the jump scares or the pure bits of scary madness. And it’s strange, because I’ve seen people complain that the acting is no good, or that it takes away from the tension. Totally disagree. Each of the actors gives it their all, as well as the fact a couple of them give absolutely awesome performances.
Wes Robinson & The Following‘s Valorie Curry as Lane and Talia, the would-be guides into the Black Hills woods, don’t only play interesting characters Barrett penned in addition to the others, they’re two of the best in the cast. Robinson particularly gets to the core of the paranoia driving so much of the story’s suspense. Once things progress to a certain point, both Robinson and Curry take us into a horrific space that gets eerier by the minute.
James Allen McCune (whose stint on Shameless was incredible) plays the brother of Heather Donahue, the catalyst of the adventure, and he does a nice job straddling between non-belief and belief until the situation becomes painfully clear near the end. I also can’t forget to mention Corbin Reid as Ashley. She plays a role that could’ve easily been lost in a bunch of blood and moaning and crying; while there’s a little of that, Reid brings an uneasy feeling to the gut when we see her character descend into the forest’s terror. Everybody involved brings their A-game, even the couple more minor characters. With a bigger cast this time, in contrast to the original’s trio, Blair Witch utilises every one of them to the fullest extent.
screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-36-52-pmI don’t want to spoil any of the best moments, although I have to mention one, hopefully without giving away too much. Just before the final half hour takes us into a frightening place, a scene involving the wooden Blair Witch figurines takes their presence to a whole new level. I can’t say much more – other than the actors’ reactions combined with the editing, and again the sound design, make for the moment that both shocked and pounded me into a state of horror.
Blair Witch is about on par with its original. Maybe a lot of others don’t think so, but damn it, I do. And I can’t deny that. I went into this expecting that there was a possibility I wouldn’t be thrilled. Regardless if Barrett and Wingard made this, two artists I admire and love to see working in any capacity (the latter’s stint with Cinemax and Outcast did wonders for the TV horror lover’s soul), I didn’t count out disappointment.
Yet no part of me was really disappointed. Barrett and Wingard did interesting things with the legacy of such a beloved piece of horror cinema. They refused to move too far from the film Myrick and Sánchez. Likewise, they branched out a bit, too; they didn’t retread too many paths. I loved the ending because it goes out on a similar note to the first, and in doing so almost shows us how the first actually ended. Dig it. As well, there’s an interesting conception of time in the screenplay; that’s all I’ll say. This does wonders in terms of writing to make the movie different, yet similar in a weird vein to the original film. If you want a good spoiler-filled look at this idea, check Screen Crush’s interview with Wingard here.
So even if there’s no general consensus, or even if that consensus is that this sequel doesn’t hold up, I dig this one. Barrett and Wingard confirm once again they’re worthy of helping to carry genre film forward, year after year. And who knows, maybe this will help a franchise get going, which I’d love to see. This didn’t wow at the box office, but it did make a profit for a relatively low budget film in today’s Hollywood system. I know that I wouldn’t mind seeing at least one more film surrounding the legend of the Blair Witch, no matter who takes it on. This movie proves you can update or reboot films years later without being totally derivative and without straying too wildly from what made the original so popular.

Advertisements

BE MY CAT: A FILM FOR ANNE is One Blurry Line Between Movies & Murder

Be My Cat: A Film for Anne. 2016. Directed & Written by Adrian Tofei.
Starring Adrian Tofei, Sonia Teodoriu, Florentina Hariton, & Alexandra Stroe.
Produced by Tofei. 87 minutes.
Not Rated.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★posterFound footage annoys certain people. Me, I’m always willing to give it a chance. There’s a lot of good stuff out there – unique, innovative stuff. No shortage of it, but now and then you’ve got to dig through a heap of trash to find the diamonds. Be My Cat: A Film for Anne uses its found footage premise well, driving the main theme of the film: obsession.
Director and writer Adrian Tofei blurs the line between fiction and reality so well that at times it’s easy to forget you’re watching a film. Using the idea of trying to get the attention of Anne Hathaway in Hollywood, Tofei puts himself in the lead role of a director badly wanting to make a movie with her. This isn’t exactly a totally original premise. It’s the way Tofei enacts his plot, the dread which follows and everything in between that makes this slice of found footage different.
As is the case with most of the sub-genre, this entry doesn’t have much style to it. That matters not. Tofei’s acting, his eerie presence, and the raw qualities of the filming, these are elements which make this a worthwhile watch for any fans of the found footage style.
img_4032There are plenty films involving stalkers in this sub-genre, but they’re so often masked, or unseen behind the camera’s lens. Tofei is upfront and centre the entire time. This allows us a way into his mind, giving the audience a passenger side seat to the psychosis that overtakes him gradually; or maybe it’s been with him the whole time. Either way, it’s ugly. Not in a way which detracts from the story. There’s a compelling feel to watching this guy unravel.
Obsession is the theme driving everything. Underneath, this film is about the blur between fiction and reality. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard talked about the simulacra and how the world’s become hyperreal, in that everything real has more so become just a form of something fictional we all recognise (that’s a very liberal take on his extensive concept). In a way, this is how Be My Cat is structured. Tofei dives deeper and deeper with each scene into that psychosis I mentioned, along with the audience. The further he gets into the movie he’s making to send Anne, the more he feels justified in the things he’s doing. “This is the sacrifice Im making,” he tells the camera, as if urging us to believe in him. What happens is a process of dissociation. Tofei dissociates from the self, becoming his character – Adrian, himself – far too literally. Reminding us that he is in fact this character Adrian and not the real Adrian, he says: “I would never do something like this.” Real murder becomes mere character action, the progression of his psychosis is then development in his dangerous metafiction view of the world, through his film. It’s like method acting gone past the point of normal psychology.
img_4029The story’s trajectory is relatively obvious. Early on we understand there’s something not quite right with Adrian. Doesn’t take long. It’s how he takes us there that makes the plan uniquely terrifying. Adrian’s kinda crazy, kinda nonchalant attitude is unsettling, at the same time not wholly without charm either. His character, gradually flipping from fiction to reality to metafiction, engages the audience even in the slower scenes. You can’t help wondering what he’ll do or say next, which keeps you off balance, and never quite capable of pinning him down with any understanding.
A pivotal moment for his character comes when he says that “boys and dogs are bullies” when he talks about girls and cats. We hear a bit about why he likes cats, or why the character likes them. And this is one major point of division between Adrian and his fictional character Adrian. There’s a clear line you can follow, watching the dissociation get worse.
This movie isn’t built on shock value, either. You expect it to be, but what the story focuses on most is Adrian’s descent into fiction that becomes brutally real. Along the way there’s obviously blood. Rather than go for a gory mess constantly, the blood is at times partly off-screen and the full nastiness is hidden. What’s worse is one scene where a victim comes upon a slow realisation that Adrian is actually preparing to do a homemade dissection on her. Too creepy. He fully dissociates from reality at this point, the ultimate separation, and doesn’t for a single second come to grips with the real murder he’s committing.
img_4031I remember hearing of Be My Cat and just the short description, the Twitter account, caught my attention. There’s an edgy psychological aspect that sinks its teeth in and never lets go. Admittedly, I know that some may not find it as compelling. Not everyone wants to do a slow burn into madness in found footage format. And that’s fine, I understand. I suggest giving it a chance. Tofei has done something here that’s on the verge of greatness.
There are times you might feel the acting isn’t up to par. I disagree. Tofei’s uncomfortable moments are used to good effect, and that also plays into the worrisome metafiction of the film overall. The performances of the actresses are equally as impressive. When you fall down the rabbit hole of despair alongside the fictional Adrian Tofei and his unsuspecting victims it’s all the more troubling that the performances on either side of the murder-victim aisle pull you into a space where fiction gets questionable.
Can’t recommend this film enough. I’ve seen it described as revolutionary for the found footage sub-genre, as dangerous, many other things. They’re pretty much all right, as far as I’m concerned. Looking forward to whatever this guy takes on next. If Be My Cat is any indication, Tofei has an intriguing perspective on the horror genre.

Digging Up the Past in THE TRIANGLE

The Triangle. 2016. Directed & Written by David Blair, Nathaniel Peterson, Adam Pitman, Andrew Rizzo, & Adam Stilwell.
Starring Andrew Rizzo, Lee Rizzo, Brick Patrick, Nathaniel Peterson, Ciara Rose Griffin, John Budge, Nicholas Daue, Hendra Mylnechuk, Andy Greenfield, & Karen Jean Olds.
Firework Brain/BadFritter Films.
Not Rated. 94 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★★★
img_3997When found footage films go for different concepts from what we see so often, there’s always a bit of worth in watching them. Not that it automatically makes them good; not at all. But credit where credit’s due. Every inch of found footage could be the exact same plot, over and over, if it weren’t for a few great titles out there. Even a few that follow the repeatedly lifted plot of The Blair Witch Project are still good, simply for the fact they’re actually scary.
The Triangle is a horror, yet it isn’t traditional. Having loved Ti West’s The Sacrament and its fictionalised retelling of the tragic Jim Jones story, my initial worry with this movie was that it might follow too closely in line with his, either ripping it off or just feeling way too similar to be any good. It actually goes in its own unique direction, to surprising lengths. The story starts out as a real documentary, in that the postcard these guys receive from an old friend is true to life. From there, reality gives way to beautifully organic plot, to strange horror bordering on science fiction.
This is one found footage flick that has great camerawork, which is an added bonus to all the weird, wild plot developments over the course of a lean 94 minutes. You won’t quite know what to expect, and part of that works on your nerves. A lot of complaints I see online are simply due to the slow burn plot. So, if that’s not your thing maybe you’re not the target audience here. I’d still suggest giving it a chance because of the unique events that unfold in front of the camera, as well as some of the questions you’ll be left asking later.
img_4001Just starting from the premise it’s an interesting way to begin this faux-documentary. A vague, mysterious opening with the postcard, holding endless possibilities. Wondering about many of those sketchy possibilities is a reason why the initial scene is kind of tense. There’s also this hopeful mood, too. Still, a lingering sense of uneasiness accompanies the postcard and even once they decide to head out after their friend there’s an undeniable apprehension inside them all. Like them, we feel on the precipice of a life changing adventure, never knowing if what’s next could be something terrible dark, or if it’s all worry for no reason. You might doubt your thoughts, which is a recurring feeling, and it’s in those moments The Triangle catches you in its tangled web.
There’s talk in the community, as it is with these types of places, about self-sufficiency. What does that really mean, in the end? What must one sacrifice in order to gain it? Or, do these cult-like people simply give themselves over to something or someone else to replace modern society (et cetera)? Often so-called self-sufficiency in these communes, in reality, requires devotion to an Other: a god, a deity, or in these situations a charismatic leader in Rizzo. And when there are these hierarchical positions amongst supposedly open, free communes, there are always secrets, things kept from people and those people kept in the dark about something. Of course we find this is truer than ever throughout the course of the plot.
Any horror, mystery, thriller needs suspense and tension. If not, there’s nothing to grasp onto and even an interesting story can end up plenty less compelling. From the time these guys get to the Ragnarok commune there’s a great deal of slow, mounting tension while the documentary crew – representative of the modern world, that old society from which the commune tries escaping – clashes with everyone they meet. Not in a totally overt way, either. That’s  one reason why it feels dangerous. There is a gruelling passive-aggressiveness about their behaviour, especially Rizzo; he’s the number one. His sense of domineering status and narcissistic attitude comes out more and more after we get to know him a bit. At first, he doesn’t seem to hold that narcissism. He’s open, welcoming, friendly, foolish. As the time passes this changes, and Rizzo emerges, subtly, as absolutely like all those other cult leaders in history. That’s his, and their, ultimate aim is to talk the talk, walk the walk, no matter what lies behind the veil. Perhaps scarier is the fact Rizzo isn’t the only narcissist in the cult, that he’s a mere figurehead for a main group who all share something in common that others in the commune don’t – what that is, you’ll have to find out on your own. Such a thick tension goes on for a long while, then once the mystery of the plot breaks the impact of the coming horror feels significant. We get time with all the main characters, not only Rizzo, so after having spent that portion of the film getting into their lives and their emotions, et cetera, it’s gripping to watch what goes on past the halfway mark.
img_3999SPOILERS: from here on in there’ll be a bunch of spoilers – turn back, lest ye be spoiled!
The commune is named Ragnarok, based on the Ragnarök of Norse mythology which is most commonly translated to mean “the final destiny of the gods.” Later in the film we discover a core group in the commune has had what they call “the dream” and it’s about being led on a journey by this shapeshifting creature, at the end of which it disappears leaving a dinosaur skull – a tyrannosaurus – and then, as one of them puts it, “at the end of the dream, were gone.” Certainly by the time this dream comes up we’ve seen the skull they’ve dug up in a nearby cave, we get the sense it has an effect on people emitting a high-pitched noise the closer you get to it. When the end of the film comes, the main group from Ragnarok who’ve had the dream are all ill, going a bit crazy, and they wander off up into the hills. We see a flash of light in the cave, and everyone is gone.
What does it all mean? Here’s my take.
One of the purposes of their commune was to try and get back to a time they felt was lost in modern society. These people reject the modern world so much that when it comes time for them to sign releases for the film crew, at first there’s significant contention. This changes, yes, but Rizzo even talks about simply not having time for the logistics because they live in the middle of a desert, no real houses, self-sufficient, so they’ve rejected that entire system of living. Point being, they wanted to go back to a lost time, a time before, another place almost. In the end, as it went in their collective dream, a nearly genderless woman comes to take them up to the dinosaur skull, and then they’ve disappeared (“at the end of the dream, were gone“). Have they been transported through time, back to another place? Did they will it to happen through their collective brain power and wanting it to be true? They strip down, almost in a primitive sense. As if going somewhere closes aren’t needed. Everything speaks to going back to the past. Right on down to the fact they’ve dug up the past, literally, by finding the fossil. We’ll never know where they’ve gone. Not for sure. We can only assume from what we’re given, and it’s good fun trying to piece the puzzle together.
img_4002I’ll probably be in the minority, although I couldn’t care any fucking less. The Triangle is an interesting addition to the found footage heap, definitely nearer to the top of the pile. When I felt it was about to rip off West’s recent Jim Jones-inspired effort, the plot threw me for a loop. Not everything was perfect. Even for a slow burn this one takes its sweet time drawing out the story.
All the same, no matter its mistakes this is a weird, worthy little movie. The camerawork is top notch for found footage, giving it more credibility than about half of them in the sub-genre. Better still, I enjoyed the performances and they help make this faux-documentary feel more like the real thing, giving the emotionally charged moments a sense of gravitas. You can do much worse than this movie, as the suspense does a fine job making the stretched out plot feel like an enjoyable breeze.
The Triangle deserves a watch. At least one. Maybe you’ll be pissed off, having felt it was a waste of time. Or maybe, like me, you’ll enjoy trying to figure out the answers to all the questions left after the finale. Either way, it makes you think. And that can’t be said for so many other found footage horrors out there. This one isn’t filled with shaky camera angles, screams, or even blood. It works on your brain until the last moment.

