The Visit (2015)

The Visit (2015) movie poster

director M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 02/06/2016

Faux found footage is the last refuge of a director in career crisis.  Case in point, The Visit and M. Night Shyamalan.

Shyamalan has been on a downslide ever since the world discovered him and The Sixth Sense (1999), and what a slide it’s been.  Though I’ve followed his career and watched his movies with increasing amounts of schadenfreude, even I jumped ship for After Earth (2013).

I’ve long disdained faux found footage, largely because it’s over-employed, typically without real creative interest, mainly for cheap camera-work and cheaper shocks.

And yet, The Visit is still probably Shyamalan’s best film in years.  It’s not great, maybe only good, but that’s a big leap up from The Last Airbender (2010).

Really, it could be considered distinctly ageist.  It’s horror of the elderly, terror of dementia.

The casting is a big part of the film’s success.  Olivia DeJonge is a stand-out as Becca, older sister of Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) who go to visit their estranged and never before met grandparents on at their rural house.  The grandparents, Deanna Dunagan playss Nana and Peter McRobbie is Pop Pop, veer back and forth between kindly old folks and increasingly disoriented and frightening weirdos, thanks to dementia and other ills of old age.

It’s got a Shyamalan twist of course, one you’ll probably see some miles away, but the film works in part because it’s not utterly clear from the very beginning exactly what the nature of the danger is.

Has Shyamalan made a comeback?  I watched a couple minutes of the “making of” featurette, which focused entirely on him and his “creative process”.  He may have made a minor success but believe me, the ego has not landed.

The Gallows (2015)

The Gallows (2015) movie poster

directors Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing
viewed: 11/11/2015

The “faux found footage” style of horror film is so tired that its been in a coma for some time now.  That hasn’t stopped enterprising filmmakers from employing it.

The Gallows is somewhat better than some others who utilize this approach.  The filmmakers at least stick to a couple of camera-carrying characters and try to adhere to the concept of something that was “caught on tape.”  The story is also somewhat different than others, albeit rather convoluted.

The Gallows begins with a video of a class play called “The Gallows” at a high school in 1993, capturing on tape the accidental hanging of a student when a prop goes awry.  Flash forward 20 years to the same school trying to produce the same play in the same theater.  As unlikely as that seems, you can roll with it.  And of course the haunting specter of the dead thespian will wreak some kind of revenge.

The film’s biggest drawback (aside from the whole “faux found footage” thing) is the character of Ryan (played by Ryan Shoos) who is the primary cameraman and constant commentator, in that he is so deeply unlikable and annoying.  I imagine that this is how his character is meant to be, but he’s such a dick that you can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance and it does take a while before that happens.

The film ends on a strange twist that kind of elevates it a bit.  I understand the The Gallows was made on the cheap and ended up getting picked up for distribution and made a pretty penny return on investment.

Please, though.  Enough with the “faux found footage” already.

V/H/S/2 (2013)

V/H/S/2 (2013) movie poster

directors various
viewed: 10/11/2015

I watched V/H/S (2012) a couple years back and enjoyed it a bit.  Enough to have queued V/H/S/2 but not enough to have gotten around to its first “sequel” (if that is the right term for a horror anthology series), until now.  The “faux found footage” concept rules the series, as all of the short films and even the wrap-around story are all shot to look like films shot first-hand by the people in the stories.  That concept is tireder than ever but probably given the ubiquity of GoPro cameras, drones, and body cameras, we are probably at the early point of the era even now.

Adam Windgard is the key name returning from the first film, having added his successes of You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014) to his résumé.  Still, he’s not the biggest name here.  That would go to Gareth Huw Evans of The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014) who channels an inner Takashi Miike I didn’t know he had.

The films are a bit all over the place from a cybernetic eye implant that aids in ghost reception, zombies in the park, a demonic ritual and alien abductions, you’ve got a lot going on here.  The frame narrative again involves a break-in to a seemingly abandoned house, rooting through a bunch of videos VHS and computer, to give context for the random tales.  It’s still a kind of inventive twist on the portmanteau film, if in this case, the story is sloppy and full of logical gaps.

All of the films seem to suffer from logical gaps.  I don’t know if it is the problem of stuffing a story into the “faux found footage” style that shackles, because all of the stories except the alien abduction one rely on multiple cameras to construct their narrative, posing the question of who wove it all together.  Or if the problem, like in the case of the one Evans collaborated on (definitely the one with the highest production values), you’ve got a story way more involved than can really squeeze into the time constraints.

