ALTAR’s Familiar Yet Fresh & Character Driven

Altar. 2016. Directed & Written by Matthew Sconce.
Starring Stefanie Estes, Brittany Falardeau, Deep Rai, Jessica Strand, Michael Wainwright, Tim Parrish, Tina Johnson, Jesse Parr, & Master Dave Johnson.
Movie Heroes Studios/Schumacher III/Stellar Lense Productions
84 minutes. Not Rated.
Horror

★★★1/2
IMG_0271I’ll always defend found footage because, when done right, the results can be shockingly impressive, and really scary. There’s a lot of misfires. It’s a relatively new subgenre, in terms of popularity, considering movies like Cannibal Holocaust and 84C MoPic have been around since the ’80s, even before The Blair Witch Project turned bigger audiences onto the idea. Because the subgenre became a hot property for studios, and an easy way to make movies for amateur filmmakers or even anybody nowadays with an iPhone, we’ve been inundated with a ton of found footage titles.
Altar starts out with a typical sort of setup, with a bunch of old college classmates who wind up lost on their way to a reunion in the Sierra Nevada. From there, we see a few similarities to popular entries in the genre, particularly The Blair Witch Project. Director-writer Matthew Sconce ultimately treads his own path by using expected conventions and a few of his own tricks along the way.
This film doesn’t flip the subgenre on its head, nor does it show us anything wildly different from what we’ve seen before. It does offer a creepy, unexpected slice of horror that feels like genre comfort food – the same ole good stuff you’d hope to get, plus a twist of originality in the execution.
IMG_0274Altar succeeds investing the audience in the characters. These people feel real, like they’re actually a group of friends who’ve known one another a long time, we revisit their nostalgia alongside them on this reunion trip. There’s a lot of good organic little scenes where the characters all build up through dialogue that’s not just jammed with exposition. Even a decent explanation aside from ‘I wanna record our reunion’ that plays well into the relationships between certain characters. While not every aspect of the writing impresses me, Sconce makes it all feel natural. Lending to that are the believable performances of the lead actors.
A nice addition in the cast of characters is that one of them has Asperger’s – the guy holding the camera. Not a POV we often see, so the inclusion is great, and the fact it all comes to bear on the character himself, what happens to him (et cetera) is really great.
When you’re engaged and you care about the people in a found footage film it’s easier putting yourself in their shoes. The woods are more often than not in this subgenre used as just a default place to send actors where they can run and scream into the darkness. Whereas Altar instead puts more work into the story, adding an ultra creepy bit of ancient mystery in the forest. There’s a familiarity around many a corner throughout the film, though Sconce combats that with some ingenuity. If anything, you’ll at least find a nagging curiosity on the brain concerning the titular altar.
IMG_0276The creeps are subtle and spaced out. It isn’t until the final 20 minutes when things unleash, when the tension boils over and there’s nothing but a spiral towards madness. Sconce avoids the usual ‘Turn off the camera’ moments, the constant infighting, sudden ruined friendships over fear. He opts to go for more of a group terror, one that lingers like static every moment we follow the group of friends. It’s not as if anything unexpected happens. What works is the tense, unsettling suspense of the last 20 minutes.
One thing I loved? A character actually brings a gun with her. You always wonder why people going into the mountains or the backwoods. Well, this time someone did! Whether that helps in the end, you’ll have to see for yourself.
Throughout Altar are a few eerie images. Such as the altar in the woods itself, which is so strange from the first time we see it onscreen. The axe guy in the beginning is almost chuckle-worthy at times, yet he’ll stay with you, getting under your skin in a brief amount of time. I did laugh at him, only to see the characters sitting by a campfire later and asking myself if they were to be slaughtered. Trust me, the answers aren’t as easy as that, they’re much more gruesome fun.
When the true evil of the story comes round, the first appearance is fuzzy, out of focus. You can pick out a shape, enough to feel frightened. Later, the evil becomes more defined, as it takes the characters on a hell of a ride.
IMG_0278I personally feel Altar‘s more worth your time than many efforts out there. Better than most of the sequels to Paranormal Activity. There’s a solid ending, too. Not one that begs for another film with a weak finish. Rather, we’re treated to – in this day and age of cinematic universes galore – a closed-ended story. There’s a mythology that of course isn’t totally laid out through expository writing for us, part of why I dig the storytelling. No sequel setup, no mush mouth explanations of worthless dialogue trying to create a huge backstory for the movie’s big evil.
Herein lies the greatest strength of the movie: it gives just enough without giving us more than necessary. I’m impressed, Mr. Sconce. Hope we see more soon. Horror won’t ever pass up guys like him, working with familiar territory and giving us his own take.