EXHIBIT A Offers Emotionally Superior Found Footage in a Sea of Mediocrity

Exhibit A. 2007. Directed by Dom Rotheroe. Screenplay by Rotheroe & Darren Bender.
Starring Bradley Cole, Brittany Ashworth, Angela Forrest, Oliver Lee, Jason Allen, Charles Davies, Emily Button, & Belinda Lazenby.
Warp Films/Bigger Pictures/Screen East/UK Film Council.
Not Rated. 85 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★★
posterThe found footage sub-genre is filled with movies which range from awful to great. I’d likely say found footage has a bigger ratio of bad to good than most other sub-genres out there. Depending on the premise, a movie using this style can really grab you. Too many try emulating the most popular offerings, such as Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project (as well as Paranormal Activity in the post-2000 landscape), rather than forge new ground on their own.
Exhibit A is a fascinatingly horrific look at the regular lives of a British family, whose patriarch is hiding a secret; one that proves to be devastating. Like a socioeconomic found footage movie. Instead of looking for ghosts in the woods or having a group of people filming while running away from an unknown force/serial killer/something else, this little flick, with chilling focus, peers into a normal world that may even hit uncomfortably close to home for some viewers.
Because of the plot’s humanity, director Dom Rotheroe (My Brother Tom) is able to tap into an element of us all, touching deeply on fears many feel – of rejection by our own family, of failing those we love; the fear a father may have of not being able to provide properly for his family, as well as what that does to his imagine in the eyes of his wife, his children, his friends. Within the normality of these peoples lives, Exhibit A manages to burrow under the viewer’s skin, scene by scene, until arriving at the shattering and shocking finale.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-3-43-42-pmOne of the major reasons I love this film is how it really plays up to the sub-genre of found footage. There’s lots of found footage teetering along the edge, playing with the conventions (or merely forgetting them a moment), which still ends up being excellent. What Rotheroe does is keep things consistent, as we view the entire film through the lens of the family’s daughter, Judith King (Brittany Ashworth). In fact, the immediate first scene shows us an official-looking stamp and print from the Yorkshire Police. This lays out the plot as actual evidence from a crime scene at the King family home. There are no opening credits. The title comes directly from the police report as Exhibit A, which is what you’d normally see when a tape is viewed in court. All of this helps work towards a genuine effort of found footage, pulling us into a natural atmosphere, as if it’s all real, actual people, instead of a contrived film’s story. From there, we witness all sorts of moments through Judith’s eyes, or that of the camera’s more specifically. This encompasses her own private moments, such as the burgeoning crisis of her sexual orientation, and then casts an eye on the private moments of Judith’s father Andy (Bradley Cole), as she tapes him secretly when he goes out to the shed by himself, when he’s confronted by an angry man from the office in which he works, and so on. Instead of wondering why the camera is always filming in this slice of found footage, there’s a perfect reason at all times, and as opposed to a lot of found footage already out there this is a welcomed addition to everything else enjoyable.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-3-44-20-pmThe biggest and most effective portion is how well both Cole and Ashworth play their characters. If it weren’t for the performances this could easily have become a dragging endurance test of boring scenes. The entire cast are fairly believable in their roles, but it’s these two who shine most. Ashworth is great because she has a difficult character to play, a young woman growing up in a family with hidden problems and at the same time trying to figure out herself sexually. The character Judith’s development is expertly presented through the images her camera captures – for instance, she stalks (too harsh a word but the only good description I can think of now) a girl next door by watching her through the video camera, and when confronted with her face to face Judith all but freezes completely. Later, the fact she is likely lesbian becomes a larger, more significant family event, although I’m not going to ruin that for you.
But this leads to Cole’s performance as the King family father, Andy. Truthfully, this may be at the top of the list of great performances in the sub-genre. All too often we’re treated to the same screaming, bickering, shaky cam (et cetera) and the performances are only mediocre (if we’re lucky). Cole transforms into a wildly charming yet secretive family man, his energy with his kids and his wife is evident from the get go. Gradually as the film progresses we start to see behind the mask, and Cole is the gatekeeper to let us in. He starts becoming more and more strange, both to the viewer and his family (especially daughter Judith). When the last 15-20 minutes come around, Andy King turns into a monster of epic proportions. It’s the way in which Cole as an actor draws us towards the semi-delusional state of living that Andy falls into throughout the course of the plot, making you feel for him even if he’s a liar and imagining how tough it must be for him to accept what’s happened in his life. The final moments are nerve wracking, in large part because of Cole’s emotional acting; you still feel for him, but the finale’s events erase any sympathy for his situation, as he brutally wipes out any chance of that.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-3-47-10-pmCole as Andy King is one of the best performances in any found footage film I’ve seen. His convincing portrayal of a man losing a grip on his family and his entire life, his career, is both sad and incredibly grim. One scene particularly, involving a party in his backyard, pushes you to the limit of being uncomfortable, as he dances around like an idiot, trying his hardest to be NORMAL and yet falling far outside of any pattern of normality. This is the turning point. After this, Exhibit A dives headlong into the morbid thrills of watching a family self-destruct at the hands of dear ole dad.
There are a number of intense scenes, ranging from well-meaning father behaviour to the desperate clinging of a man trying to make sure he never loses his family. So many scenes are perfectly played to make you feel the maximum amount of ruination. Ultimately, the position of trusted parent is at the middle of the violent cyclone and we’re privy to an examination of how Andy violated that position.
Exhibit A is a cracking film, one of the greater efforts in found footage since The Blair Witch Project. The acting, even how it’s shot (most camerawork was literally done by the cast), is near perfect. Ashworth and Cole as the daughter and father respectively are fascinating to watch; they lead us down the garden path into terror. The finale is completely unsettling because of how far we watch Cole’s character fall, comparing the end to the beginning is like watching two entirely different men. I suggest if you’re looking for a found footage movie to wow you, or at the very least step outside of the typical format and plot we see on the regular, this is one you have to check out. But I warn you: the end is disturbing, and those sensitive to family issues might actually find it tough to watch. Yet I urge you, watch. This is a gem if there ever were one.

The Unknown Horror of Suburbia: 388 ARLETTA AVENUE

388 Arletta Avenue. 2011. Directed & Written by Randall Cole.
Starring Nick Stahl, Mia Kirshner, Devon Sawa, Aaron Abrams, Charlotte Sullivan, Krista Bridges, & Gerry Dee.
Copperheart Entertainment.
Rated PG. 87 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★1/2
posterFound footage sometimes doesn’t feel like its actually been found. There are movies in which I forgive the sin. Others feel as if they’re lacking because they need that real quality to make it effective. 388 Arletta Avenue is one of those found footage horror movies that uses its sub-genre gimmick to an advantage.
Instead of being from the victim’s point of view as is often the case, or being a more handheld and personal-type journey with a serial killer like The Poughkeepsie Tapes, director-writer Randall Cole goes for a definitively 21st century setup to play upon suburban fears of being watched, not knowing who’s really in the house next to them or walking their streets. This way, the antagonist of 388 Arletta Avenue comes off as more omniscient, more inescapable than many others in found footage.
There’s definitely a bit of room for improvement. Nick Stahl is excellent in the lead role, though I feel like the rest of the cast is underused, or improperly used. Either way he’s left to kind of carry the weight. Luckily he is a top notch actor when given the right material. As a husband in distress, one whose own rush to judgement and sketchy past only makes things worse, Stahl really keeps the viewer glued to his plight, wondering what could possibly happen next.
pic1Immediately, Cole places us in the shoes of voyeur. We are doing surveillance on James (Stahl) and Amy Deakin (Mia Kirshner), just as if we were the unseen protgaonist ourselves. And just as immediately the strange events begin swirling around the married couple, specifically James when he finds a burned CD in his car – one he didn’t make – and songs on his computer to back it all up. There’s a quick addition of tension into the plot between these two characters. It starts fast with such tiny intervention from the unseen stalker, you begin to imagine how bad it can manage to get from here on in. If this were real life, if you knew you hadn’t burned some CD, wouldn’t paranoia kick in?
After Amy goes missing, James starts to find himself getting creeped out more and more. Right alongside the viewer. There’s an oxymoron moment of playfulness crossed with sinister behaviour when James finds an e-mail in his inbox, sent from his own e-mail, saying “Meow” followed by “The Cat Came Back” playing on the stereo when he gets home. Probably the most awesomely eerie scene of the film, really gets me.
Everything gets interesting once Bill (Devon Sawa) comes into the picture. He’s an Afghanistan veteran. Just so happens that James and his friends bullied him mercilessly back in high school, to a degree (we assume) was pretty embarrassing. James assumes more with each strange event in his house that Bill is taking his revenge.
pic2FROM HERE THERE’LL BE SPOILERS. This verges on becoming about PTSD, how those mistreated might wind up taking out their disorder in chilling ways after coming home from war without anything to keep them properly occupied. It also hints at questions about morality, as well as how we hope to make amends somehow after being bad people for no reason. Whether that’s even possible if what you’ve done has ever really damaged a person. However, once figuring out who the true antagonist of 388 Arletta Avenue is there’s further reaching consequences of the events at hand. The surveillance, the depth of what this strange knows, it’s genuinely upsetting. Love it. Gives you that sick feeling in the gut, and wondering: who knows what about you in this day and age?
For a found footage horror-thriller, the screenplay is atypically tight. Most of these sub-genre flicks aren’t exactly well scripted. But Cole does well filling the duties of director and writer at once. The atmosphere is heavy, and he juxtaposes moments of emotional horror with songs you might not expect. Shaun Cassidy’s saccharine sweet bopper “Da Doo Run Run” plays a couple times; gets gut wrenching once slowed down to a crawl. “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb will never feel scarier, becoming less an R&B love ballad and more a morbid anthem. Moreover, Cole does well choosing places to position the camera, from the bedside table alarm clock to car vents to one positioned in the best place to watch James’ bed from overhead. Add to that the stalker has a camera on him, there’s a heart-pounding scene when James nearly catches him hiding in the closet – a daring move. You almost feel as if James is about to die right before your eyes, then a very brief cat-and-mouse chase breaks out. Awesome sequence.
pic3I personally enjoy the hell out of 388 Arletta Avenue. I dig found footage, but I know there are plenty of tired entries into the sub-genre out there. Because so many either copy too hard and rip-off their predecessors, or they just don’t do anything to make the found footage gimmick worth watching.
Randall Cole makes good decisions as director. At times the screenplay could easily have been added to and given more meat on the bones. Yet the core is strong. Again, Stahl is one of the big reasons this movie works. He is terrifyingly effective in that you both empathise, maybe even sympathise depending on your own experiences, with his situation (re: Bill particularly), and also see how he devolves quickly, violently in a dark place when faced with all the stalking directed at him. Throughout this tense 87 minutes Stahl keeps your attention by making you feel every last emotional sore spot.
Highly recommend this flick for your found footage viewing. Any time people want an underrated horror using the guise of found footage, I’m always quick to add that this really sticks to the gimmick and uses it as an advantage. No shaky camera throughout the entire runtime to make you sick. You get a solid lead performance, an eerie supporting one from Sawa, and Cole delivers most of the time in his directorial work. I’d bet you’ll get at least a chill or two after throwing this on during a dark, lonely night. This one removes any sense of safety from the home – what once was a happy couple’s safe haven becomes a house of modern horrors, set in motion by an unseen, never identified stalker who has infiltrated James’ life inside out.

