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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

★★★★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.

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.

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.

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.
Rated R. 80 minutes.

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.

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. 
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.

Go Monster Hunting with Adam Green’s DIGGING UP THE MARROW

Digging Up The Marrow. 2015. Directed & Written by Adam Green.
Starring Ray Wise, Adam Green, Will Barratt, Josh Ethier, Rileah Vanderbilt, Kane Hodder, Sarah Elbert, Tom Holland, Mick Garris, & Alex Pardee.
Ariescope Pictures.
Not Rated. 89 minutes.

posterIf I can be honest, I’m not a huge Adam Green fan as a rule. I do like him, in that I find his enthusiasm for old school horror charming. My favourites of his work are Spiral and Frozen, two great little movies and both quite different. The first Hatchet is fun, even if it’s not an awesome flick.
One major reason why I’m into Digging Up the Marrow is because Green’s enthusiasm for monsters and horror is very evident throughout, and not only that he takes this metafictional trip into a world where all that can become real. Another of the biggest reasons for enjoying the movie is the art and the designs of Alex Pardee. I first came across him via his Facebook page. There’s always something new, weird, hilarious, frightening, or all rolled into one being posted; his mind is a wealth of terrifying creation.
Together, Green and Pardee have created a weird and wild world in which the monsters of their dreams lurk just below the surface of the Earth, in a place called The Marrow. I can see why many people have brought up the idea of Nightbreed, the Clive Barker written and directed horror about a place called Midian, a world not unlike The Marrow where creatures dwell. No doubt Green and Pardee both were influenced by Barker. Still, Barker’s film involves an entirely other plot, and far as I can determine (outside of homage) their only link is the fact their monster worlds are similarly located in cemeteries. What makes Green’s movie interesting and uniquely its own is the monster design, courtesy of Pardee’s mind and sculpting by artist Greg Aronowitz, as well as a natural performance from Green himself, and the incomparable Ray Wise as an excitingly odd character whose revelations about The Marrow get scarier by the minute.
marrow1The documentary style of the film is great. Instead of a full feature in found footage, the faux-documentary format breaks the sub-genre’s monotony. This gives Green the avenue to use the relationship he has with his fans as part of the plot. The story stems from receiving a package sent by a fan who claimed, with lots of supposed evidence, that his character from Hatchet, Victor Crowley, was real. Not wanting to engage with a potentially unstable fan (though it could’ve been someone having lots of fun with a director they admire; better safe than sorry), Green set it aside. When he and Pardee met, they discussed a similar sort of story, only using the monsters of the latter’s designs and various paintings. So Pardee, a fan, played part of the genesis, and obviously later came to help out a good deal. Combining reality and fiction with Green as a leader character grounds things in an interesting way, allowing the plot to feel more real. The director-writer adds authenticity, as Pardee takes us away to another world with his wildly unique monster designs. They’re perfect for the film because they aren’t exactly what you’d expect from typical monster movies, certainly not bigger budget productions. Part of why it’s an independent movie is because Green shopped it around and nobody wanted to tackle original monsters rather than something big budget, a remake of Frankenstein or who knows what else. Using the innovative look of the creatures from Pardee’s imagination and a mockumentary angle, Green does strong work; I might even say his best.
