THE GARLOCK INCIDENT: Broken American Dreams En Route to Las Vegas

The Garlock Incident. 2012. Directed & Written by Evan Cholfin; from a story by Cholfin, Ariana Farina, & Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring Ana Lily Amirpour, Adam Chambers, Sean Durrie, Joy Howard, Alycen Malone, Sean Muramatsu, Casey Ruggieri, & Larissa Wise.
Loudcat
Not Rated. 78 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
FullSizeRenderI’m of two minds: you can make found footage and not worry too much about ‘following the rules’ of the format so long as the story’s good, scary, exciting; or, you can make found footage while sticking to the format’s unwritten rules, working to make the film feel entirely genuine as a piece of recovered footage. The Garlock Incident is of the latter class, feeling exactly as if this film was picked up from a discarded camera somewhere out in the desert.
What makes this found footage better is not only do we deal with an intense, disturbing plot on the surface, beneath there’s much to admire. The Garlock Incident explores themes of the urban v. rural landscape, how societal norms and morality breaks down outside of the city, among others. Most of all, it acts as an overall metaphor about the deteriorating American Dream by contrasting it against the physical space of Old America.
Putting a group of friends on the road to Las Vegas, on their way to make a film directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (herself an actual, awesome director), director-writer Evan Cholfin crafts a sneaky little found footage film that teases all sorts of elements, but ultimately works on suspense, tension, and draws out a psychological horror that will stick with you well after that story comes to a close.
FullSizeRender (1)Straight away, the opening just jumps into footage; as a genuinely filmed road trip would, with no title, no opening scene like a traditional film, none of that. Not even the typical “On such-and-such date a group of…” Rather, we’re thrust directly into the characters and the plot. The immediacy of how we’re brought into the film allows the found footage format a sense of feeling genuine.
Furthermore, setting this as being footage from a film crew, of friends, heading to begin the shoot on a film gives the footage purpose. Found footage without purpose can often wind up feeling dishonest, because if doing found footage, why not make sure to pose it as actual footage that was found? Otherwise, might as well film traditionally. Lily directing the film within a film lends more authenticity.
Best part of the film is its tension, how Cholfin uses vast stretches of desert to allow isolation to take hold of the viewer. Ambient noise from the wind punctuates silent moments filled with suspense. Instead of the obligatory shaky cam filming of many found footage efforts, The Garlock Incident thrives on longer, controlled, still, silent shots. In these moments, these gaps, our imagination runs wild. These psychological spaces are where the best horror of the film works its nasty magic.
FullSizeRender (3)The haunted mining town setup evokes a sense of American Western tales meets the Gothic tradition, starting a spooky atmosphere. Works on another level, though. The old American Dream is symbolised by the gold mining town, the former path to glory which led many to their demise. Contrast that with the new American Dream, being in the movies, obviously represented by Lily and her friends making a film.
Where it all comes together is in the middle, precipitating an existential haunting. Of course there’s the mystery of what’s actually happening, are they going crazy, or is someone messing with them? Mystery gives way to paranoia, which then gives way to worse, the unimaginable. People get hurt. Some may die. As many often do, through drug overdose or otherwise, people die in pursuit of the American Dream on the silver screen. In the ghost town of Garlock exists the allegorical space where these two visions of the American Dream merge, causing chaos. This is illustrated in tandem with the editing of clips from earlier auditions for the film, candid moments amongst the group, as we see the shattered dream v. the idyllic American dream, the before and after, cutting from the happier moments to the later more unnerving and downright disturbing scenes sometimes in the matter of seconds.
Ultimately, in the face of the unknown, a perceived threat, the group’s morality is gradually questioned, some of them teetering precariously on an edge until the film’s shocking climax and quick finale. This all works towards the thematic consideration of what happens to people, socially, when they step outside the boundaries of their urban spaces, into the wilderness of the rural landscape. When these people, city dwellers, go outside their limits, their comfort even, they’re faced with the primitivity of humankind. In the end, this determines what happens to the characters, if they given in to their primitive side or not.
FullSizeRender (2)Cannot recommend this movie more. Found footage will always get a chance, from me. I’m willing to give anything a shot, because there’s a craving for the deeper subjects, the scarier stories, either supernatural or utterly human. The Garlock Incident plays with the audience’s expectations, then by the final frame you’re left reconsidering everything that came previously.
There’s a horrifying climax to the film, shot from a far physical distance. However, this literal distance cannot figuratively distance us from the brutality of its emotion, giving way to a conclusion that’s one hell of a gut punch. The last five minutes challenge us to go back, look at the events which led us and the characters to that moment, and the film’s last shot before a cut to black is expected after what preceded it, yet it’s no less shattering.
Seek this out, it’s available now via Google Play. Waited several years to see this, truly worth the wait. The acting holds up, a dreadful tension full of suspense and isolation fills the air. If you want blood, this isn’t the film you’re looking for, but if you want something that’ll creep under your skin, likely to stay a while, then you’ve found the ticket. A nice, eerie found footage film for the Halloween season.