DARK MOUNTAIN: Blair Witch Feels in the Arizona Mountains

Dark Mountain. 2013. Directed by Tara Anaïse. Screenplay by Anaïse & Tamara Blaich.
Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, & Shelby Stehlin.
Superstitious Films.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★1/2
posterAh, found footage! I love thee. I love thee not.
There are times the sub-genre is used to great advantage. I’m going to talk a bit in this review about the movie which put it right in the spotlight: Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project. Now, not all found footage is emulative of that 1999 breakout hit. There’s no shortage of movies that try and capitalise off its success by cherry-picking moments to homage – or straight up rip-off. Sometimes that’s not so bad, as long as within the framework somewhere you can find a nugget of originality. Even if it’s tiny, now and then it’s worth it. But not too often.
Dark Mountain is a movie that relies too heavily on its Blair Witch influence. The movie teeters on a precarious edge, where the filmmakers fall into copying Myrick and Sánchez too much while also having enough originality to do interesting things. They fall over the edge rather than spin their spooky little tale into gold. And it’s a shame. Using the jumping off point of the legendary Lost Dutchman’s Mine, director Tara Anaïse (and co-writer with Tamara Blaich) had the potential to make a truly scary found footage flick. Leaning too hard on the movie that obviously was a huge influence – not only this film but so many others, as I already mentioned – really hinders even the best efforts and tricks up Anaïse’s sleeve.
img_3981img_3983One thing I really do enjoy is that the Lost Dutchman legend is a central part of the screenplay. While the movie devolves into Blair Witch rip-off at too many turns, this real legend (oxymoron?) makes things eerily fun. Named after a German immigrant, Jacob Waltz, the mine was supposedly discovered in the 19th century, after which Waltz kept the location secret. Lots of other macabre details weave through this odd story, including deaths and disappearances of those who went out searching for the Dutchman’s fabled gold only to come across something sinister.
Where the writing falters most is they never come to a clear decision on what kind of presence is in and surrounding the caves. It goes from ghostly spirit-like activity to possibly extraterrestrial presence to plain old madness. Fine to leave parts of the plot ambiguous. To my mind, they went a little too deep on the ambiguity and didn’t do the plot any favours. There’s a good deal of paranoia, some nice tension. Ultimately, without anything more concrete in the story none of it goes anywhere spectacular.
img_3984There were creepy bits, despite those flaws. An early moment sees Kate (Sage Howard) witnessing a mist-like apparition in the caves, which nobody else sees, and that starts her fright. Of course that’s just like a stutter step before the more chilling moments. Perhaps the more unsettling is when Paul (Andrew Simpson) goes insane during the night, speaking in a strange, otherworldly voice before collapsing to the ground. This leads into the more suspenseful stuff when Paul’s paranoia runs out of control, believing Kate and Ross (Shelby Stehlin) are getting unusually close. My favourite is a little later once the trio stumbles across an ominous diary and even more disturbing tape recorder.
But again, the Blair Witch influence crosses over into infringement of artistic ideas. Paul disappears into the night, sending Kate and Ross on their inevitable, fateful journey into the night after him. Although they find him in a much stranger place, eating a bloody organ. This is a little less of a rip-off. Kate and Paul nearly get swallowed alive by the caves. Gold gets pulled away by an unseen force, scary and prophetic visions of death; Paul briefly appears, for a split second, with blood coming from his eyes. So we don’t exactly get the influence being copied totally. Some of these moments divert away into their own territory. Yet when the finale comes, The Blair Witch Project courses much too heavily through Dark Mountain‘s DNA.
The end is very much like that of Myrick and Sánchez’s, and worse it doesn’t feel as scary. Except that it genuinely could’ve been! Really. Maybe if we got some kind of quick glimpse of the Lost Dutchman, or someone dressed in 19th-century period clothing, there would be a bigger impact to the finish. I dig the lead up to the last few minutes. There are a couple spooky images on the way. Just feels like a let down once those final frames play and you realise this movie borrowed way too liberally from a supposed influence; yeah, more like a template.
img_3986I gave this a 2&1/2-star rating because I do feel that Dark Mountain was enjoyable. Problem is it’s only barely enjoyable. Because of the need to copy Blair Witch at too many turns, Anaïse’s movie never gets where it wants to go. The Lost Dutchman’s Mine is a super fun story to involve in the plot of a horror. I wish that Anaïse and Blaich were able to craft a better screenplay without having to glom onto what Myrick of Sanchez created. Part of why that was so good is because the legend of the Blair Witch was a fabrication on their part; the mythology was entirely created. So that gave them more to work with altogether.
Dark Mountain struggles towards its own thing and can’t ever amount to anything beyond medicore. There’s a handful of good stuff, at least worth one watch. Don’t expect anything more than a copy of a movie you enjoyed more. It’s too bad. As I said, the legend they opt to use for the backdrop is awesome. Perhaps next time Anaïse can do something better because I was rooting for her.

There Are No Answers for Evil in HOME MOVIE

Home Movie. 2008. Directed & Written by Christopher Denham.
Starring Adrian Pasdar, Cady McClain, Amber Joy Williams, Austin Williams, Lucian Maisel, & River O’Neal.
Modernciné.
Rated R. 80 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
posterThe theme of evil is a prevalent one in the horror genre. Whether through a lens of science or organised religion, there are many films that tackle the nature of evil; from where it originates, what makes a person evil and drives them to do evil to others. It’s hard to ever know, but horror movies do their best to give us all the scenarios for our sick enjoyment.
Christopher Denham gives us Home Movie – a suspenseful, eerie addition to the found footage sub-genre. Using the story of two parents – David and Clare Poe (Adrian Pasdar & Cady McClain) – who are having trouble with their young, strange children, Denham explores the idea of evil. The main plot has to do with the mother (works in psychology) and the father (a pastor) having opposite worldviews, so they’ve come to different conclusions on what is making their children act like two budding serial killers.
What makes it all so effective is attention to sticking with the found footage format, generally keeping close to making it feel like this footage was actually FOUND instead of edited together. Furthermore, Pasdar and McClain are a natural couple with positive chemistry for the roles, alongside Amber Joy Williams & Austin Williams as Jack and Emily who act beyond their years with an ability to creep you out that needs to be seen to be believed.
Trust me. If ever creepy kids were creepy as hell, Home Movie is the flick.
pic2Opening the film with dead animals being wrapped in plastic bags, put in a kid’s wagon, then quickly cutting to David flicking through the camera starting to film some nice family moments is a masterful juxtaposition. This sets the film’s tone fast. A disgusting moment juxtaposed against the innocuous, typical dad-like activity is like a thesis: we are about to witness a (semi)normal family descend into macabre madness.
There’s a lot of dragon imagery throughout the story. We see the dragon puppet the kids have, and then dad tells his children a story called “The Dragon and The Paper Bag” that concerns a dragon who disguises himself to fit in amongst boys and girls only to eat them up in a dastardly plan. Notice it’s a two-headed dragon. So, quite swiftly Denham sets up a symbolic parallel between the two-headed beast and the two Poe kids. Just as the dragon walked and talked like a child but was only pretending, we eventually come to see how the Poe kids also pretend to be children while they’re so much more in the most sinister of ways.
Our first big indication of a serious problem, as well as the kids’ affront to their parents respective fields (a conscious effort on their part), is the crucified cat. On Christmas Day, no less. They don’t just kill a cat, they don’t simply nail him to a piece of wood: they crucify him. This is their initial dig at God. Worse still, it’s likely the kids who set into motion the mistaken assumption on their mother’s part that David is abusing them. He gets drunk on New Years and ends up laying in bed with his kids; they wake up with bites all over them, deep and hard. Earlier in the movie we hear Clare tell David to stop biting her. And so the kids – who are known to be watching the tapes – bite each other. They manipulate Clare into thinking that her field of science is the one able to provide an explanation: David, as it turns out, was abused as a boy, and so statistics show many abused kids grow up to abuse their own offspring. More and more, little Jack and Emily set their parents against one another, all in the name of completing their evil without being bothered too much.
pic3So many message boards for this movie have thrived on the idea that there’s actually a chance the kids were possessed. Not true, at all. Not in any way. The children aren’t possessed, nor can psychology and all the science of the world properly diagnose and explain their evil behaviour. Just like the most famous serial killers in history, these kids are psychopaths. They’ve gone from nailing down worms to beheading dogs, crucifying cats, to first harming another child to likely murdering their own parents. The whole point of the film is that evil has NO explanation. There’s no one solitary answer. Even the FBI with their checklist of factors which lead to someone becoming a serial killer readily admit there’s no right combination; each person, and consequently their personal brand of evil, is different.
What’s positively evident at all times is the creepiness. Pasdar’s charm as the family patriarch lulls us into a complacent feeling, like these are real people, as does the relationship between him and McClain. Set against the parents, Jack and Emily are terrifying, two near emotionless children, manipulative and worrisome at every turn. The family dynamic overall is so natural that once the horror gets going full force you’re swept away by each following event. Calling back to the dragon, the kids don paper bags when committing ghastly acts, such as preparing a friend from school to eat – they don’t get to do it, but close enough. Later when they have their parents tied up, they once more put on their paper bags. Again, their likeness to the dragon is brought to the front. We see the kids for who they are: monsters. They even wear Japanese-style masks, reminiscent of dragons, as they lay siege to their parents before the climactic moments. Love the imagery that repeats, getting stronger with each appearance, until the horror is unbearable.
pic3-1This is a great found footage horror. Near the end, the kids start setting up for “The Jack and Emily Show” and it’s as if Kevin McCallister and his younger sister teamed up as killers to make his wish of never seeing his family again come true; the found footage edition of Home Alone. Most of the sub-genre is adhered to, although a couple times a bit of choice editing works its way. I can forgive some of that because Denham really makes the whole thing look like we’re seeing home movies, some messed up and static-filled, bits merging together having been taped over time and time again.
Above anything else, Home Movie unnervingly looks into the nature of evil, positing that between science and religion there are no full explanations. Try though people might we will never find an exact definition or idea of evil. When it comes to the subject of killer children, or those kids who may go on to be serial killers at a later age, there’s often no way to clue everything up in a nice package for people to say “Oh this is evil” like a coordinate on a map. No. Just as the Poe children show us, there are no ways to understand evil, and certainly not in such young people. Evil is fluid, it comes in many forms and all too often inexplicably.

UNDOCUMENTED is American Nationalism Up Close & Ugly

Undocumented. 2010. Directed by Chris Peckover. Screenplay by Peckover & Joe Peterson.
Starring Scott Mechlowicz, Alona Tal, Yancey Arias, Greg Serano, Kevin Weisman, Tina Borek, Peter Stormare, Nicholas Tucci, & Noah Segan.
Sheperd Glen Productions.
Unrated. 96 minutes.
Horror

★★★★
undocumentedposterI’m a lover and defender of found footage as a sub-genre. Because when used appropriately, whether it involves a gimmick or not, there’s plenty to do with the concept of found footage. Sometimes a film adheres totally to the format. Other times it’s a bit loose and not every aspect of the movie tends to fall in line. Still, if the premise is something intriguing that hasn’t been really done before, there’s a lot of room for a gruesomely fun horror ride.
Undocumented is a political horror, in every sense. Many brand it as torture porn, a term I can’t stand. I say that beneath all the ghastly madness there’s a strong message about extremists, the behaviour of those who are fundamentally for nationalism to a point of denying others less fortunate human rights. There’s a good deal of nasty horror. Don’t get me wrong. But it never overshadows the more thoughtful points of the screenplay. And there is certainly thoughtfulness, under the blood and the tears. Nationalism anywhere can become less about pride and more about hate. Undocumented is a grim view of the dangers in nationalism, specifically the violent bran of gun-loving nationalists in America.
Still, don’t be fooled – when I saw Americans, I don’t just mean those who were born in the country, but also those who legally immigrated. The American Dream casts a spell over everyone and soon you’re armed, ready to fight for those rights you believe someone else is taking away.
undocumented1There’s a strain of hypocrisy running through much of the plot. First, the fact Z (Peter Stormare) speaks with his thick foreign accent makes us wonder how legal immigrants could be so harshly judgemental of those unable to attain citizenship, needing to get out of their country because of violence, drugs, many other awful things. They’ve become indoctrinated into the pro-American lifestyle so hard that they are blind to the plight of other immigrants. Later on when Alberto (Yancey Arias) is being quizzed, in life or death style, he’s asked questions that many natural born Americans probably can’t answer. This is best exemplified when one of the cameramen whispers the answer to “Who said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?” – he says that it’s Thomas Jefferson. Well, this is in fact wrong; it was actually Patrick Henry. And that’s an often misattributed quote that Americans get wrong. The irony is deafening, the hypocrisy so blatantly evident. This is an illustration of how certain elements in the immigration test are hypocritical at a basic level, when so many Americans probably would never be capable of telling you how many members there are in Congress, et cetera. A great, vicious point director Chris Peckover (co-wrote the script with Joe Peterson) makes with this scene. Add on top of that the fact Z and his patriotic crusaders kill illegal immigrants, they’re doing nothing for American freedom, that’s for damn sure.
I’d consider the saddest, most dehumanising moment – even amongst all the horrific torture – when one of the patriots gives a tour to the documentary filmmakers. They come across a woman he calls Maria (not her real name). He treats her, literally, like an animal by feeding her apple slices when she finishes the words to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” If you couldn’t understand it before, the fact these men see Mexicans as lower forms of life is shockingly presented in this scene.
undocumented2Youre a Botticelli now. But if I let you rot in the sun a few days, youd be Rubenesque.”