marrow2Ray Wise as William Dekker (Dr. Decker anyone?) is a knockout. Personally, I love Wise. Although in certain roles he can verge on being hammy. Here, he’s creepy at times, sympathetic and worthy of our empathy during others. He’s compelling, mysterious, and the pain of the character’s inner life, his past, comes out of the subtle performance from Wise. Dekker comes to represent those people on the fringe of society who tell us things we ought to believe but don’t because we deem them crazy, mentally ill.
This plays into the overall technique of Green throughout the film. Seeing Dekker’s drawings (Pardee’s art) early on and not actually seeing any monsters too closely, or well lit, until the finale makes for massive impact. Some complain there aren’t enough monsters, I feel that only allowing a few good glimpses of them, including the bunch in the finale, made their appearances all the more special and exciting.
And those monsters! So, so wickedly good. The first real visible creature, the big-headed monster, is shocking and unsettles the viewer. At the same time this brings great excitement because at that point Adam has proof of monsters. Funny enough, Josh Ethier and Kane Hodder’s reactions to the initial contact are like a comment on how, as viewers, we’re jaded and at this point even a real monster doesn’t impress anymore because via effects it’s “all been done before” like people often say. It’s the thrilling, chilling finale which shows us more of the hidden monsters, such as Vance – the previously discussed monster Dekker showed Green and cameraman Will Barratt – the pumpkin-hooded Marrrow greeter, whose hood conceals more gruesome things beneath. Then there are those whose names we don’t know yet: a vampire-ish creature hidden underneath an almost child-like cartoon face; a gaping mouth on legs scurrying through the woods; and there are others, oh yes, indeed. The execution of the monsters is pretty damn perfect in my mind.
marrow3While I could’ve used a few more glimpses of the monsters, Digging Up The Marrow is a creature feature treat. It’s innovative in the use of monsters, the creations of Pardee come alive so magically. The Marrow is something many of us horror hounds have thought about over the years, of course in our own ways and various incarnations. Those of us that love the genre and grew up as lost teenagers grasping onto these types of movies as a way of relating to the world can easily enjoy the enthusiasm and excitement of Green for the story.
Mainly, the horror is a trip. The way Green delays our true look at the monsters for any length of time until the end is the best, to me. Certain reviews feel there weren’t enough monsters, not enough of the ones we saw. But it’s about the fear and uneasiness of feeling they’re all around us, just slightly hidden to the naked eye, that drives all the thrills we come to in the finale.
Sit back, enjoy the movie. Green and Wise haul the viewer in, Pardee’s monsters make for the frightful madness. If you don’t take everything too seriously, you’ll enjoy it. At the very same time, don’t not take it seriously because though there are some chuckles, Digging Up The Marrow ends as a horrifying walk through a world parallel to our own, one that only the loneliest of minds (like Dekker) can actually see.
Look harder and you might see it, too. But beware what lies inside The Marrow.