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The Sequel I Tried to Like: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT 2

The Houses October Built 2. 2017. Directed by Bobby Roe. Screenplay by Roe & Zack Andrews.
Starring Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, Mikey Roe, Bobby Roe, & Jeff Larson.
Foreboding Films.
Not Rated. 100 minutes.
Horror

★★
Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.14.39 PMLet’s get this straight, I’ve been a huge fan of The Houses October Built since it came out. After seeing it, loving it, I looked for the original documentary that came out a few years before by the same director, the same people. There’s a palpable fear about the first film, one that gets under the skin and works at you, rarely letting up. It also had the benefit of a group of actors who were clearly close friends, reflected in the final product as well-developed, genuine characters.
But, oh, this sequel. After it was announced, I was excited. Not every movie needs a sequel these days, but it felt like there could be more to the story, if the filmmakers were so inclined to show us. The Houses October Built 2 promised plenty, ultimately delivering on little to none of what I’d hoped.
Where I was expecting another gruelling experience, rooted in the unknown yet all too human, I got only a retread in familiar territory. Not great ones, either. What’s more, the tension is near non-existent. The original was a tense experience, one haunted house attraction after another. Even when frights were expected, they were creepy, at times truly frightening. By the time the big reveal comes, it’s too late in the game. What’s worse is the ending feels like a massive bluff, in a bad way. Not that the audience is disrespected, it’s just cheap, it takes away what little power was built in the climax. If the first film wasn’t so damn effective this experience wouldn’t have been as disappointing.
Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 1.24.41 PM

The Good

Always love when a sequel gives us a taste of happened directly after the events of its predecessor. As in literally; we begin following The Houses October Built‘s finale, after Blue Skeleton has taken the group, Brandy’s pulled out of her grave and left on a desolate road. Then, it’s interesting how Brandy is framed as the wholly central character here, as opposed to just one out of a group. She and her friends, though mostly her, become internet celebrities after it was all livestreamed.
Spectacular premise. Brandy as Coffin Girl, known all over America in the state-to-state haunt circles, promises the possibility of different themes than the first. Along with that is the evolution of the haunt, the various forms of the haunted house attraction getting scarier, or more involved, some including virtual reality elements. These new bits and pieces make for the sequel’s best, most effective elements.
The Blue Skeleton POV shots following the group are chilling, perhaps the more nerve-racking sections in the film. We’ve seen this before, but now the mood changes from one of a sinister playfulness to entirely sinister altogether, malevolent. Considering the overall lack of tension, these interludes are the ones that hook the viewer efficiently, keeping us on edge and in suspense of what might happen next down the road.
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The Bad & The Ugly