The Artist (Nicholas Tucci) disturbs me most. He’s the film’s most viscerally disturbing character. How much joy he takes in the macabre process of creating human scarecrows for immigrant tunnels is truly scary. Under a mask like the others, Tucci manages to take the character into chilling territory. His matter of fact way of speaking, how he explains on a living subject where he’ll cut pieces out of the corpse on which he works; everything he does is morbid and powerfully unnerving. Likewise, Stormare as the leader of the nationalist group is a figure of utter dread. Even through the mask he wears his performance gets to you, digging under the skin. At one point he gives a silent, animal-like head tilt into the camera; you barely see his features beneath the mask, but just his body language makes the moment one that will run your blood cold.
When they break out the piñata, it is a cruel scene, like the perfect culmination to top off all the previous cruelty. Along with A Serbian Film (released in the same year) and 2011’s Kill List, this moment is up there with some horrendous, tragic moments in horror very similar in execution. Having the piñata there is simply another touch to add insult to injury, in a proper storytelling sense. A real carnival of human suffering.
undocumented3Because the acting is really solid, including Scott Mechlowicz whose terror in the face of their situation is spot on, and the horror is visceral, Undocumented is one of the better found footage efforts out there. It isn’t perfect, much of the plot hits on one note, over and over. Yet in between all the torture, the bloody mess, the nationalist rants, there are genuinely smart points made in the writing about how America’s ardent anti-immigration camp can get dangerously lost in its own rhetoric and whirlwind of patriotic hate disguised as pride.
I love Americans, I have friends from the U.S. and even family in Kentucky. Those who are smart, level-headed, open-minded are wonderful. But there is a dark, racially charged and racially biased segment of the country, one we’re seeing inflamed right now due to the current 2016 Presidential Election and much of the nonsense Drumpf is putting out into American society. 
Undocumented
is a horror movie view of what extremism can bring. We’ve seen plenty on the other side of things, pointing fingers at anybody brown for possibly harbouring anti-American feelings since 9/11. This time, director Chris Peckover takes aim at the homefront. Moreover, he opts not to just go by the media-centred view of the American South being where all the anti-immigration sentiment is coming from. And this is what chills the most: once you’ve been legally crowned a U.S. citizen, the hidden workings of the country begin shaping your mind. Like Z and some of the other legal immigrants in the film, it’s not always who you think that hates those who illegally enter the country.
Now and then you’d be surprised where hates lies.

Get Swallowed Whole by Terror in THE BORDERLANDS

The Borderlands. 2014. Directed & Written by Elliot Goldner.
Starring Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle, Sarah Annis, Lee Arnold, Drew Casson, Peter Charlton, Marcus Cunningham, Patrick Godfrey, Kevin Johnson, & Luke Neal.
Metrodome Distribution.

Rated R. 89 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★★★
POSTER Found footage in the independent film world of horror surged in the past 10 years especially, which has left us with more than a fair share of mediocre to shit efforts. I’m a big fan of the sub-genre. The whole technique of found footage can be used to great effect, depending on the story, the writing, and the overall direction. What’s exciting is when a movie using the technique decides to come with a different story, not the typical people running lost in the woods – often young people – with tons of dark, shaky camera work and lots of screaming, wailing, terrible audio.
The Borderlands boasts an intriguing story about religion, the dark side of faith. In a way, you can take it as an allegory about belief and how it consumes people wholly, far too often. On the surface, this is a solid piece of found footage work that opts to use a premise that hasn’t really been done yet, at least not well. Using the plot of a Vatican investigation concerning the strange going-ons at a remote church out in the woods, writer-director Elliot Goldner cultivates creepiness that still haunts me when I imagine those final scenes. A slow building, burning story moves towards its resolution that comes as an unexpected, disarming finale where the terror these men once thought benign is far greater and more disturbing than they’d originally thought when first starting on their journey. The found footage itself is nothing innovative. The story and the adventure on which it takes us is a horrific little slice of cinema that’s better than most of its similar kin.
Pic1 Anything Vatican related in horror I find awfully compelling. There are definitely horror movies that misuse those types of stories, but some can make it effective. Goldner frames the entire plot and story through these men investigating a supposed religious miracle for the Vatican. We’ve got the religious fellows – Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Mark (Aidan McArdle) – juxtaposed with a technical equipment guy, Gray (Robin Hill) – it’s great to have that one guy who isn’t fully religious, as it presents an entirely different dynamic than if we were relegated to main characters solely painted as religious believers. Even though Gray does believe in “stuff” as he says, there’s still a disconnect there which allows the non-faithful argument to enter into the situation.
Even better, this aspect leads into the horror. When things start becoming genuinely frightful and the situation at the remote church reveals itself as legitimately dangerous, the non-believer in Gray gives us a vessel into more terror, as he starts understanding there is a power greater than him. Whether that’s a terrifying power is another story. In opposition, Deacon is a faithful man working for the Catholic Church, yet he’s also a sceptic. He is trained not to believe any miracle at the drop of a hat, and what he’s seen over the years informs that. However, that bit of disbelief in any true miracle (or whatever you want to call what they later stumble across) allows Deacon to help us descend into the fear of the film much more easily. Combining these characters and their respective attitudes is a potent way to involve us in the characters. An element we’re not always privy to in the found footage sub-genre, where jump scares and messy, overused gore can sometimes take precedence over anything in regards to character development.
Pic2 There are Stephen King-H.P. Lovecraft vibes going on in the story. After the finale, you’ll understand that wholly. But even before we’re able to grasp there was some paganist religion happening in the church, an attempt at concealing the building’s history, as well as what happens inside its walls, what lies beneath the floor. Highly reminiscent, though without copying and merely by homage, of the short story “Jerusalem’s Lot” from King’s Night Shift (1978) collection.
What I love is how the build up comes slow and steady. First it’s a video, that could or could not be fake. Later, Gray gets everything live for audio, even bringing along some ghost hunting-type equipment that helps them suss out any odd electrical signals, anything to point towards the situation being manipulated. When they begin hearing sounds in the walls, unable to locate a source, this is the eerie beginning of moving towards the story’s revelations. They start hearing the cries of children, other such noises. The most unsettling? A deep, low bellow that nearly resembles a voice.
Coupling Gordon Kennedy with Robin Hill is an interesting combination. They work well together as actors, and their characters fit perfectly. Kennedy is a solid talent who makes Deacon come alive, he makes the religious empathetic, and he’s atypical of found footage actors because he isn’t overly melodramatic. Alongside him is Hill, an actor I’ve enjoyed ever since first seeing Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace (he’s a film editor, too). Hill plays Gray well and often provides a bit of comic relief amongst all the grim subject matter. His believability makes the horror of the finale all the more real, unnerving, visceral. These two actors sell the scariness in this film, which can’t always be said about other found footage efforts where the actors seem to be cast on the basis of their lung capacity.
Pic2-1 This is definitely a favourite recent found footage flick of mine. There are many, and they seem to run the gamut of absolutely unwatchable to sometimes brilliant. I’ve seen a lot of these sub-genre pictures which defy expectation, many of those in only the past couple years. The Borderlands is one that I found pretty spectacular, even with its few flaws. Mostly, the religious angle, the church setting out in the forest, all these little details set it apart from other similarly filmed movies. And yes, we get our share of dark frames where there’s only a bit of light, some jumps here and there (although they aren’t typical either). Above all else, the story makes this unique. The actors keep us on edge and in their sceptical first, scared later perspective. Finally, it is the shocking and excellent finale that completely upends our expectations. For the longest time this feels as if it might reach a conclusion that can be forecast early on. Each time I watch this, I keep thinking how ingenious the last few moments become. Reaching those last seconds is a treat and I’m hoping writer-director Elliot Goldner will go for something equally exciting for the next film. This one caught me off guard. Whenever I need a little jolt, requiring a found footage feature to kick start my fear, this is one I usually think of before making a final decision. It may come on slow, but the climactic moments coming to the ending are a pay off worth seeing at least once.

THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN: An Alzheimer’s Nightmare

The Taking of Deborah Logan. 2014. Directed by Adam Robitel. Screenplay by Gavin Heffernan & Robitel.
Starring Jill Larson, Anne Ramsay, Michelle Ang, Brett Gentile, Jeremy DeCarlos, Ryan Cutrona, Tonya Bludsworth, Anne Bedian, Randell Haynes, & Jeffrey Woodard.
Casadelic Pictures/Bad Hat Harry Productions/Jeff Rice Films.
Rated R. 90 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER There’s nothing more horrific than Alzheimer’s disease. It affects the people with it and those around the one afflicted in various ways, from physically to emotionally. I can’t particularly think of many horrors, if any, that have tackled this idea. Only recently another film called Dementia touched on similar issues of mental illness, though much differently. The Taking of Deborah Logan takes on the faux documentary found footage style with a plot that follows a camera crew filming a woman with Alzheimer’s, as well as her daughter who takes care of her, and essentially it’s a thesis project for one woman involved. Through this lens, we’re able to get an inner circle view of the struggle with a terrible disease. Or is there more lurking behind the frame, waiting to be exposed?
First feature director Adam Robitel, along with Gavin Heffernan sharing duties on the script, brings us a vision of illness that almost plays as an entire metaphor. As the plot progresses we begin to realise there’s other things happening. Perhaps something far more sinister than Alzheimer’s. Robitel makes solid choices as director, but above all he’s aided by a breathtakingly powerful performance out of lead actress Jill Larson in the titular role. While the screenplay could have used one or two tweaks throughout, for the most part this is one of my favourite found footage films in the past decade.
Some short, basic talk here before diving in.
I’ve got an issue. Lots of people complain about people here walking into rooms that are dark and not turning lights on, as if you’d walk into somebody’s rooms throughout their house and flick lights on when you’re a guest in their house. Sarah (Anne Ramsay) is obviously a member of the household, but when they’re looking for her mother they also don’t want to frighten her. Jamming the lights on if she were hiding might frighten her, shock the senses. If you know anything about patients with Alzheimer’s, last thing you want to do is frighten them. So y’know, their safety trumps your being scared of dark corners. And honestly, what changes if you turn on a light? Deborah is still possessed with the darkness of a serial killer from beyond the grave, she’s still going absolutely mental. Switching the light on doesn’t solve shit.
Also, YOU DON’T ACT LIKE YOU KNOW ABOUT HORROR MOVIES WHEN YOU’RE ACTUALLY IN ONE! You can’t bitch about people not turning on a light because something scary could happen possibly, because they’re not thinking a monster is behind the door, or a killer is about to jump out at them. Not everybody automatically switches a light on, especially if they’re using a camera. Why would they? Also, if you’re trying to creep around without people seeing you – a.k.a when you’re going places in the house you might not be welcome like in a couple scenes (such as when the window slams shut via Deborah) – then there’s no reason to turn on a light and broadcast your location.
My god. Do I really have to explain these things? Nah. Maybe I’m reading online comments too much. Anybody smart enough can decipher this shit on their own. Let’s move on.
Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 2.01.13 AM The screenplay is pretty great, aside from a few little bits and pieces. Otherwise, the characters and the plots are exciting. In particular, both Jill Larson and Anne Ramsay have great characters. Daughter Sarah is a complex character that we actually never fully understand, though we’re privy to a nice few mentions that give us an idea of her identity, her personality. Love how they briefly mention that she’s lesbian without having to make it a huge deal, as if it’s abnormal. Rather it just helps to make up part of character and adds different elements that keep us interested. The fact she’s lesbian plays into the relationship she has with her mother, who is Old Timey to say the least.
Then there’s Larson. She is downright fantastic. Some of the looks and the facial expressions alone are worth their weight in terror. The way they make her look, from framing of the shots down to the makeup they’ve done her, is an added aspect to make her unsettling. But it’s all in the performance. No matter how many practical effects or anything they throw at the camera, Larson is always the most interesting piece of the puzzle. I have to say, it’s hard to imagine such an impressive performance coming from somebody I’ve personally never seen before, other than in bit parts like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and only recently in HBO’s Vinyl. Regardless, she keeps me glued to the screen from start until finish. Her presence is infectiously frightening, and part of why this movie is a chiller.
Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 2.25.38 AM Deborah (in French): “Your blood will feed the river
Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 2.41.57 AM Scary is a subjective term. Everyone is scared of different things. The Taking of Deborah Logan scared me. Not as if it broke me, not at all. It compels me each time I see it.
One of the first scenes that legitimately jarred me was when they capture Deborah playing the piano in the dark, “Three Blind Mice”, and as the bare light in the frame starts to fade more the look on her face is chilling. Say what you want, and again scary is subjectively understood/felt, but if you don’t find that one bit is creepy then I’m not sure what you dig. And it’s not like I pissed myself. It’s just eerie.
Later when they go up into the attic (WITHOUT TURNING ON THE LIGHTS, YOU FUCKING CRY BABIES), the moment they set eyes on Deborah and then starts talking in this horrifying voice it nearly makes my blood run cold. As well as the fact the practical makeup effects on her are nasty, and well done.
Wandering in the hospital corridors (WHANNN NO LIGHTS WHANNN) is pretty damn creepy. And sure, they didn’t turn on the lights. But again, they had flashlights first of all. Second, again, they probably didn’t want to startle Deborah and send her running. After all they were dealing with a woman that had essentially kidnapped a little girl. So they likely were trying not to spur on any further erratic behaviours. I don’t know, fuck me right? Whatever. This whole sequence was unsettling and had me creeped out. In the end when they see the ‘snake mouth’ happening, that part really got to me. Amazing and filled with untold terror.
The finale is a wildly scary ride. It was unpredictable to me, and all the better for it. Despite its few flaws here or there, The Taking of Deborah Logan is a 4-star bit of horror cinema. It’s one of the better found footage efforts out of the last ten years and maybe one of my favourites ever. I’ve seen plenty of detractors online. That’s totally fine, again subjective. I love this movie and any time I’m lost for a found footage flick this gets popped in the DVD player. Robitel will be directing the next Insidious film, a franchise of which I’m a fan, so I wish him luck. Hope he brings the creepiness he cultivated here into that project, putting his own spin on the fourth entry. Because here he’s done one hell of a job as director. Proper scary madness.