Get Swallowed Whole by Terror in THE BORDERLANDS

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

Rated R. 89 minutes.

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

THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN: An Alzheimer’s Nightmare

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

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

SLENDER MAN Creeps In (Again) Via Found Footage

The Slender Man. 2013. Directed by A.J. Meadows. Screenplay by Meadows & Jeremy Kirk.
Starring Adam Hartley, Madeleine Rouse, Eric Warrington, Bill Finkbiner, Colleen Malone, Sarah Baker, Collin Cudney, Kyle Cudney, Kylie Cudney, & Alex Eads. Super Movie Bros.
Not Rated. 78 minutes.

POSTER I have a special affinity for Slender Man. Mostly because when he became hugely popular, his creepy character gave way to my own ideas as an author, one that prompted me to start writing a collection of short stories. The idea of a ‘tulpa’ is something that a friend and I began wondering about in relation to Slender Man. Effectively, if so many people believed in something, is it possible they could somehow will it into being, into tangible reality? Of course that led me off on ideas about Christianity, monsters, and everything in between, in that those could be ideas somehow willed into a corporeal state by the belief of many. My short stories have nothing to do with Slender Man. However, his popularity and the many, many endless fan fiction pieces about him gave me a spark. For that, I’m both eternally grateful, as well as eternally in awe.
There is something undeniably unsettling about this entity. His look alone is enough to inspire terror. The Marble Hornets series on YouTube did a fantastic job on a shoestring budget bringing Slender Man’s story onto a visual canvas, outside of the often creepy photo manipulations users on creepypasta and other websites created. Several current projects both completed and in development are also using this character as a template for horror drama. Here, in the aptly titled The Slender Man, director A.J. Meadows employs the found footage sub-genre in order to weave together several stories, including a daughter digging into her father’s personal belongings, a private investigator, and a grieving father who’s child mysteriously disappeared while they were together. These stories are decent enough. However, this screenplay suffers not from lack of direction in either Meadows’ capabilities nor in the movement of the action, but mostly the found footage here (a sub-genre of which I’m actually a fan) is annoyingly used to the point where the technique grates on the nerves. There are moments of genuine fright, though they aren’t long lived because the camera work here is too messy even for found footage. All in all, a half decent bit of work. Just nothing to write home about.
Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 12.05.05 AM The best part about this movie for me is the multi-plot angle. Always a fan of screenplays that use elements of different genres to open up an intricate set of plots (PsychoProxy, et cetera), Meadows and Jeremy Kirk combine the supernatural elements of Slender Man as an urban legend entity with a very human, almost crime-thriller element. Without spoiling too much, Slender Man affects real people here. He drives a father searching for his missing son to incredibly dangerous lengths, which in turn affects other living people; other children and their families, the brother-sister duo investigating strange newspaper articles their writer father stashed away, and the private investigator wrapped up in the whole debacle. So for all the film’s faults, Kirk and Meadows instil the whole story with something human. This is something I admire about supernatural horror. Often, these movies take us into a completely other world than our own reality. In direct opposition, there are supernatural horror films that do their best to stay rooted in reality so that the otherworldly aspects of the screenplay come off with more weight. Supernatural stories can absolutely be scary without that, but something extra eerie attaches itself to a movie when the ghostly (or whatever) elements feel dangerously close to the living world. If anything, The Slender Man attempts to keep us grounded in the tangible drama its plots produce.
Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 12.08.51 AM Not huge on the acting. Parts are a little cringe worthy, others are mainly hard on the ears when we have to deal with unnecessary screaming (along with the poor audio often inherent with true-blooded found footage). The private investigator character is solid, just wasn’t huge on the actor and his delivery, though not all of his performance is bad; in the finale I found he did well and conveyed an appropriate sense of fear necessary to keep us stuck to the screen watching his character work through the darkened trails then the even darker abandoned house in the woods. Ultimately, he serves his purpose. Moreover, the enthusiasm in the actors is severely lacking in some of the most crucial points. For instance, the main female protagonist feels fairly heartless most of the time in her energy, except for those scenes where she insists on busting eardrums (and not in the tradition of great Scream Queens; this is just unbearable). The guy I enjoyed most was Hank (Eric Warrington). Both his character and performance are interesting. He has a scream or two as well, but his are warranted, and they’re less shrill than those of Emma (Madeleine Rouse). But really it’s the grief and anguish he expresses that makes this terrified, desperate father into a solid addition to the story. His actions are the catalyst for an investigation, which then folds over into the story of the brother and sister. If he were even just mediocre the character works, yet Warrington – someone I’ve literally never seen in anything before (and I’ve seen over 4,000 films) – is able to reach out of the screen and grab us, never letting us forget the horrific disappearance of his boy, no matter how unlikeable his character becomes throughout. Warrington saves the otherwise forgettable cast.
Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 12.18.41 AM While nothing extraordinary, The Slender Man is a mediocre found footage horror that will probably clench your butthole once or twice. One thing that truly irks me is that people online, who have illegally downloaded this film, complain about it because there are portions which are too dark, or things like that. Possibly that’s got a large deal to do with the fact you don’t have a proper copy. On DVD, the movie is certainly dark, but not incomprehensible. And yes, like many found footage efforts this one has its fair share of scenes in dimly lit rooms, forest trails, so on. But again, none of those are so dark or shaky that it’s utterly useless. Never once. Sometimes the found footage technique is a bit too shaky for my liking and some of the camera work could’ve definitely been improved upon. Still, I can’t fault the movie too much because found footage isn’t meant to be steady or perfectly framed, it’s meant to convey the reality and visceral terror of a horror movie situation.
Suffice to say if you don’t enjoy found footage as a whole, you won’t enjoy this one. Or any other one, for that matter. So just like romantic movies and Wes Anderson films aren’t for every person, but rather a specific audience, found footage flicks aren’t for those who find the genre tiring. It is for horror fans that like the raw, gritty feel of the technique, and people who get immersed in a film because of its true to life qualities. Again, this is far from a great horror. It’s also not complete trash.
All the same, I’m still waiting with bated breath for the ultimate vision of Slender Man onscreen. This is not it, though it’s okay for the time being.