Quickly during the opening sequence, the atmosphere of the first film goes out the window. Whereas we spent The Houses October Built entirely in that found footage perspective of the group, this sequel goes for traditionally shot scenes, going so far as to include drone shots that feel totally out of place, like they had a drone and decided just to use it for the sake of using it. The earliest drone shot isn’t their camera, it’s an opening shot similar to the one that opened the newest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, meant as an establishing shot. Here, it’s disorienting, and immediately there’s a sense the first film’s fantastic atmosphere will not carry over.
The found footage sections are all manipulated, too. They’re edited with music, little intros to some of the haunts. Not a total stickler for the unwritten rules of the sub-genre, sometimes people nitpick too much. However, at a certain point if the filmmakers don’t at least try adhering to them whatsoever, there’s a disruption in how we related to this type of film, and it also makes you wonder why bother doing it as found footage.
The worst sin is a dearth of tension. The Houses October Built felt harrowing in particular moments, from the actual haunts themselves to the strange cast of characters the group encounter while spiralling down a rabbit hole looking for Blue Skeleton’s extreme, travelling haunt. There are no quiet, creeping moments of terror, none of the ominous characters we saw in the first like sort of gatekeepers on the road to some horrific place. This never comes to fruition in the sequel, we’re treated to a skull mask turning up in one of the haunts as Brandy spies it and gets unnerved; this doesn’t come until about 70 minutes in.
We’re left bored until over an hour in. Despite any of the creepiness which follows, the build-up doesn’t match the pay off. The last 25 minutes work well, sadly the preceding hour and fifteen don’t provide the tension necessary to make Hellbent, their final attraction destination, as unsettling as it could’ve been. Worst of all, there’s a moment in the end where we’re led to believe a shocking, nasty, tragic act has occurred, only to be twisted around and shown this was an illusion of sorts. It’s a scene that makes the viewer feel cheated. More than that, it would’ve been perfect to end the film there and then. Instead the filmmakers undo the impact of this shattering climax, spoiling the plot with an utterly abysmal finish.
Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 1.47.58 PMIt’s hard to judge sequels separately as entirely different entities outside of a franchise. Friday the 13thA Nightmare on Elm StreetHalloween; some of the films in these series’ don’t particularly link well with the others, whether intentional or just because of poor writing, and so it allows us to look at particular entries as a sort of standalone film even under the name of a franchise.
The Houses October Built 2 is very much meant as the second blow of a one-two punch, the sequel works as a direct, sequential follow-up to the first. You can’t take this one as its own film, they should both work in conjunction. On the one hand, the plot continues perfectly, losing no continuity. On the other, we get none of the same atmosphere, none of the same mood, as if we’ve stepped out of this story’s universe and into another.
I’ll always love The Houses October Built, it’s undeniably one of the better found footage horror flicks out there; definitely at the top of the heap in this decade. Because of that love, I can’t help but be disappointed, it’s hard to contain. I always try going into a film without being predisposed to expectation, no matter how much I look forward to the experience. Sequels are always tough, in that light. I gave this a chance. Even without comparison to the other, this one feels like a missed opportunity. Maybe we’ll get a third film to redeem this little series. Until then I’ll stick with the first.