THE BAY’s Nightmarish Ecological Horror

The Bay. 2012. Directed by Barry Levinson. Screenplay by Michael Wallach.
Starring Nansi Aluka, Christopher Denham, Stephen Kunken, Frank Deal, Kether Donohue, Kristen Connolly, Will Rogers, Kimberly Campbell, Beckett Clayton-Luce, Dave Hager, & Justin Welborn.
Hydraulx/Haunted Movies/Automatik Entertainment.
Rated R. 84 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Sci-Fi

★★★★
POSTER Perhaps why The Bay works and feels better than so much of the other found footage fodder spewed out over the past four or five years is due to the fact director Barry Levinson is neither someone who we’d expect to tackle horror, nor is he the type of director you’d imagine would veer into this particular sub-genre. Nevertheless, what results is an interesting piece of work. It isn’t always flat out horror. What Levinson does best with this story is provide a raw and honest look at a community that ends up descending into terror because of ecological issues. Of course it dives headlong into science fiction. It’s real feeling sci-fi. Even after the movie nearly turns into a creature feature, though one that smartly avoids an actual creature per se, Levinson is able to retain that truthful sense of atmosphere. In part, that’s due to the found footage style emulating scientific recordings, news reports, and much more. Also, it has to do with the writing, the believability of the story and its plots, as well as the fact there’s such an excellent sense of mystery which weaves itself around the film until all its shocking events unfold. Critics like Ebert and some others accused this movie of not actually having any horror. Is that a joke? Sure, fear is subjective and we’re not all afraid of the same things. However, I find it tough to say Levinson doesn’t draw out all the terror inherent in this story. In a day and age where people are questioning the practices of Monsanto and other big companies, and the governments both federal and municipal which make deals with them (often without consideration of the effects it actually has on citizens in lieu of big pay days and incentives), The Bay is a remarkably poignant bit of horror cinema that capitalises on the found footage sub-genre to make its story real and visceral, no matter if it’s technically a work of science fiction.
Pic1 What’s so eerie to me is that gradually once you figure out something’s wrong with the water, everything after that (and before it if you go back to watch through again like I’ve done several times) is painted in such a sinister light. You don’t even need to go back through honestly, as before the first ten minutes are through we’ve figured out that something is not quite right.
Levinson’s directorial choices work well because he takes us forward through several different angles. You’ve got everything from a radio show to the main framing of rookie news reporter Donna (Kether Donohue) on the scene in the midst of all the madness. Then there’s the doctor via phone call with the CDC agents discussing the massive outbreak at his hospital. Plus, there’s a bunch of the found footage cellphone and camera videos from people experiencing unsettling events around the Chesapeake Bay on the 4th of July. Even some dash-cam footage from police officer squad cars, which is possibly some of the more unsettling stuff; one sequence where the cops find infected people inside a house, all via audio from the cops, is possibly the most unnerving moment out of the entire film.
I enjoy the news reports with Donna because she gives us an idea about how the media doesn’t only spin things into a story, sometimes rather the media is simply kept on the outside, whether because of their own inability to get to the bottom of things or that they’re purposefully being kept at arm’s length. At the same time, once things get kicking that whole omnipotent perspective over all the various plots which Levinson allows us an eye on reveals all the various treachery in Chesapeake Bay, and how the little seaside town got to where it is in the violent breakdown.
Pic2-1Pic2 There’s genuinely unsettling body horror happening, which is another reason why I dig the film. Levinson and his crew make the horror so viscerally nasty that it’s something you could see coming from a guy like David Cronenberg. Instead of focusing solely on the nastiness, there’s a good deal of psychological horror on display. Intensity cranks up near the end with streets literally lined by corpses, people getting eaten alive from the inside out. But more importantly the government failures on many levels become perfectly clear, if they weren’t already before. The fact the divers were discovered a couple weeks beforehand, as well as the government worrying about panic spreading after the fact, we’re able to scarily understand how these types of things could happen then find themselves being covered up. Couple that with the fact all the footage we’re seeing was supposedly confiscated and the government gives a lackadaisical response and explanation for the outbreak, then Levinson and writer Michael Wallach make sure to retain the raw elements of what makes The Bay so interesting. Because it’s partly the horror, all those nasty bits and pieces of gross out practical effects and the wildly chaotic moments that make your pulse pound. Yet the most interesting aspect to me is the fact this plays so well as a mockumentary, elevated to a sci-fi/horror hybrid. As opposed to most found footage films out there, aside from a pack of well made titles, this one’s got genuine characters which are furthermore paralleled with genuine performances from the actors to make the reality of The Bay that much more believable. Ultimately, you can’t ask for any better from a horror/sci-fi film than for it to feel realistic. And above anything else I certainly can’t fault Levinson for lacking an honest touch.
Pic3Pic4 This is most definitely a 4-star found footage horror. It has the perfect bits of sci-fi and a mysterious, engaging script. Barry Levinson is sometimes hit or miss for me, but always interesting. The Bay is one of his most recent efforts I dig most. He hits hard at the ecological horror here and perhaps, using his studies of the Chesapeake Bay for the basis of this creepy little flick, says something viable about our dependence on local politicians to make big deals which affect the safety of their citizens. Who knows. Maybe it’s just a fun bit of popcorn horror. Either way, this is one effective bit of cinema and I hope we’ll get some more of these types of found footage movies in the future. Would be nice if Levinson did another creepy movie because he’s absolutely got the chops.

David Ayer’s END OF WATCH is COPS with Intense Action and Emotional Resonance

End of Watch. 2012. Directed & Written by David Ayer.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, & David Harbour.
Exclusive Media/Crave Films/Le-Grisbi/EFF.
Rated 18A. 108 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER With a couple titles under his belt, David Ayer took everyone by storm with the screenplay Antoine Fuqua used for Training Day. Afterwards, he did two excellent, underrated films – Dark Blue, a Rampart-era crooked cop thriller with Kurt Russell, and Harsh Times starring Christian Bale in a knockout role as an LAPD hopeful alongside Freddy Rodriguez in fine form as his conflicted friend.
Finally, we come to End of Watch. One of the most surprising films of any genre in 2012. For something I assumed might be generic, this movie takes me for a wild ride each time.
Ayer effectively combines the found footage sub-genre with an intense crime thriller set in Los Angeles, as we follow two close friends and partners in the LAPD on their journey towards a meeting with something worse than even the gang banging they see everyday on the streets. Whereas many movies employing the use of found footage, aside from an extreme minority, are often low budget productions, End of Watch succeeds in part due to its stellar cast, lead by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Most of all, Ayer brings the action, amps up the emotion, and this crime-thriller goes as fast as a cop cruiser especially after the plot sets the stakes high.
You can do a million times worse when it comes to cop flicks, and definitely this is one of those films using found footage that’s worth seeing, more than once. If this doesn’t get your adrenaline flowing, you might be dead. So check that pulse.
Pic1 Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are closer than brothers: best friends, long time partners on the job. They are energetic, excitable, even foolish. Their lives are normal, other than the fact they spend their days and nights protecting Los Angeles, often from the gang warfare spreading through the lower class neighbourhoods. Brian tries to find the love of his life, while Mike gives his best advice and acts like any best friend would.
Meanwhile, the South American cartels worm their way up into L.A. More and more violence spills onto American streets. After Brian and Mike find themselves confronted with a nasty gangland situation, bodies literally stacked in a tiny stash house, the cartel ends up greenlighting them for death. On the streets, all cops have are each other. And up against the cartel Brian and Mike find that’s never been more true in their entire career.
Pic3 One of the immediate aspects of this film which drew me in, and does every time, is the character development in the lead roles. Not just that, the relationship between the characters and the chemistry of Gyllenhaal and Peña together is strong, so naturally that makes things sentimental. And it gives everything in the plot more emotional resonance. We’ve all seen those cop movies where there’s a ton of talk about the thin blue line, the whole thing about how partners are closer than family, yadda, yadda, yadda. But Ayer brings his deep respect and knowledge of law enforcement to the screenplay here. The way he portrays Brian and Mike as these bonded buddies, spending time together on and off the job, at the quinceañera of Mike’s cousin, all these different events, we actually get the feeling these men know one another to the bone. Without using totally expository portions of dialogue Ayer conveys their tried and true broship, and it’s all the more effective that way. Yes, there’s a ton of dialogue in this movie, but Ayer doesn’t resort to telling constantly. He shows us, and the relationship between partners is a perfect example of how to do that.
End of Watch Further than just the two leads, the entire cast is great. Although I’m not fond of the Mexican gangster chick, the lesbian girl, because I found her extremely annoying, I do dig the focus on that Mexican gang. Because amongst all the happiness and excitement of the cops’ lives there’s a sinister element with this crew, as we watch them rolling around in the night, creeping, preparing for horrific things. And it’s also a nice parallel with Brian filming for a class, and the gangsters filming themselves, foolishly, simply because they can and because they’re likely voyeuristic about their crimes/adventures.
On top of that, there’s a solid supporting performance from Frank Grillo, an ever interesting actor whose talent shines from one project to the next. He has a few scenes that are just spectacular. For instance, there’s a brief little scene with him at Brian’s wedding where he is obviously a few drinks in and talking to some younger officers, recounting a story of a partner who took a bullet for him, so on. He sells this to the fullest extent. Grillo’s in barely a handful of scenes, but this one in particular makes him memorable in a short period of time; part writing, part raw talent.
Pic1 The style of the movie keeps things exciting. Ayer moves around in technique, from a found footage style combining both Brian’s camera and the body cameras on Gyllenhaal or Pena (not sure if these are meant as the director’s camera or if they’re meant to be department issued character cameras; either way it works) to a more steady, composed style that captures everything almost just as intense as the former. We get that frenetic feel of a show like COPS, but also with a more defined sense of directorial style. There’s even some other small shifts in technique like the night vision that adds tiny intriguing moments to the plot. Ayer isn’t just style either. He knows how to write and from scene to scene he display a knack for making things more threatening, more high energy. For instance, later in the film when Brian and Mike find themselves being hunted by Mexican gang members on order from the cartel, they run through an apartment block – as we see them headed towards an area, Ayer gives us this great P.O.V. shot of an assault rifle pointed down towards where they’re moving. It is a brief, simple shot, though demonstrates exactly the way in which Ayer knows how to intensify his action. After this we’re privy to a bunch of stylish 1st-person shots, action at that – both Brian and Mike pop off shots at Mexican gang bangers while trying to escape the neighbourhood where they’ve found themselves stranded. This climactic action sequence is some of the better action of the past couple years because it’s intense, Gyllenhaal and Peña give it their all, as well as the fact Ayer makes it so stylised without needing any special effects, other than the wizardry that goes on behind the cameras.
This is absolutely a contemporary action stunner that deserves a place amongst some of the best crime-thrillers of the past decade or more. David Ayer’s ability to do action alongside excellently written characters, emotionally charged plots, is on display full-time in End of Watch. The actors make this better than so many average films that use found footage as their gimmick. Also, Ayer’s style using elements of the sub-genre along with a cop movie that has some terrific action makes this plenty fun. You’ll likely find yourself drawn into the lives of the main characters. By the end, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña make these two officers into real people, their situation becomes engrossing and the conclusion of their story is devastatingly affecting. While I love something tough yet endearing, a little campy like Lethal Weapon, cop flicks don’t come as edgy, grizzled, and vividly expressed as this one too often. End of Watch may actually be in a class all of its own.

The Knock-Offs Never Measure Up for TAPE 13

Tape 13. 2014. Directed Axel Stein. Screenplay by Jan-Oliver Lampe.
Starring Nadine Petry, Lars Steinhöfel, Cristina do Rego, Sonja Gerhardt, Lars Walther, Pit Bukowski, & Uwe Rohde.
Rat Pack Filmproduktion/Stein Media.
Unrated. 81 minutes.
Horror/Mystery


POSTER A staunch defender of the found footage sub-genre, when used correctly, I’m always willing to give a movie the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes a found footage movie suffers from highly amateur acting, even worse than its handheld cinematography. Other times, the story is just far too derivative of other movies which came before it. Tape 13 doesn’t pretend to offer anything different than any other found footage horror. Nor does it ever offer anything up worth indulging. Riffing on minor parts of The Blair Witch Project while giving us nothing of its own that’s at all scary, there isn’t much that makes this fun. Following all the motions of usual films in the sub-genre director Axel Stein spends the better part of an hour winding us up before ripping off more found footage movies, far more exciting ones.
Nothing worse than a boring movie, except a boring one that steals its most promising bits.
Pic1 The acting in Tape 13 is plain and simple some of the worst. Everything, from everyone, is downright wooden, the lines like they’re being forced out of people. Outside of a few moments, the actors feel as if they’re awkward on camera. And that’s not in a way that it becomes part of the character. Rather, these characters feel totally fake. So that automatically takes you out of their little world. You don’t relate to any of them because the performances are really bad.
Plot-wise, Tape 13 does nothing with its found footage premise. It’s another one of those same stories where a few people are in the woods, strange things happen, relationships break down, someone complains about the person filming everything. And the beat goes on. Every now and then we’re treated to a little bit of pixelation, as the camera goes nuts. A jump scare-like moment now and then. Worst of all, the screenplay borrows elements from The Blair Witch Project heavily. Sure, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between movies if they’re in the found footage format and involve people in the woods. But this one liberally uses bits and pieces of that classic horror. On top of that there is nothing in the pay off. Things happen, yet none of the things we experience during the finale of the film makes it worth investing our time. Not a long movie, though, 81 minutes can stretch on if there’s nothing by the end to make it any bit enjoyable.
Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 1.35.52 AM It’s sad because the parts that this movie does lift from other sources, primarily Blair Witch, are some of the creepier moments. For instance, the shards of mirror or glass that were being left around, those were eerie. Even if their inclusion was too close to the film’s biggest inspiration. What I dig is the creepy old man lurking out in the woods, when they spot him with the flashlight that was unsettling. But again, everything devolved into less homage, more copy and paste. The finale started off seeming as if it might be scary. Then as it wore on closer to the finish that too emulated too closely the ending of Blair Witch, as if that movie’s ending had gone on a few moments longer. It wasn’t as if the shots were directly mirrored, but the similarities are too close for comfort. In addition to all these negative elements, the whole thing is very cheap to look at. Some found footage movies can make their atmosphere and their appearance look better than expected on a low budget. This one does nothing to make itself look nice. And not to say it’s needed – look at the movie which inspired this one most, that was grainy and shaky and it’s still one of my favourite found footage films. Within a movie that holds nothing else impressive, they could’ve at least tried doing something visually to make the horror work.
Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 1.45.19 AM I’ll give the movie a single star. Simply for the couple actually, genuine scenes with a creep factor. Those were only a couple, not even a handful. As I said, the old guy out along the periphery of the woods, the glass shards, some of that stuff did work. Just not enough to make this movie worthwhile. Not once did it excite me. Even the one time I did jump was due to some glitchy editing, far too cheap to be considered a legitimate scare. So if you do come across this one as I did a little while back – don’t expect anything to thrill you. This is 81 long, drawn out minutes that you could spend watching a better low budget found footage flick, or something else that’s actually going to frighten you.