Urban Explorer Promises Terror but Delivers Only Cliché Chills

Urban Explorer. 2011. Directed by Andy Fetscher. Screenplay by Martin Thau.
Starring Nathalie Kelley, Nick Eversman, Klaus Stiglmeier, Max Riemelt, Catherine de Léan, & Brenda Koo. Papermoon Films/Rialto Film.
Not Rated. 94 minutes.

Urban exploration is a pretty neat activity people have gotten into steadily over several decades. Particularly after the erosion of the Soviet Union and other similar events, where villages and their buildings were abandoned or otherwise left to rot. In the past 16 years since YouTube has really become a big deal, people are filming their encounters, and even more so in the past couple years with GoPro cameras becoming the newest must-have item for adventurers of all kinds. A couple people who really bring it on that front are people like Dan Bell whose Dead Motel/Dead Mall series’ are impressively exciting and visceral fun to watch (in the dark is a suggestion to get your creep on), and also R Willy who I’ve only very recently found, enjoying some of the unsettling videos they’ve filmed in abandoned warehouses, mausoleums, and more (the Abandoned US Navy Warehouse is scary enough on its own yet he adds a brilliant Dead Space nod to make it all the more unnerving).
So when I first saw the promo material for Urban Explorer, also known as The Depraved, the entire premise spoke to my interests. Combining actual horror with the subtle, quiet spooky qualities of urban exploring sounded like something I could sink my teeth into. But not quite. What starts off with promise, even holding onto some of it after things go sideways, eventually ends up in cliché slasher territory. While I didn’t expect anything other than the slasher sub-genre, I still hoped there might be some innovative use of urban exploration. Instead, it’s merely a plot device leading us to the same old villain, the same old nonsense. Even the shining points of this film aren’t any spectacular. Maybe some might enjoy a portion here or there. I know there were a couple genuinely creepy scenes and moments. Overall, though, Urban Explorer squanders its potential by offering nothing new and promising more than it was ever able to deliver.
I did like the character of Armin as a villain. He works overall in his motivations, as a crazed military man now living in the underground abandoned tunnels. Then his encounter with the wannabe urban explorers becomes something even more intense with his paranoia driving so much of the slasher horror to come. However, it’s exactly the descent into slasher territory, so expected and predictable, which is ultimately what marred this character. On paper he is a terrifying, psychotic type of horror villain. But in execution – by the writer and director, not by the actor whose performance is definitely eerie – he is wholly lacking.
The urban exploration aspect is the best part. Just simply being put in amongst the dirty, lonely subway tracks and sub-basement corridors long ago left in near derelict conditions is enough to keep us uneasy. Part of why I enjoy the urban explorers on YouTube is for the fact we’re able to look at some of these buildings and their decrepit beauty. There’s something both gorgeous and tragic about the state of these buildings, left on their own to decompose like old, forgotten people in a home. Sometimes being left to the elements, these buildings take on that odd beauty that’s so intriguing. Unfortunately, a good set or an impressive location does not make the whole film. Now I’m not asking for some type of revolutionary plot that subverts expectations. Now and then a good mindless slasher can be excellent just for hitting the mark. That’s the problem here. Not only does Urban Explorer fall into cliché, it doesn’t offer much more than a couple little gory bits to fulfil that sub-genre expectancy of brutish violence. Yes, there are moments of gore, and one really gross bit of skin peeling that rivals any scenes of its kind. Overall, the movie falls short on providing what it needs to even work as a turn-your-brain-off slasher flick.
So much of the writing in this movie is totally bogus. Particularly, the climactic final 10-15 minutes bothered me. First off, no matter where you are or what’s happening, if a woman on a subway train started screaming at a man – with a cut on his face no less – saying he was trying to kill her, nobody would’ve let him take her away. Nobody. Sorry, you’d just not be able to convince me of that. Maybe if it were the 1960s and people were still ridiculously oblivious to the dangers around them. But in 2011 when this movie was made (and likely set), there’s no doubt at least one person would’ve stepped up to help. There were at least a half dozen or more people in that train. Then Armin whips her off onto the platform, and suddenly one guy inside realizes things aren’t on the up and up? Give me a break. One large, poor example of the writing in this movie that never seems to add up, go anywhere, nor does it provide anything properly tangible in terms of plot to keep the whole thing coherent. Again, not asking for these guys to reinvent the wheel. There’s just way too much of this stuff in the script that begs the question: was this all just an elaborate attempt to capitalize on burgeoning urbane exploration interest? Personally, I even liked The Chernobyl Diaries to an extent, because it didn’t have these ridiculous holes wearing through its plot every half hour. That didn’t do anything spectacular either and had its own issues, but it certainly doesn’t break (as) many of the rules of good writing Urban Explorer seems intent on smashing.
As a huge horror fan(atic), I love a ton of different slashers. Doesn’t need to be the bigger names, though I do love Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees and more. I’m not picky. Long as there’s excitement, some interesting writing, good horror. Urban Explorer offers nothing other than a few liberal smatterings of blood and gore. Aside from that there’s truly nothing more to enjoy. Klaus Stiglmeier is excellent in his role as the horrifically deranged antagonist. Not enough to lift this out of the mire of sub-par horror. If anything, watch this to be a completist if you’re anything like myself and enjoy seeing whatever movies you can get your hands on. Other than that you’re bound to be disappointed once you’ve sat through to the finish, even worse because of the film’s lacklustre ending.