HELL HOUSE LLC: Quality Found Footage Terror

Hell House LLC. 2015. Directed & Written by Stephen Cognetti.
Starring Gore Abrams, Alice Bahlke, Danny Bellini, Theodore Bouloukos, Natalie Gee, Jared Hacker, Phil Hess, Ryan Jennifer, Lauren A. Kennedy, Jeb Kreager, Miranda Robbins, Adam Schneider, & Kristin Michelle Taylor.
Cognetti Films
Not Rated. 93 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
Hell House 1The found footage, faux-documentary sub-genre has run wild in recent years, to the extent the horror industry’s been flooded. It’s a perfectly viable sub-genre, it’s just been destroyed like the slasher sub-genre was particularly during the 1980s. Because, at this point in 2017, the accessibility of making a low-budget found footage movie is right at our fingertips. You can take a bunch of friends out in the woods for a weekend, along with some iPhones, and by the time Monday rolls around you’ve got a little movie!
Naturally, that’s brought us to a point where there are so many found footage flicks that you can’t throw a rock without hitting one; let alone a GOOD one. But they’re out there, indeed, and they can be scary.
Like Hell House LLC, a film which uses the concept of haunted house attractions around Halloween in order to produce a found footage and mockumentary mix that ultimately gives it all a genuine feeling of realness. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of the sub-genre? To suck us into its little world, to make us feel what we’re seeing is real?
The Houses October Built was a fantastic look at the same subject, albeit from a different perspective and wholly in the found footage format. What this film does best is provide genuine scares through the use of expert suspense and tension, the atmosphere chilling from early on. The advantage of the mockumentary format is that Hell House LLC gives us the best of the haunted house attraction plot with the found footage element, on top of adding the mystery and thrill of a faux documentary. Resulting in an engaging story, not just shaky cameras and screaming and a slew of expected the sub-genre’s tropes.
Hell House 4The world of Halloween haunted house attractions is ripe for horror. The Houses October Bult was both engaging and frightening, taking us through the unsuspecting audience’s perspective inside the attractions. Hell House LLC takes us to the other side, from the perspective of a group of friends who put together haunted houses, here, they set it in an old hotel; clearly yielding scary results. The found footage aspect works perfect taking us into the action, but giving us great suspense as we watch the place come together, the eerie events which happen under the group’s collective nose. The use of a possibly supernatural backstory that comes out through the faux documentary offers an intriguing mix; whether the supernatural actually pans out becomes evident by the finale.
Story’s great. The scares are the best, though. The use of the clown mannequin is totally frightening. The moment when it appears then disappears is incredibly upsetting, in the right kind of horror way. This shtick recurs a couple times, to great effect. Worse, the second or third time around it’s more than a single character/camera witnessing the moment, pulling us further into the terror.
More subtle moments make the movie unnerving. Like a strange shot of Sara (Ryan Jennifer Jones) standing in front of a stone statue, quietly spooky. Then the strobe light scene delivers a pang of claustrophobia in the viewer alongside the character (who actually threw up in that take for real). Finally, the events of the haunted house’s opening night alluded to throughout play for us, releasing the tension built up over the course of the film. From that moment on everything descends into chaos. The finale is the icing on a creepy cake, giving the end an additional punch.
Hell House 3The Abaddon hotel here is an actual haunt attraction, previously converted from an old hotel. Like with all great locations, this one transforms the film, making it more interesting and spookier. So many found footage flicks don’t have atmosphere, here that’s just naturally taken care of by the setting. The hotel is a character on its own, akin to the lead villain in another film. This alone gives Hell House LLC fantastic atmosphere, a sense of place. As opposed to a set, the real location adds grim life to the plot, as you can imagine finding yourself in an ageing hotel, walking through its hotel, unaware of its history or what sort of entities, maybe people, are lurking within those walls.
Aside from the atmosphere, the characters and the acting keep the film steady. Found footage, almost more than any other sub-genre of horror, benefits from strong performances. The characters and their relationships here give credibility to the story, making it all feel real. More than the performances, the writing avoids a lot of expected conventions of the found footage sub-genre. For instance, the typical “You’ve ruined us all” aspect as one character’s mistakes seemingly doom the rest, and of course the question of the cameras is solved because everything is being filmed for the haunt.
Moreover, the pacing works on your nerves, as the horror never truly lets up, creeping on the viewer hard. The freaky moments pile up, the corners of your eyes get tired from scanning, waiting for whatever comes next. You expect the terror when it arrives, doesn’t change the fact it’s effective and entirely unnerving.
Hell House 2In the top ten found footage efforts of the 2010s so far. There are so many of these movies dropped on us, because it’s cheap, especially for a studio to pump them out. But even an iPhone puts you in the director’s chair. Hell House LLC, and other films like it, prove that found footage is still very much alive. Some people want to make you believe they sub-genre’s played out. It isn’t, you just have to dig through the shit at times to find the pretty little diamonds.
Hopefully director-writer Stephen Cognetti does another film soon, found footage or not. He’s got a good sense for the pacing and suspense of a horror, as well as the fact he cares about characters. Time and time again indie horror flicks pass over the characterisation for blood, over-the-top nastiness, or some other futile way of trying to fill in the gaps. When all you need are solid characters and some decent actors to bring them alive for the audience.
Hell House LLC is perfect for the Halloween season. There’s nothing better than getting paranoid while watching these friends setup their haunted house attraction, wind blowing outside, the smell of candy in the air. You can always go to a real haunt. Or just turn off the lights, flick this on, and let yourself get creeped out.