Man Vs: Survivorman Meets Predator

Man Vs. 2015. Directed by Adam Massey. Screenplay by Thomas Michael.
Starring Chris Diamantopoulos, Chloe Bradt, Michael Cram, Kelly Fanson, Sam Kalilieh, Alex Karzis, Constantine Meglis, Drew Nelson, & Kate Ziegler.
Darius Films.
Unrated. 87 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★
POSTERWhen it comes to found footage, a film can often help itself by using a gimmick. Now, that does not always help. Although, sometimes the sub-genre is at its best when a film not only has a good story but also an interesting gimmick. The Poughkeepsie Tapes used found footage to explore the decades long trail of a demented serial killer. Afflicted tackles the vampire sub-genre within found footage framed by the world globetrotting trip of two lifelong buddies after one is diagnosed with a likely terminal illness. And the good ole Blair Witch Project had pretty much the first big, successful internet campaign mixed with a richly fleshed out fake mythology to propel it forward big time.
Man Vs. uses a premise I’ve long said would make for an interesting ride. With a main character whose job is very Les Stroud-like, and whose television series is quite the direct parallel to Survivorman, Adam Massey’s film is a creepy little flick. Some of the effects, specifically later in the film when we see what is in the woods with the main character, leave a lot to be desired. In fact, part of it is terrible CGI, the other parts equally terrible riff on Predator. But the suspense, the emotional journey of the protagonist, all the tension which builds up towards the conclusion, is every bit worth it. The pay off doesn’t fully cash the cheque this screenplay wrote for us. Still, Man Vs. does an interesting job with its premise, Chris Diamantopoulos carries the dramatic portion of the movie on his shoulders, as well as the fact there is a quiet atmosphere which will certainly give you a creep or two. Don’t expect the conclusion to offer much for what it stacks up going in, but enjoy what there is to find because it’s not all a waste. Though it borders on it.
Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 11.16.56 PM
Doug Woods (Chris Diamantopoulos) hosts a big television series called ‘Man Vs.’ that takes him to remote locations in the forest, where he’s left alone with only a few bare provisions, forced to encounter the wilderness and whatever it brings on his own. He is a TV celebrity, so part of him is bit of a show already. Though, it’s clear he knows his way around. After his brother Terry (Drew Nelson), Bill (Michael Cram), and Angie (Kelly Fanson) leave him at the latest location for the start of their newest season, Doug digs in. He finds food, a couple rabbits running around. He sleeps under the stars, he builds himself a little shelter. Everything is nearly idyllic. At least until something or someone starts messing with Doug.
When he finds his camp in disarray, a strange substance under his makeshift traps, even discovers his one and only Amp energy drink drained, the fact Doug’s not alone really hits home. Even worse when dead animals turn up all over his camp area and a big man-sized trap is left for him.
Can Doug survive this, too? Or is this one episode that’s likely never to air?
Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 11.25.41 PM
What’s interesting start off is how, usually, Doug has a bit of control. Because there’s the satellite phone lifeline. Introducing an eerie science fiction angle effectively puts him out there completely alone. So part of the plot really puts this guy, this survivalist, to an actual test. Also, like Les Stroud and his thoughts on the possibility of a sasquatch existing, Doug is a rational guy who spends a lot of time out in the wilderness, he sees a lot, hears so much, and that brings a degree of common sense-style knowledge – when he begins to question what exactly’s happening in those woods, there is an element of pure fear and doubt that works its way into the viewer, similar to how it does Doug himself. When people who are normally so grounded and rational minded find themselves questioning the presence of something ‘other’, it is much more of a shock than someone whose beliefs are fluid.
Actor Chris Diamantopoulos has a massive job to do with shouldering the weight of this film’s drama. If he weren’t as charismatic, the whole thing would’ve suffered much more. Instead, he gives us a very likeable Stroud-type guy. He is real, he’s got a family at home, his friends and the relationships with those who do the show, and so on. The writing helps, obviously, but it’s Diamantopoulos whose got to face the camera head on and be the only one onscreen for the better part of its entire 87-minute runtime. I’ve seen him in a number of things, most notably his delightfully unsettling turn on Hannibal, though, he is at his best here. Watching his Doug switch from pissed off and upset to putting a face on for the camera and his TV show, it is impressive at times. He gives us a view into what the life of a famous survivalist might be like, of course alongside a sci-fi situation that no survivalist would ever want to be in. His likeability and natural, relaxed attitude as the only person on camera really does well to help the screenplay feel organic.
Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 11.34.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-09 at 11.35.05 PM
I really feel the last 15 minutes or so does the entire film a terrible injustice. If they’d decided on another way out, Man Vs. could easily have come out on top as a great little found footage effort. Instead we’re given half baked nonsense, too many additions to know what to do with, and more of the brutally CGI’d creature in the woods. I’m convinced had they went without including direct looks at their creature, or maybe completely went with it unseen, the whole story would’ve came off better. Without ruining anything, Doug ends up at a camp and sees something there on a television set which shocks him to the core. It should come off as a moment of impact. Rather, it’s more of an eye roll scene that made me want to fast forward completely through the remaining few minutes.
This is a 2-star film. A lot of wasted potential. Diamantopoulos is the best part about this found footage sci-fi-like thriller. If not for him, there’d be very little to enjoy. The suspenseful scenes and all the tense plot development is interesting. To a point. With nothing to justify all its slow meandering towards a lackluster conclusion, Man Vs. is barely mediocre, and ultimately mostly a huge disappointment.

Afflicted: Found Footage Captures a Dangerous Disease

Afflicted. 2013. Directed/Written by Derek Lee & Clif Prowse.
Starring Derek Lee, Clif Prowse, Michael Gill, Baya Rehaz, Benjamin Zeitoun, Zach Gray, Jason Lee, Edo Van Breeman, Gary Redekop, Lily Py Lee, & Ellen Ferguson. Automatki Entertainment/IM Global/Téléfilm Canada.
Rated 14A. 85 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER
When I start reviews of films which use the found footage format, often I try to defend the sub-genre. Because while some don’t care for it there are certainly enough people out there, such as myself, who can still enjoy these movies. Particularly those that use the technique well. Afflicted doesn’t revolutionize the sub-genre, nor does it give us a plot and story that turn things on its head. What we do get is an interesting, well-filmed found footage horror that is full of mystery and has plenty of thrills. With two actual lifelong friends writing and directing, as well as starring in the picture, a dark and twisty path takes us along for the ride. Even with its flaws Derek Lee and Clif Prowse make Afflicted into an exciting little flick with solid pacing and tons of energy. This is a movie with the ability to impress via makeup effects, the lead performances, and its story also reels you in with a charmingly emotional beginning that slowly descends into the stuff of nightmarish terror.
Pic5Pic2
Derek Lee (playing a version of himself) is diagnosed with a brain illness that can and will either paralyze him, or possibly kill him. So Derek and his closest friend Clif Prowse (also playing a version of himself) set out to travel the world. They plan on documenting every last second of their trip for a video blog, “Ends of the Earth”, and Clif takes all his video equipment, from body-mounted cameras to small Go Pro-styled units.
When they start to hop from one place to the next, Clif is determined to hook Derek up with a lady. But Derek beats his friend to the punch and runs into a beautiful woman at a club; they dance, they go home together. When Clif goes back to the room he finds Derek knocked out, bleeding from his head profusely, as well as a cut on his shoulder. Derek refuses to go to the hospital, even after vomiting everywhere and then later punching a hole right through concrete. As things get progressively more strange, Clif tries to convince Derek he needs to seek medical help.
Something takes over Derek’s senses. He starts to become something else. At first it seems beneficial in most ways, as Derek can run over 60km/hr and can jump over a story high. But the virus infecting him proves to be far from beneficial – Derek can’t eat anything without throwing it up, his body starts deteriorating, and his powers start to become more powerful than he thought possible.
Pic3
The makeup effects are incredible. One of the first truly impressive moments is when Derek tries to take out a contact and pulls off part of his eye; such a simple effect, but how they shoot it works so well. All the effects get better as the film progresses, even the simple little things are done right, which adds a good dose of reality to things alongside the use of found footage. There’s a head that gets blown out the back with a gun at one point, and it is unreal how awesome it looks (plus you’ll be blown away similarly by the twist of it); such nasty effects work, dig it.
Also, not sure if it’s done digitally, but regardless – the Sun Test that Derek does on his hand is so gnarly, in the best sense. Added to that sequence is good sound design. As Derek runs through the streets, his skin sizzles and you can hear it underneath the plethora of other sounds, and is it ever well done. The body-mounted camera works like a first-person shooter video game here, which I enjoy. Though it’s shaky cam for a couple minutes, the found footage takes on a more action oriented perspective than simply people running through the dark, in the woods, screaming. So points for that whole segment, it is super neat.
All stunts involved are excellent, so perfectly executed. The car-punch scene was great, as are the scenes were Derek tries jumping up some buildings. Other than Chronicle, most found footage films don’t go for such big scenes. There are others that have tried, but none other than that film which succeeded like this one. Again, the body cam chase scenes do it for me. They made it look like a whole lot of fun, in the most dangerous way. Plus, the plot gets more frantic and wild, so the frenetic bits there play into that whole element.
Pic4
The performances of both Derek Lee and Clif Prowse were good. It helps they are actually close friends and have made short films together, because their natural relationship comes across, sort of anchoring us to the characters almost immediately. Working from there, the screenplay is pretty solid. A few points could’ve been tightened, though, on the whole it is mostly intriguing. The movie’s exciting and certainly deserves 4 stars. With found footage it can be a really mixed bag more often than not. It’s still a sub-genre in which I’m very interested. It does have a lot to offer when used appropriately, which Lee and Prowse do here. Everything works towards a proper mix of horror, mystery, and thriller. We’re lucky to get a different type of vampire flick in the midst of so many sub-par films trying to do different things with the vampire lore. The last 20 minutes or so give the real goodies.

Sinister is Wonderfully Dark

Sinister. 2012. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Screenplay by C. Robert Cargill & Derrickson.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Nicholas King, Vincent D’Onofrio, Clare Foley, Rob Riley, Tavis Smiley, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Danielle Kotch, & Blake Mizrahi. Alliance Films/IM Global/Blumhouse Productions/Automatik Entertainment/Possessed Pictures.
Rated 14A. 110 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★★★
POSTER I remember seeing Sinister when it was first released; a couple buddies took me for my birthday. The trailers for it caught my interest, plus the fact Ethan Hawke was set to star made it seem like there was a good chance that, at the least, it would be well acted. Scott Derrickson has always had decent horror sensibilities, even though I couldn’t stand his entry into the Hellraiser franchise and I wasn’t as big on The Exorcism of Emily Rose as others were. But within those films I still saw the core of a guy whose love of horror is strong.
When I sat there in the theatre, from the opening frames I got hooked. Boasting tons of mystery and horror in equal measures, Sinister is not a perfect movie but it grads hold, aiming to never let go. The use of found footage here comes in the form of Super 8 tapes found, which document various murders across the U.S. Everything else is framed wonderfully in dark, rich textures so that we’re never able to escape the shadows. Derrickson is in fine form here, along with the writing talent of C. Robert Cargill, and aided by D.P. Christopher Norr is able to give us one of the best mainstream modern horror movies of the past five years.
Pic4
Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime journalist, whose success with big books such as Kentucky Blood and others has led him to seek out strange or unsolved murders in order to shed light into the stories behind them, as well as possible police incompetence involved. Except he moves himself, his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and their two children into the very house which his next book is based on partly; worse than that, it’s the same house where an entire family, except for a little girl, were hung from a tree out back.
After the Oswalt family moves in, strange things start to happen. In order to get a handle on what he’s dealing with, Ellison gets Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone), an eager fan of the author’s, to help him figure out what is really going on in the house. As Ellison gets closer and closer to the truth, he begins realizing that perhaps he might have put himself directly in the way of a child stealing demon from Babylonian times called Bughuul. And it may have a profound, deadly effect on his family.
Pic2Pic3
There are number of choices in style throughout Sinister that help make it genuinely creepy, and at times even outright scary. The Boards of Canada song “Gyroscope” is used at a few points, particularly the burning scene later when Ellison tries to get rid of the Super 8 tapes. It’s just this strange rhythmic bongo piece, or what sounds like bongos, and there is an eerie feeling to it as the piece stretches on. What freaks me out about it is that it feels like a tribal composition, something that might be played during an odd ritual or something similar. Either way, Cargill purchasing the rights to use the song was one of the best moves the production could have made. Plus, there are other bits of music used that really add an extra dimension to the terror already happening onscreen.
What’s really great here is the cinematography and Derrickson’s direction together with that. The inclusion of actual footage recorded on Super 8 with Kodachrome is spectacular, as the tapes genuinely look as if they were filmed decades ago. An authenticity comes out of this, which makes these found footage segments better than most of the entire found footage sub-genre films out there. I was unsettled completely the first time I watched the movie in theatre – in particular, the lawnmower tape is the one that shocked the life out of me. Excellent setup for that tape and even better execution (pardon the awful pun). But all around, the look of the film is dark, it is also vibrant at the same time. The colours are all very rich and thick, so that the darkness of the real shadowed scenes is even deeper. This gives everything in the movie a suspenseful, mysterious feeling that I found intensely effective.
Pic5Pic1
Sinister has a real good screenplay, a product of Cargill’s nightmare after seeing The Ring and the aid of director-writer Derrickson. These guys not only used the concept of found footage to give their main story a place to start. Furthermore, using Ellison Oswalt’s career as a true crime writer is an excellent way to involve him in the plot – once you figure out what’s going to happen later in the film, it really is an even better choice to have a writer as the main character because he directly puts himself into the world of the murders; more so in the case of Ellison, who literally moves right into the site of one of the murders. Also, despite the little bit cheesy look of Bughuul, I found the whole Babylonian evil deity thing interesting, as it added an entirely different component to the story than I’d expected. That being said, it would’ve still been highly creepy if it were a cult, or a madman, but for the sake of not having to deal with certain plotholes a supernatural angle helps. Regardless, the aspect of the children and Bughuul is terrifying at times, which plays on many peoples fears: that kids, more than adults, could be lured in by such an evil force and turned against their families. All in all, I love the screenplay. The story is fantastic, even with some flaws.
In addition, Ethan Hawke helps to sell the film. He is a talented actor and he brings an everyman type feel to the role of Oswalt, even as Ellison is a semi-celebrity himself. There’s always this genuine quality about him, a real-to-life feel. Hawke has the range required to be the scared writer diving into a case that just may be over his hand, a father trying to make good for his family, and also a headstrong writer who only wants to ‘get the real story’. Plenty of faces to Ellison, which Hawke does well to bring out. And he’s damn good at acting scared; always a plus for a creepy horror flick.
Pic6
Sinister is one of the better modern horrors since 2010; a 4-star cinematic fright. While a couple aspects could have been tweaked to make things a bit better, I can’t really complain. I’m always wanting to be scared by horror, and my standards aren’t overly high. I simply want to find interesting, creepy stories that can get under my skin and linger awhile. Derrickson’s movie absolutely does that to me, still to this day when I watch it again. But I’ll never forget leaving the theatre, or being there, thinking how ghastly some of the Super 8 tapes were, how terrified Hawke looked, and the impact of the finale. Seriously, it doesn’t have to be exactly perfect – Sinister is a solid ride through mysterious horror territory.