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THE DARK TAPES: Fresh Indie Found Footage

The Dark Tapes. 2017. Directed by Vincent J. Guastini & Michael McQuown. Screenplay by McQuown.
Starring Emilia Ares Zoryan, David Banks, Jonathan Biver, Sara Castro, Michael Cotter, Denise Faro, Brittany Fisheli, Jo Galloway, Aral Gribble, Shane Hartline, David Hull, Clint Keepin, Casey James Knight, Shawn Lockie, Matt Magnusson, Anna Rose Moore, Tessa Munro, Jake O’Connor, Cortney Palm, David Rountree, Katherine Shaw, Wayne River Sorrell, Meredith Thomas, Brittany Underwood, Julian von Nagel, Ryan Allan Young, & Stepehn Zimpel.
Thunder Road Incorporated.
Not Rated. 98 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★1/2
Dark Tapes 1Director Michael McQuown sent me a screener for his and co-director Vincent J. Guastini’s independent film, The Dark Tapes. I’d heard of it awhile, hearing plenty of good things. Not overhyped; hyped just enough. I’m always ready to dig in on a found footage flick, no matter how tired the sub-genre seems to get with so many low budget efforts being pumped out simply to get a director and some actors a credit to their names.
The Dark Tapes isn’t a perfect movie. There are a few missteps that could’ve been avoided to make the whole thing more effective, certain tapes in the lot aren’t as good as others. Often anthologies suffer from this fate. The lesser tapes are still good. There’s nothing bad here. Each tape, regardless of its setbacks, has an eerie quality to it respectively.
McQuown and Guastini use a meagre budget wisely, choosing to use effects sparingly and, for the most part, they work. This is one of their best moves, because they don’t set the bar too high yet clearly focused on staying creepy. There are standouts in the series of tapes, presented through the narrative of being proof of government conspiracy-type stuff, the truth the powers that be suppress and keep from the people – a couple deserve their own full-length treatments. Certain segments stand up with some of the best of the V/H/S series (no surprise considering Guastini is not only an effects guy, he did work on the third entry, Viral).
Dark Tapes 2My only beef, and I’ll get to this first before discussing what I enjoyed so much, is that the directing is mostly excellent. Then, they choose to show us too much. For the longest time what we only get glimpses of in frame is what drives the pulse-pounding terror. As you can see in the photo above, that’s a startling shot. Love that moment; freezing the frame only compounds the fear. However, the directors lose some of that momentum later when they choose to show this demonic figure up close for too long. They try offsetting this with the use of camera glitches (et cetera). But it never makes up for the undoing of the fright from seeing the creature long enough we can start picking out some of the less stellar aspects of its creation.
The rest of the tapes are presented with brief shots and bits that are framed properly so that the low budget qualities don’t glare. And honestly, it’s only the one main demon in the “To Catch a Demon” segments that comes off as cheesy, which is late in the game. Otherwise, in the “Amanda’s Revenge” tape, the creatures (or whatever you want to call them) look legitimately gnarly, in the best horror sense. Particularly in that tape, we get some wonderfully old school film shots, the rickety frame, catching a presence in the distance, and it’s so genuinely perfect for the type of eeriness for which this segments is aiming.
Dark Tapes 3The tapes have an overall framing narrative, though I think that while there’s a connection between the tapes as a whole, it isn’t as connective as the filmmakers might hope. Mostly, I don’t feel that the connections are tight enough. The writing is interesting, at every turn. I can’t help think McQuown could’ve brainstormed something better to make them all into the cohesive unit the beginning (and mid-credits) speech we hear wishes it’d become. If this were tighter then it would’ve greatly improved the film.
But the stories, they’re fresh. Even in the moments some of them don’t exactly work as intended, they’re innovative. I found “The Hunters and the Hunted” was my favourite because it caught me so off guard once the revelation came, until then I expected a run of the mill bit of paranormal shlock; a proper twist, if there ever were! Also enjoyed “Cam Girls” except the end devolved into a ham-fisted mess. Before that it was wildly creepy, the editing made it feel very kinetic and full of horrific energy; while it falls apart later with absolutely no subtlety and a ton of unnecessary exposition that could’ve been given to us through imagery earlier (a missed opportunity), this segment  was insane.
And “Cam Girls” has an underlying metaphor in it, about our porn-obsessed culture that involves men watching women through their screens performing, some thinking they’re falling in love just by watching. If only the plot of this segment were worked out better, it’d be a devastating short.
Dark Tapes 5For a low budget, non-studio film, The Dark Tapes has an impressive production value. This is one of the things that keeps even the lesser pieces involving, it’s better than the average indie found footage attempt. With so many of these sub-genre flicks saturating the market, incredibly easy to make on a shoestring to non-existent budget, it’s nice to see what’s so obviously a labour of horror love come to the screen from these directors.
Sure, not every segment is perfect. A couple are scary as hell. And like I’ve yammered on, even in those segments which don’t measure up there’s still things to pique your interest. If anything, the effort the team on this film put in is astounding. Kudos to them all, I certainly hope that McQuown and Guastini do more, whether it’s in found footage that’s up to them. Without a doubt they’ve got horror sensibilities.
The Dark Tapes, warts and all, is one of the better found footage movies I’ve seen as of late, running the gamut of horror, thriller, and science fiction with relative ease. Like Tales of HalloweenHolidaysV/H/S, and Southbound, this is an anthology worth dipping into for a fright.

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.

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.