VOODOO’s a Satanic Mess

Voodoo. 2017. Directed & Written by Tom Costabile.
Starring Samantha Stewart, Ruth Reynolds, Dominic Matteucci, Daniel Kozul, Ron Jeremy, Alec Justin Henderson, Lavelle Roby, & Richard Kray.
Hypercube Films
Not Rated. 83 minutes.
Horror

★1/2
POSTERFound footage will always get a chance at Father Son Holy Gore. Because when done right there’s so much potential, both to be a compelling film and also scary. On the other side of that is that, when done wrong a found footage horror can truly be abysmal. Just utter shit. What’s frustrating about the whole sub-genre is when a movie’s got that potential, then instead of capitalising wastes every bit of its energy.
Tom Costabile’s Voodoo has a lot going on, but that’s the problem: none of it ever really plays out in full, or at least to the extent the viewer might hope. There’s a great sense of white people dabbling in things they do not understand, playing around with the traditions of other cultures, leading to a brutal reckoning. As the plot unreels and the main character, relatively wholesome Dani (Samantha Stewart) from New Orleans, falls farther into the clutches of a terrifying evil, the more interesting pieces of the story give way to something more like a frightening roller coaster ride than anything intellectually engaging.
Costabile does a fantastic job with the literal descent to hell, there’s no doubt about it. But Voodoo could’ve been more effective by dealing closely with the plot, rather than becoming a whirlwind of hellish set design, wild sounds, and a truly unnecessary bit of nastiness nearing the end. The story of a young woman, tricked by a married man and cursed by the practising voodoo wife, it’s SO ENGAGING! This is why it’s frustrating to watch Costabile not use the premise to do something better.
Voodoo1While the opening sequence does fit with the film, story-wise, it’s just a weird start. Especially considering the fact this is meant as a found footage film, and within the first 5 minutes or so there’s a mix of footage. Usually, I try not to lean too hard on one of these flicks for those types of things. But the first few scenes feel out of place where they are, maybe if they appeared later on once we know more about Dani and her situation it’d feel appropriate.
Second big faux-pas: confusing Satanism and voodoo. Big fucking no-no! They’re simply not the same things. Particularly seeing as how voodoo is a cultural practice, whereas Satanism is merely a religion of the self adopted by people of all cultures. Seeing the pentagram thrown in there’s odd, it has no connection to voodoo in its traditional sense. If the angle of white people messing around in other cultures was played out better, this inclusion of the pentagram would feel right at home; suggesting Dani’s cousin Stacy (Ruth Reynolds) doesn’t understand voodoo enough to know the pentagram isn’t related. It isn’t played out well, though. And things like this wind up looking bad.
Moreover, there’s a whole bit about Dani having an abortion which never actually goes anywhere. It has legs, definitely. If Costabile concentrated more on the story than providing an effects-laden second half, his movie could’ve explored much more territory.
All that being said, the best part of the movie comes when Dani wakes to find her cousin’s house has transformed into the gateway to hell itself, Stacy herself a raging, murderous demon. From there, she heads down into hell where demons torturing souls line the corridors, each one worse than the last. The film is divided in a perfect half, so that after the initial 40 minutes the final 40 takes the viewer on a creepy ride. All beginning in a sort of surreal moment, gripping the viewer as Dani grapples to understand what’s going on around her.
Voodoo2A great element, as previously mentioned, is how white people fuck around with things they don’t understand in other cultures. Here, we have the voodoo culture, traditionally practised by Africans/African-Americans. The cousin’s been dabbling in it, and wrongly with the pentagram fascination. Dani even stashes some beads under Stacy’s pillow, playing around where she doesn’t belong. We see the disrespect of the culture, their lack of seriousness in contemplating the consequences, which lays the groundwork for the later, horrifying trip to hell.
The best part, hands down, is the sound design courtesy of Frank Serafine; in the past, Serafine has worked on sound design elements for Space Mountain and other theme park experiences, as well as worked in the sound department on such films as: The FogStar Trek: The Motion PicturePoltergeist II: The Other SideManhunterPumpkinhead, and more. He’s helped create a unique and scary journey with Costabile. The sound alone is enough to raise a few hairs, from the demonic voices to the screaming torment of those trapped in that place, it’s a melting pot of sonic madness.
Sadly, despite Serafine’s amazing contribution, the very end undoes whatever good will Costabile built up with the wild trip Dani takes into the flames of hell. Without spoiling, there’s a totally unnecessary moment of sexual assault that does nothing for the plot. Takes away so much of the genuine terror which preceded it. There was a great moment not long before with a lecherous uncle whom Dani believed dead, her mother; this could’ve led to better representations of hell than what comes out in the wash. Again, so much potential wasted, these are brief pieces basically like offal left on the slaughterhouse floor.
Voodoo3I really wanted this to be better. It has a bunch of expertly creepy elements, I expected more at times when the better bits shined. Unfortunately, Voodoo suffers from some bad acting, plus poorly delivered dialogue and flat emotions. The wasted energy and plot elements would’ve given more life to the whole film. Additionally, the needlessly nasty sexual horror in the finale is off-putting. Dani’s descent to hell makes you forget some of its imperfections, then Costabile hammers a bad nail home with this gross finish.
Take away the ill-advised assault, the bad dialogue, Voodoo would end up more than just a ★1/2 start horror. There’s an outrageous quality to the finale that works up until those last moments. You can get lost in the insanity, the crawling dread as we anticipate nothing at all good to come in the final fleeting minutes. But, as many lazy horror flicks do, this one takes the rotten route opting for mindless misogynist horror instead of finding a better, more unique way out.
I wouldn’t exactly recommend Voodoo. More a ‘you have to see it for yourself’-type of watch. You’ll at least be thrilled for 15-20 minutes during the second half. Just don’t get your hopes up, certainly not if you want a solid found footage movie; in that case, your time’s better spent elsewhere.