Frankenstein’s Army is Campy and Creepy Nazi Horror Fun

Frankenstein’s Army. 2013. Directed by Richard Raaphorst. Screenplay by Miguel Tejada-Flores & Chris W. Mitchell from a story by Tejada-Flores & Raaphorst.
Starring Robert Gwilym, Hon Ping Tang, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Joshua Sasse, Mark Stevenson, Andrei Zayats, Karel Roden, Klaus Lucas, Cristina Cataline, Jan de Lukowicz, & Zdenek Barinka. MDI Media Group/Dark Sky Films/Pellicola/XYZ Films/Sirena Film/Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic/The Czech Film Industry Support Programme.
Rated R. 84 minutes.
Action/Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★POSTER There are no end to people sick of the found footage sub-genre, no matter how it’s used or in what genre it gets repurposed. I’m not one of them, though. For me, if a film can find a way to use found footage that’s at least a little fresh, unique in some way, then I’m really able to get into it. Frankenstein’s Army chooses to not only mash-up the horror and war genres, it further throws in some Mary Shelley DNA with a found footage setup. Honestly, even if it’s not your cup of tea in the end, this is at the very least an idea worth giving a chance.
The film has a lot of creepy things going for it, as well as the fact so much of everything is done practically, using long takes that lend themselves to the found footage format. Director Richard Raaphorst tells an interesting story with an incredibly terrifying plot that never quits. While not everything works all of the time, Frankenstein’s Army is fairly well acted, and the monsters – oh, the monsters! Above all, the horrifying creatures are exactly one of the major reasons why this is effective. Plus, the feeling of a movie trying hard to do some unique monster work, especially through practical effects, is something we’re not often seeing these days. With a few things that could’ve been improved most of the movie is entertaining, as well as dark and definitely disturbing.
Pic7
On orders from Josef Stalin himself, near the end of World War II a group of Russian soldiers are sent on a mission for the Fatherland. Stalin specifically requests they film everything, so that it might make Russia proud. The troop end up hearing of a number of other soldiers in need of help. When the come across the caretaker of a church, the Russians are led into a terrifying house of horrors; a place where strange creatures lurk in every corner. But what starts as merely an isolated incidents devolves into the soldiers pushing through a massive German factory filled with awful monsters, pieced together from living flesh and metal, pieces of machinery, even propellers. When they discover the caretaker is really Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden), descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein, the group of soldiers descend into what may as well be Hell.
As the nastiness piles up, none of them are sure they’ll survive until the war is over – in fact, it’s just begun.
Pic5
After 4,200+ films and counting, a good chunk of those horror, I tend to believe not a whole lot truly scares me. Although, every so often there are things that creep me out, give me a few chills. I must say, there are a couple moments here where I found a creep or two. One scene is after Dmitri (Alexander Mercury) gets tossed down a chute by his fellow soldier, then a creature comes in and grabs a dead body nearby – right after, as Dmitri turns the camera I found that, plus several moments afterwards fairly unsettling. It didn’t shock me to the core, but the way it’s filmed is unsettling. Then once Dmitri goes further and ends up in an office, finding a teddy bear with a woman’s head sewn onto it, the whole thing goes from unsettling to disturbing (check the credits; you’ll find out who that woman-teddy bear is). I love this whole section because then we start getting into the Frankenstein aspect.
And that’s another big reason why I enjoyed the screenplay. Because Frankenstein adaptations are a dime a dozen, or movies and stories that draw from Mary Shelley, such as ‘modern retellings’ and so on. Yet Frankenstein’s Army takes the legacy of the infamous doctor and extends it so that World War II, the Nazis and all they were up to, gets included. That opens up a whole new aspect to the story because the Nazis were into a lot of things experimentation-wise, from medical experiments to hopeful tries towards making ‘supermen’. The original Dr. Frankenstein may as well have gone on to be a Nazi doctor because his work was out of control as it was, attempting to essentially play God, which his supposed descendant here takes to an entirely new level of disturbed.


Many found footage films suffer from a dearth of proper acting. Here, though, we get a main cast who do a fairly good job carrying the material. In addition, Dr. Viktor Frankenstein is played by the ever fabulous Karel Roden, whose talent gives the film an extra quality in the final 20 minutes. His exuberance is terrific, as Viktor starts out subtle then moves quickly into mania, with each minute getting wilder and wilder. Watching him walk around the factory explaining his process, talking of his family history and more, it is quite a treat. In the most morbid way possible. If it weren’t for the actor playing Dmitri and Roden as Frankenstein this wouldn’t have such an interesting finale. But really, the entire cast does a decent job, aside from the old German man that ends up with the soldiers for a short time, along with a boy (the kid wasn’t so bad). It’s not award-winning acting, however, it does the job. Again, the final half hour is a ton of fun, especially the last 19 minutes or so. Dmitri has to endure watching plenty of terror, a few patches of blood and guts, too. It is a grueling end, but packs a gruesome punch.


I’ve got to give Frankenstein’s Army a 4-star rating. Yes, things could’ve been improved at certain points, perhaps some of the bits with the soldiers would do well with a tightening of the screenplay. But it is still one hell of an entertaining horror, bits and pieces of action thrown in and a heavy splash of science fiction. The genre mash-up, all captured in the found footage sub-genre, is spectacular and whereas some films try to do that then end up with too much this movie keeps its eye on the prize. Because really what it aims to be is a monster flick, a creature feature of sorts. Only the jumping-off point is WWII, Nazis, with that extra spice of Frankenstein stirred in. You can do much worse than this if looking for a weird horror to enjoy, or a found footage film. It at least employs the sub-genre in a different way than most of the ‘lost in the woods yelling’ or ‘trapped in a mental hospital yelling’ found footage efforts out there already. Give it a chance.

Hangman is Mediocre But Twisted Enough

Hangman. 2015. Directed by Adam Mason. Screenplay by Simon Boyes & Adam Mason.
Starring Jeremy Sisto, Kate Ashfield, Ryan Simpkins, Ty Simpkins, Eric Michael Cole, Amy Smart, Ross Partridge, Ethan Harris-Riggs, Vincent Ventresca, Bruno Alexander, Erika Burke Rossa, and Jamie Lee. Produced by Hiding in the Attic.
Not Rated. 85 minutes.
Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTERAdam Mason’s filmography, to me, is not exactly amazing. All the same, his work as a director proves he is at the very least still an artist whose main goal in horror is to be daring.
The first film of his I saw was The Devil’s Chair and I actually enjoyed it a good deal. It’s not perfect, but swings for the fences on almost every occasion. Then I ended up seeing Blood River, which focused heavily on characters, their development, and of course a nice dose of terror. However, his earlier film Broken did not impress me, at all. It was brutish, not in any good horror sense, and just downright bad.
When I first heard of Hangman the initial draw was Mason, as I do think he has a proper horror mind. It just doesn’t always translate perfectly to his films and their stories. Then I noticed Jeremy Sisto and Kate Ashfield were cast, and those names brought me into interest a little more. Sisto in particular is someone I’ve always enjoyed as an actor, no matter if the movies he’s in are good or not he is an actor whose performances are often stellar. Once I actually saw Hangman I actually couldn’t believe how badly it was being received. Not that I expected another found footage film to be received with open arms, but really this is nowhere near the shit quality of many other similarly styled releases. With a low-key atmosphere, handheld camerawork, and a very creepy villain in Hangman, this is a decent ride through familiar territory – with a gritty and horrifying focus on a madman who terrorizes families… all in the name of love.
Pic5Pic1
I won’t draw this review out with an explanation of the plot. It’s easy. You’ll pick up quickly.
One of the most disturbing parts of the entire film is when the Hangman watches the married couple have sex, all the while masturbating himself. But it’s afterwards when they’re finished, sleeping, and the Hangman cries alone, hunched over his own body, shaking with the tears; this is the truly disturbed moment. Obviously the man is a loner. We could’ve figured that out on our own. However, this brief moment is not in here to shock, or to gross us out, or simply to be crass. It’s in this scene where you can almost tell the deep seated issues in the Hangman are clearly family related; the lack of love is staggering. Maybe I’m drawing out too much on that one. But to me, it works. Further than that, awhile later he waits until the family heads out for a big day of fun, then sits on the couch while looking through family albums. He proceeds to scream into a pillow, punching himself, flailing his arms, and again it is even more clear at this point – he is either unable to have a family, to find someone to love; he came from a terribly broken and fractured family himself; or, nobody could ever love him because maybe he’s a monster in real life, too.
Aside from the creepy quality of the Hangman character, he is extremely violent. The stabbings we witness are savage, bloody. At the same time, they aren’t overly long. They come fast and vicious, just like a real life stabbing does (I’ve seen one, unfortunately). So even with the low budget style of the film we’re treated to a couple nasty bits of slasher-styled horror.
The music from Antoni Maiovvi here was something I enjoyed quite a bit. Because part of why the found footage format works here is due to Mason’s having the killer using lots of gear. So likely, he edits his footage. This provides Mason with a sort of way out, to escape the trappings of the sub-genre. Back to Maiovvi’s music – the killer often listens to songs, whether in the attic or in his car, wherever. And even if it weren’t the case, Mason uses the found footage style, along with his plot and killer to give us the possibility that this sickening creep of a man also adds in music to his little homemade terrors. There’s a fun 80’s feel to the music, but it has such a dark sound. Really fitting. In particular, I love the first scene where Hangman follows Marley (Ryan Simpkins) with her boyfriend, and when the boyfriend catches Hangman watching them, confronting him, the killer only turns up his music; takes on an even more ominous tone.
Pic4
A moment many people will point out is when the killer stabs a character to death, then texts on said character’s cell, his glove ripped. He’s clearly putting his fingerprints all over the place. Can’t be a slip up, it’s too obvious. Perhaps he is falling apart. This is evidenced by the following scene, as an empty house is filled with the spooky wails of his sadness. Honestly, this part got to me. The intensity and depravity only spirals downward from there. A disgusting act of the Hangman comes back now and really starts to haunt the family he’s tormenting. This is the pay-off. The greater portion of the film is a quiet slow burn thriller, also including plenty psychological horror.
A lot of people aren’t going to find much to love about Hangman. The cinematography is non-existent because this film truly takes on the found footage aesthetic through low-fi video shot on handheld cameras, as well as security-type units, all handled by the Hangman. So there’s a few terribly shaky scenes. Some moments are awful angles, as the Hangman films himself doing various things. For me, there’s an terrifying emotional element to Hangman that gets under the skin, it seeps inside you throughout the quick 85-minute runtime, and once you get to the finale the movie really takes you for a harsh ride. I expected something similar to what happened, in terms of violence. But I didn’t expect the way in which it was executed. Above anything else, the visceral aspect of the entire movie is what will get you. Try and work past any problems you have with the low-fi feel because I found there were excellently horrific things inside the story.
PicPic3
Everyone else be damned: 3.5 out of 5 stars.
I’ve watched a ton of films; over 4,100 and counting, as of this writing. Not trying to say that gives me authority. It does not. But I’d like to hope I know a decent film when I see one. This is quite a slow burning thriller with horror elements, however, it isn’t so slow that there’s anything bad about it. If that’s not your thing, fine. Just don’t knock it because the pace is slow. Maybe the pay-off isn’t what you wanted. I found it an emotionally tense movie with a massively disturbing villain at its core. Give it a try. Blame me if you really feel 85 minutes is a waste of life; get over yourself while you’re at it. I’ve seen far worse found footage entries, this one had some teeth and didn’t flinch.