THE BAY’s Nightmarish Ecological Horror

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

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

13 CAMERAS: Invaded Spaces, Suburban Fear, Violated Trust

13 Cameras. 2016. Directed & Written by Victor Zarcoff.
Starring Neville Archambault, Sarah Baldwin, Sean Carrigan, Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe, Thomas Modifica Jr, Brianne Moncrief, Heidi Niedermeyer, Ethan Rosenberg, & DeForrest Taylor.
Unrated. 87 minutes.

POSTER There are many ways in which found footage can be used, depending on what the aim of a film is, or what sort of plot it entails. Footage can be incorporated as plot points, such as in the thriller Evidence a couple years ago. Then there’s the classic camera in the woods plot which has popped up time and time again since The Blair Witch Project‘s wildly unpredictable success. The Poughkeepsie Tapes take us into the fake documentary on a serial killer’s still unsolved rampage, where as [Rec] gives us a unique glimpse into the outbreak of a zombie virus.
In some ways, 13 Cameras is similar to the recent Hangman, though, they are each certainly different. What this film does is use the sort-of-home invasion premise, turning it into something vastly more unsettling by becoming a suburban drama filled with the fear and paranoia of a horror-thriller. There isn’t anything particularly innovative. Nothing at all. However, 13 Cameras can get eerie, it unfolds at a slow pace that forces you to let the creeps set in. The cast are all pretty solid and especially the lead creeper, Neville Archambault, whose central performance as the villain of this story is hypnotically grim.
Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 12.10.10 AM Ryan (PJ McCabe) and Claire (Brianne Moncrief) are a young couple, expecting a baby. They move across the country together and find a nice new little house into which they can move. There, they meet a very odd, slightly off-putting man named Gerald (Neville Archambault), their new landlord. He shows them around the place and they are more than happy to be living there. Little do they know that Gerald keeps too much of a watchful eye on his properties, and more specifically his tenants.
As time goes on, the couple and their idyllic family life starts to crumble. Ryan begins having an affair with a woman at his office, Hannah (Sarah Baldwin). Yet an affair is the least of the couple’s worries. Soon enough, the horrific aspects of living in their new home become evident, as landlord Gerald reveals his inner nature.
Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 12.32.20 AM What I’m immediately happy about is that 13 Cameras writer-director Victor Zarcoff chose not to do this completely in found footage style. Yes, there is an element of it present, as Gerald watches his tenants via hidden CCTV. These only play a part. Most of the action here is in the psychotic psychology of landlord Gerald. We watch him watching them, then we awkwardly, tensely watch as he infiltrates the lives of this young couple. Furthermore, some of his actions play into their personal life without him even being apparent as the puppet master. All the more eerie.
What Gerald’s character calls into questions is the prevalence of home security systems and the rise of surveillance in the everyday market. Should so much be available to the public? There’s no telling where people can have cameras anymore. Bad enough if they’re in public places, but in your home? This is the ultimate home invasion, as Gerald is supposed to be a trustworthy man, he is in a position that’s meant to be one of authority which also comes along with the responsibility of guarding someone’s privacy in certain senses. So Gerald is the supreme violator here by both entering this couple’s home unannounced and also putting surveillance equipment in there. Double whammy.
Simultaneously, though, the character of Ryan is juxtaposed against this other larger evil. His cheating is, yes, leagues less serious than what Gerald is up to all the time. At the same time, seeing Gerald witness the acts of betrayal on Ryan’s behalf becomes a part of this madman’s delusions, likely thinking this young pregnant lady needs saving, or needs a ‘better man’. Inadvertently, Ryan puts his wife in danger; he breaks his vows, as well as urges on a psychopath.
Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 12.57.49 AM Archambault is completely horrifying. Because while there are moments he explodes, the majority of his time on camera is quiet, pensive, and he doesn’t even speak much, barely at all. With a highly emotive performance Archambault makes this slumlord into an imposing figure. He doesn’t need to be constantly killing, or sitting in front of his computer monitor with the cameras on stroking one out. Gerald becomes a more sinister character as time passes, so that near the end his presence is like that of a monster.
The finale ten or fifteen minutes is chaotic, in a good way. Things start deteriorating and the showdown between Gerald and his tenants turns into something extremely dangerous. We descend into a lot of darkness compared to the first two-thirds of the film. As everything hurtles towards insanity all the shadows of the house are suddenly deeper, darker than ever before, and no longer is the home a safe haven. At least not for this young couple.
There are some bits and pieces that could definitely have used tweaking. Certain moments pushed the limits of plausibility in this otherwise very raw, real take on suburban paranoia and fears. Still, this is a decent 3&1/2-star horror that has its deep roots in drama. Not near perfect, but 13 Cameras offers a different twist on the home invasion genre fused with aspects of found footage. And while there’s nothing exactly new here, the movie is suspenseful, it has a heavy dose of tension, and the ending is fairly chilling. You can do far worse if looking for a creepy little flick with a lead performance that will have you reeling.