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.

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.

WER Brings Fierce Werewolf Game

Wer. 2014. Directed by William Brent Bell. Screenplay by Bell & Matthew Peterman.
Starring A.J. Cook, Simon Quarterman, Stephanie Lemelin, Vik Sahay, Fran Drescher, Sebastian Roché, & Brian Scott O’Connor.
FilmDistrict/Incentive Filmed Entertainment/Protoype.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
Action/Fantasy/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
posterMany people put this in the found footage sub-genre of horror. It’s only partly found footage oriented. There’s use of it amongst the story, which crosses from action to fantasy to thriller in a breath.
Wer has a lot to offer. Director (and co-writer) William Brent Bell does a fine job directing, as many of his choices are what makes the movie exciting. Not everybody loved his previous works (Stay AliveThe Devil Inside). Me, I dig them both, but they’re nothing overly special. With this film Bell capitalises on his strengths, mixing in some found footage while doing his best work as director to give us impressive visuals. Certainly doesn’t hurt to have a group of solid actors.
But best of all is the werewolf component of the story. I’m admittedly not a big fan of werewolves. Not sure why. That being said, I do love the great werewolf pictures. The way Bell and his co-writer Matthew Peterman (also the writer of Bell’s other aforementioned films) weave modern science, rural v. city politics, and a drop of superstitious fantasy together is striking. The plot will grab hold and the action, the horror, they’ll whisk you away.

