Dark Mountain. 2013. Directed by Tara Anaïse. Screenplay by Anaïse & Tamara Blaich.
Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, & Shelby Stehlin.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
Ah, 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.
One 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.
There 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.
I 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.