The Knock-Offs Never Measure Up for TAPE 13

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

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

Man Vs: Survivorman Meets Predator

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

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

Afflicted: Found Footage Captures a Dangerous Disease

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

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

Sinister 2: Even More Sinister the 2nd Time Around

Sinister. 2015. Directed by Ciarán Foy. Screenplay by C. Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson.
Starring James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumann, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden Marshall Fritz, Olivia Rainey, & Nicholas King. Alliance Films/Automatik Entertainment/Blumhouse Productions/Entertainment One/IM Global/Steady Aim/Tank Caterpillar.
Rated 14A. 97 minutes.

POSTER Sinister came as a surprise to me when it first came out. The film was creepy and visceral at times, even if there were a few elements that let me down (including Bughuul’s face). But overall, Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill did a good job making a modern horror chiller. I knew it would inevitably spawn a sequel. Going in there was hope it might attain a similar level of terror. Honestly, this one is almost as good, if not better. Sinister 2 has a definitely creep-filled quality and there are moments of genuine horror, scenes I found worked on my nerves in an excellent fashion.
Ciarán Foy’s first solo feature film was the marvelously odd and disturbing Citadel. When they announced him as director for this project I had high hopes. He does his best, the atmosphere he crafts along with the help of cinematographer Amy Vincent is filled with dark and terrifying corners. What I’m most impressed by, though, is the script from Cargill and Derrickson, which uses the mystery they attained in the first, continuing on in the hands of Deputy-So-and-So, and adds in more character development than we even got in the original. I’m still not positive whether I enjoy this one or the first more – it’s a hard choice, as I love both James Ransone and Ethan Hawke respectively in their roles. This one managed to make Bughuul’s face look better than the first somehow, as well. The story is one that sinks into your skin and grabs hold. Oh, and the found footage tapes? They’re almost definitely nastier, bound to make some of you squirm.
Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon), along with her sons Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), move into a country house. On edge all the time, it soon becomes apparent Courtney is running from her brutish, abusive husband Clint Collins (Lea Coco).
But even worse, the former Deputy So-and-So (James Ransone) has his eye on Courtney’s new house. Turns out, after the death of Ellis Oswalt, the ex-deputy was considered a suspect, but quickly released and cleared. He then went on to start figuring out more of what was happening to Osawlt; he soon discovered Bughuul. From there, he set about trying to save any further families by burning down marked houses.
Only now Bughuul has one of the young Collins boys in his sights. And there’s no telling whether So-and-So will be able to save the family in time.
The writing is real solid here. Now, I know – there are some plotholes with how the tapes were made, how those little kids could do all the work, and so on. Well to that I say, part of this is clearly supernatural. You know this. So suspend your disbelief a while, try not to pick it all apart. Mainly, I love the writing in terms of the family dynamics happening, as well as the character development all around. First, adding in the whole abusive father subplot with the family is a wonderful addition in the sense that it adds a whole extra dimension to what’s going on re: Bughuul; it plays into his convincing of the children to kill their families, as we’ve got two troubled couples, particularly the youngest who can’t deal with his life in a broken family. Then when you put in James Ransone’s character, adding jealousy to the mix and all those emotions, that makes the stakes even riskier, an extra piece of drama. Secondly, the character development of Courtney and Ex-Deputy-So-and-So are equally interesting. Courtney has this life riddled with complications, as she’s trying to escape the abuse of her husband, of which she and her oldest boy bear the brunt constantly. Seeing the first scene with the family where they go to the grocery store and she calls out her code word, it’s a perfect way to introduce them and their predicament. The former deputy has his own troubles, having seen the stiff, unjust arm of the law against him, a lawman himself, when he helped Ellison Oswalt in the first film. So we get to see part of the fallout here, and having him off the force also allows for a different dimension to the character we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Here, he’s more of a regular guy, but he uses his skills and know-how, as well as knowledge of the case, to do what he can. His own subplot of going around trying to burn down the houses targeted by Bughuul was a good, inventive way to keep things going, instead of him simply trying to involve himself in the next apparitions of the entity elsewhere. These two characters, plus all the family drama, make Sinster 2 very enjoyable.
Horror is the name of this game. There are plenty of the shadowy, creeping scenes we got from the first, even a couple jumpy bits. Most of all there’s an air of dread, a tension thick from the first few frames until the final ones. Not only do we get the tapes here as found footage, like the first film, there’s also the added factor of one of the kids carrying the old camera around, filming his attempts at murdering his family. So there are a few intriguing sequences near the end, in the last 20 minutes, where the boy aiming to kill his family runs with the camera, as we follow both him and the other characters; the editing is stellar, switching from the ticking Super 8 camera to the frantically framed regular scenes. These different looks come together well. I loved the scene where Deputy-So-and-So gets the family out of their trouble, then they run through the cornfield, and behind them comes the boy with his camera, and the regularly filmed portions mix with the Super 8 to create a truly creepy back-and-forth that is used a bunch in several scenes following, but never too much. That added a nice flair to the style director Foy went after, emulating parts of the first while also giving it his own special touch. Add to that an amazing hand cutting with a small scythe, the nasty little Super 8 tapes Bughuul gets his kiddies to create, and the elements of terror are strong in this one.
I have to give this the same rating I give the original – 4 stars. There are parts that could’ve done with a bit of extra tweaking, such as some of the moments with the ghost kids. That being said, everything else makes up for it, in a large way. Ciarán Foy has a good eye, plus both James Ransone and Shannyn Sossamon bring credibility to the cast, as do the two Sloans playing brothers; even the asshole dad is good at being an asshole dad. So with the stellar writing, mostly, on the part of Cargill and Derrickson, added to the creepy visuals and the performances, Sinister 2 is a worthy sequel. I’d be interested to see if they could pull of another one, only if a decent story and characters were able to organically find their way into another screenplay. But this one is worth it. Don’t let people sell it short, see the damn thing for yourself. You may just find yourself creeped the hell out in fine form.