The first scene involves a boy being eaten alive. Of course we don’t see everything. The suggestion, what we HEAR instead of SEE, those briefly visible bits of blood and gore, it’s unsettling. To start like that kicks things into gear fast. Lots of mystery and intrigue then with a frenetic view of clips, a victim’s video statement about what happened, and the pace really gets pumping out of the gates.
Then we take a side step, as the whole thing involves the criminal investigation of this vicious attack. A.J. Cook (Criminal Minds) plays attorney Kate Moore, and she is a natural on camera. Her range works well for the role, as she must first deal with legal fallout before coming to understand exactly what’s been happening concerning the defendant picked up for the werewolf murders. Right away, this guy – Talan Gwynek (Brian Scott O’Connor) – is one physically intimidating character. He’s shot in such a way that any movement from his is pure suspense, his quiet demeanour renders him even more a scary presence. Plus, he’s made to look like a wild animal trapped in the body of a human: hairy, dishevelled and unkempt, a shaggy dog-looking man. Both Cook and O’Connor are perfect, giving life to the characters at the centre of the storm.
Love the screenplay. Its story is compelling because there’s so much going on, from Talan’s family and his condition, to his mother’s belief that the police are targeting her son due to the state wanting their land. A proper mix of drama, horror, mystery, and some of that fantasy in terms of the werewolf angle. Bell and Peterman do well with the werewolves. When one character is scratched by Talan early on it’s nearly forgotten. Until later it becomes evident we’re definitely in werewolf territory, after tiptoeing around being sure if the story’s headed there or not. This scratch becomes an excellent part of later plot developments.
screenshot-2016-11-02-at-11-30-00-pmscreenshot-2016-11-02-at-11-42-02-pmPLOT SPOILERS AHEAD

The scene when Talan escapes custody while being examined at a hospital is absolutely incredible. There’s a strange mood and tone. Science can’t even help, it has no idea what it’s up against when they test for porphyria then accidentally trigger his true condition. A pounding score starts right along with Talan’s powerful rage, and a bloody bang sets an entirely other bran of the plot into motion.
There are great effects, from big blockbuster-type stuff to the more small makeup effects and even the bits of CGI involved. Once the finale comes around this evolves into a straight up action-horror. I consider this one of the better recent examples of action and horror as a hybrid. Sure to get the heart pounding.
This is a werewolf movie, but one that combines folklore with modern science in order to create an entirely other look at werewolves. And there’s no official explanation as to what Talan is, we’re merely led to believe what we will. The screenplay does well using our expectations against us, never implicitly moving into werewolf mythology and yet never shunning it, right down to medical diagnoses and also Talan’s Romanian blood; there are many avenues down which to travel, not pinning us solely to one answer. In this way, we wind up with more action and intensity all around, which is killer. Movies like this one, Wolfen and Late Phases, bring their own unique vision of the sub-genre with fun results.
screenshot-2016-11-03-at-12-02-40-am
Wer has just about everything I look for in a horror. Bell uses Romanian locations to his advantage, going from handheld camera to using pieces of found footage throughout. The cinematography really is nice, which is always a bonus. Not to mention there’s an A+ score – ominous strings that take on an Old World feel, crossed with some darker, electronic compositions. On the technical side this movie’s an ass kicker.
Again, I’m not the biggest werewolf movie advocate. The others I’ve mentioned, plus classics like John Landis’ landmark An American Werewolf in London, each bring their own innovative sensibilities about the sub-genre to the table. A sea of others just miss the mark, never giving us anything new.
I highly recommend Wer. Well-acted and directed. The visuals are fun, the pace becomes chaotic in the best ways. And yes: there’s a nice portion of blood. Some of the action-styled sequences will have you almost rooting at the screen. So dig in and get hairy!

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.

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.