The Visit is the Last Trip to Grandma & Grandpa’s You’ll Ever Take

The Visit. 2015. Directed & Written by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn. Blinding Edge Pictures/Blumhouse Productions. Rated 14A. 94 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
the-visit-movie-poster-2015-copyAny time M. Night Shyamalan puts out a film these days, it’s met with all sorts of opinions from those who can’t stand him, as if he’s let them down personally in some way by making a few subpar films, to others who await his return to form since films like Signs and Unbreakable (I don’t even need to mention the Sixth Sense, do I? Great spooky flick). I fall into the latter camp, I’m someone who actually hasn’t bothered to see a couple of his movies (the one based on the manga or whatever it was & After Earth with Will Smith if that’s even the title) simply because they weren’t my cup of tea to start. However, I don’t discredit him for the bad stuff I have seen, like The Happening which wasn’t so much horrible as it was ultra boring – okay, it wasn’t good either, boring and bad. Yet what filmmaker has made all perfect films? Sorry, you can’t tell me one of them, and I don’t care who it is; even the directors I hold in highest regard are some times capable of making a misstep.
With The Visit – a found-footage horror-thriller – Shyamalan recaptures some of his earlier essence with lots of mystery, subtle creeps and moments where you’ll question what exactly it is you’re seeing. Above all else, though, is the fact I found the screenplay Shyamalan wrote really tight, and once the ending came around I was absolutely sold. This is a solid, lower budget styled movie compared to so much of his other work, where Shyamalan gets back to what he does best – scare us. Because I feel that’s the place he works best, with a story made of mystery, fear, paranoia and suspense. All you’ll find delivered here.
Deanna-Dunagun-and-Peter-McRobbie-in-The-Visit-Movie-2015A single mother, Paula Jamison (Kathryn Hahn), needs a nice getaway with her latest boyfriend – her husband having run out awhile ago. So she sends both her kids Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) out to the quaint little town where she grew up in order to spend some quality time with their grandparents, Doris and John Jamison (Deanna Dunagan/Peter McRobbie).
When the kids arrive, everything is grand. The first time they’ve met their grandparents, both Rebecca and Tyler find it interesting getting to know them. Even better, Rebecca is making a documentary film about her mother, her hometown, her life, et cetera, and so meeting the grandparents provides Rebecca with more information.
A day or two in, though, the kids start to feel as if something is not quite right. First, Tyler comes across a pile of dirty diapers in the shed – where he was warned not to look. Grandma explains it away by telling the young boy his grandfather sometimes has ‘accidents’, and so he cleans it up in private, stowing the diapers in the shed until he can burn them. Sort of a sad thing. After that Tyler walks away feeling sorry for his grandfather. However, once dear ole grandma is discovered naked in the dark hallway outside the kids’ room, savagely clawing at the walls, Rebecca and Tyler start to investigate what’s really been going on around the old house. While Rebecca seems naive enough to believe her grandfather’s explanation of sundowning, the younger Tyler tries to make her see something sinister is beginning to happen with their grandparents.
Kathryn-Hahn-in-The-Visit-Movie-2015Going into this I was sceptical, only because I wasn’t sure why Shyamalan, a guy with a definitive, distinctive style of his own as a filmmaker, would choose to go with the found footage sub-genre. Then a little ways into the movie, I found myself caring less and less about why and focusing more on how it worked for the film.
There’s a moment a little while after the kids arrive at their grandparents’ place, when Rebecca and Tyler are playing hide and seek. They go out under the porch outside, the big deck, and crawl through underneath. After a minute, out of nowhere, grandma Doris appears behind them, very eerily, and becomes part of the game. She chases them outside, gets up and brushes the dirt off her knees, straightening up. Then Doris laughs and tells them there are treats baked inside. Such an odd and unsettling moment, I knew there was something not at all right with grandma at this point.
Most of all, I liked how the found footage was used in scenes like these. There weren’t many of the jump scare type shots, but definitely a few of these spooky moments where the style of camerawork absolutely lent itself to making things feel off-balance. Plus, I really enjoyed the two young actors and how they incorporated the camera into their lives/the trip. Especially Olivia DeJonge – I thought the bits where she interviewed her grandparents were key in making the plot come out, tiny bits slipping in through those scenes, and DeJonge does great with her part holding her own with the older Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie (who are both fucking fantastic here and part of why the movie works so well).
TheVisit_2015_Trailer

THE VISIT, Peter McRobbie, 2015. ©Universal Pictures

Again, though, the best part of The Visit for me is the screenplay. I found the writing really tight and the characters were excellent. The two young actors matched the acting talent of the older actors perfectly, there were no moments I found myself taken out of the film by the acting, which is often a drawback of the found footage sub-genre (too much worry about camerawork and a meandering plot and not enough attention to character or acting). Particularly in low budget movies, the acting isn’t always solid, at all. Here, Shyamalan has all the right people in place for the characters needed.
On top of that, his script just keeps you guessing. People always want to say they knew what would happen, this or that. But to be truthful, I thought this was going to be a supernatural or possibly alien type movie. I figured grandma and grandpa were maybe harvesting little baby aliens, or who knows what the fuck else, I don’t know. Did not see this ending coming. When it finally hit, everything said and done – the twist played out – and the music plays (which is worked in perfectly at the end harkening back to an earlier moment), it was glorious! Really fun ending. Not the typical found footage horror style finish, and still it worked. The writing subverted my expectations throughout the entire film, so kudos to Shyamalan. I was constantly trying to figure out what might happen. Instead, this one took me along for a heavy ride and I lapped up every second.
1280x720-bWuThis is one of the better found footage horror movies I’ve seen in awhile. Not only that, M. Night Shyamalan gets his groove back here with a movie that contains good writing, solid scares, and a bunch of great central performances out of the four main characters. 4.5 out of 5 star film, for me anyways. I know others have said completely the opposite, that it’s formulaic, or that it’s this, that, the other thing. Agree to disagree. Some of the most fun I’ve had in the theatre when it comes to horror movies over the past couple years. It was frightening yet exciting and there was a ton of mystery to boot, which kept me glued. Check this out as soon as you can if it’s still playing in your local theatre, worth seeing this proper rather than wait for Blu ray, DVD or VOD. Can’t wait to see what Shyamalan will cook up next.

Paranormal Activity’s Modern Hauntings

Paranormal Activity. 2007. Directed & Written by Oren Peli.
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, and Ashley Palmer. Solana Films/Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 86 minutes.
Horror

★★★★
paranormalactivity_posterWhen done correctly, I am a huge fan of found footage. Whether it’s using the thriller style, as I recently enjoyed in the film 419, or horror (The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal HolocaustHome Movie, and many more), I believe that if a director uses the sub-genre appropriately then it can be extremely effective. Particularly, horror movies using found footage can end up having a huge impact if it isn’t simply a gimmick, or a wasted tool in the director’s arsenal.
Even further than that, a writer (or writers) needs to know the limitations of the sub-genre, as well as where it can go. Too many writers seem to let the screenplay of a found footage film fall by the wayside, like it isn’t an important aspect so much as the visuals prove to be. Very bad way to look at ANY genre or sub-genre; you always need a good script, or at least an impressive idea to work from.
There are things I do love about Paranormal Activity, while I’ve got a gripe or two, as well. Mostly, I think Oren Peli really did an excellent job as director in cultivating an impressive piece of modern horror. He singlehandedly changed the found footage game, in my mind, after the originals left their highly impressive (and better) mark – like The Blair Witch Project and the infamous, controversial Cannibal Holocaust. Now there are plenty of others, since this film’s release in 2007, trying to work off the simple yet excellent format Peli landmarked.
This is not a perfect horror, nor is it my favourite found footage film. However, I’ve got to say that when I first saw Paranormal Activity – and to this day – there were elements and scenes which really unsettled me greatly and left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think, as a veteran in watching films and TONS of horror, that I’m easily frightened. But genuinely, at times, I found myself clenching up. Not to say I wept in terror or curled into a ball. Though, I can readily admit my muscles tightened and my heart rate pumped fast in several scenes, which is all due to the acting of the two leads and the good work of writer-director Oren Peli.
paranormalactivity1I won’t waste time relating the plot. This is one of those movies we ALL know about; if not, head over to IMDB or Wikipedia and it’s laid out pretty well. I’d like to just move into the things I liked/disliked about the movie.
An aspect of the screenplay I truly do love is how the character of Micah antagonizes the presence in their home. Starting early on, within the first fifteen minutes even, Micah begins to make fun of the whole concept of some spirit (or whatever) in the house; he plays creepy music, saying he’d like to make the presence feel at home. I always like when a story incorporates scepticism in an interesting way; Micah is a part of that, as he pretty much riles up the thing in their house.
Otherwise, one of the greatest parts in my mind about Peli’s Paranormal Activity is that the effects really started to push the envelope for found footage. Since 2007 there have been plenty more found footage films which used effects to a greater degree, but at the time this came as sort of revolutionary for the sub-genre. Before this movie, and those which followed it (both sequels and other films imitating this style), most found footage horror tended to go for the lost in the woods scenario, adding in tons of shaky cam and screaming and blood/gore here or there. Peli came along and decided to keep the camera stationary almost all of the time, which really helped, and on top of that he tried as best he could to do as much practically as possible, as well as the great majority of the film is centred so much on the relationship between Katie and Micah.
Keeping the camera in one place the way he does, Peli is able to let us relax a bit and get more into the characters and the story/plot than other found footage allows us. As I said, the shaky cam is prevalent in many other films similar to this. Even the amazing Blair Witch Project, there are a couple nearly nausea inducing sequences where the characters are running, screaming, and the camera is jostling around along with their movements; to the point where it’s tough to follow anything. Luckily, that was one of the first real found footage horror movies where shaky cam became a thing, so at the time it wasn’t really overdone.
Paranormal-Activity-3Nowadays with so many less exciting films than that trying to read in its huge footsteps, we get too many horrors using found footage and throwing in the shaky cam as a legitimate portion of the film when in fact it only detracts from the end product; we’re tired and sick of the shakiness, it’s not simply low budget and realistic it makes things look lazy. In Paranormal Activity, Peli foregoes that nonsense and allows us to get into the relationship between Katie and Micah, watching their lives unfold instead of constantly having one of them manipulate the camera, moving it around, and so on. Though Micah absolutely holds the camera at times, it’s not him running around and catching nothing except blurs. Whenever he does move it, the moment is brief, or at the least Micah is usually standing in one place. I think, albeit probably an obvious touch, Peli does his film a great service by allowing the camera to stay still a lot of the time. That way, his story comes out further, the characters are more interesting, and the plot is able to move along without the audience becoming totally unnerved (not in the right way) by the camera movement constantly shaking us out of touch with what’s happening in the film.
For this reason, as well as the fact effects are incorporated in a fresh way (not saying they’re spectacular; merely they were slightly new to this sub-genre), I truly feel Peli broke new, interesting ground with his found footage horror movie. Not only did it spawn a series of sequels, a whole franchise, Paranormal Activity – in a different way from its predecessors – had other filmmakers looking to do a low-budget horror almost copycatting everything about it.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery; in this case, I think it’s mostly about cashing in.
still-of-katie-featherston-in-paranormal-activity-(2007)-large-pictureFinally, it’s the acting from Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston which truly got to me. I think Sloat did a good enough job, especially in terms of being the sceptical and doubting boyfriend; he isn’t completely ignorant and arrogant in his speech, mostly he brings this aspect across through his coy, annoyingly playful demeanour. He certainly acts like a bit of a douchebag, but I think that’s almost definitely the right way for Micah to seem, as a character – it brings out that doubt very clearly for all to see.
Above all else, it’s Featherston who sells this film from start to finish. I like the character herself; she’s been followed all her life, basically, by some kind of spirit, an entity. Not that it’s a new idea. It’s how Featherston plays the character, the innocence she always seems to display and this naive but concerned nature in her. While Katie is the one who believes in it all, there’s still this naivety about her in that she’s holding onto the innocent part of herself, even while this demon/spirit/entity has latched onto her and won’t leave her, or Micah, alone. The way Featherston performs is incredible, unbelievably actually in the final half hour. Once things start getting very intense and claustrophobic in their little house, Featherston does a perfect job portraying all the terror Katie is feeling; there’s one moment where she tells Micah she feels something in the hallway, and I honestly got a fright just out of the urgency in her voice, the look in her eyes. Amazing job and makes Paranormal Activity all the better for it; anyone else would probably not have been enough. Featherston pushed this film above a ton of other found footage out there with subpar acting and lazy characters.
Paranormal-ActivityWith an undeniably horrifying final 15 minutes, I can definitely say this is a 4 out of 5 star film. There could’ve been a little more in certain parts, but overall this is an excellent modern horror. I’m not saying this will send you to bed cowering under the covers like when we were children. What I am saying is that Oren Peli did a good job directing this, as opposed to so many shaky useless found footage efforts, and he tried to instil the film with as much practicality (from plot to effects) as possible.
This is a slow burn type of horror film, in my opinion. It does well building up tension, in part that’s due to excellent actors, and in the end there’s a massively satisfying and creepy conclusion. Love the end and watching this for the first time since its release 8 years ago, I must admit I like the film more than I’d originally thought.