The alien abduction one by Jason Eisener, the finalé of the film, struck me as the most effective (though also a bit headache-inducing.)

There has to be one about a drone next.  Has there been a “faux found footage” horror film shot by drone yet?  I’m sure it’s happened.

Unfriended (2014)

Unfriended (2014) movie poster

director Leo Gabriadze
viewed: 09/19/2015

I’m unfriending this movie.

There are some interesting possibilities here, using social media the way that teenagers actually use it and somehow converting that to horror.  Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t do that in the least.  It’s avidly uncinematic and watching it on DVD we couldn’t even read a lot of the text on the screen.

Bad news.

As Above, So Below (2014)

As Above So Below (2014) movie poster

director John Erick Dowdle
viewed: 01/07/2014

I’d personally like to put out an appeal to all filmmakers who decide to craft a film in the now very tiresome “faux-found footage” style: Please stop.

It’s really not clear why director John Erick Dowdle and team decided that this film needed this motif.  They didn’t stay that dedicated to the format.  Parts of the film are meant to seem self-recorded and other parts are supposedly the work of a guy making a film of the investigations of the lead character, a British professor of antiquities on a quest to find the philosopher’s stone of alchemy legend.

This could have been a sort of Indiana Jones-esque thriller.  The professor, the tremendously pretty Perdita Weeks, the filmmaker (Edwin Hodge), her former beau (Ben Feldman) and some young French guides head down into the Parisian catacombs in search of a secret passage to where this legendary item is supposedly hidden.  Unfortunately for them, it’s also located by a gateway to hell, and so a lot of rather odd hallucinatory weirdness ensues as they try to find their way back to the surface.

The young cast are all actually pretty good.  And the pseudo-history delving into ancient metaphysics verges on quite interesting.  And the catacombs, they actually shot this thing on location in the Paris catacombs (I joked with the kids that it will be our next travel destination).

But the film is only just okay.  The horrors are sort of weird and semi-undefined since it’s a metaphysical hell.  So, while the concept is kind of interesting, I don’t think that they manage to fully develop it into a cohesive vision.  The kids were a bit confused when the film ends semi-abruptly.  And then there is that whole “faux-found footage” thing, which doesn’t really make sense in the context of this movie.

The kids.  I did watch this with the kids.  While Felix was feeling out his interest in horror films recently, we watched the trailer for this movie and he thought it looked interesting.  So, I queued it up.  The rest is history.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) movie poster

directors Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
viewed: 10/18/2014

So, with my 13 year old son suddenly deciding that he is really into horror films, I offered him the pick of the film channels of what movie he wanted to see.  Between Netflix, Hulu, and Fandor, we had a lot from which to choose, and he went with my notes on The Blair Witch Project.

The film that didn’t invent the “faux found footage” genre but did spark it into overdrive, The Blair Witch Project was one of those things that I saw back in the day, appreciated for what it was, but had never revisited in all the years.  I had seen its remarkably bad sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), and I think for all its badness had appreciated that it hadn’t tried to go all “faux found footage” 2 on us.

To be fair, in 1999, “faux found footage” was novel enough to enliven a movie.  And The Blair Witch Project took that concept, that the movie is utterly comprised of footage that was found when its filmmakers disappeared that it earned its added thrills of fake verity.  It’s very dedicated to the whole concept that this footage is all we have.  And the crappy camerawork, the ellipses in knowledge, all the shaking darkness, and mumbled nonsense…it’s because the film was all that was left.  This is no polished work of film art, but the opposite, an artifact.

The story of a trio of filmmakers hunting on a legend of the Blair Witch in the Maryland woods only to become utterly lost and tormented by unknown forces…it taps into a pretty primal fear.  Lost in the woods.  Don’t know what is out there, what is scaring you.

For all the credit that I’ll give it, and it does deserve it, largely on innovation and casting and improvisation (the film was executed interestingly, as well as marketed in novel fashion), I would say what it winds up lacking is the power of images.  And unless you are really plugged into the narrative, the diagetic universe of the characters, all that shaky camerawork and black screen, breathing and cursing, terrors are not all that well evoked.

The actors actually did film the whole thing.  And the lead, Heather Donahue, who is the director within the film, hadn’t actually operated a camera much prior to being the lead camera operator on the film.  What I’m getting at is that I don’t think that the film itself holds up all that well.  It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not as iconic as one might try to recall.  The efficacy of the images of the bound sticks and hanging objects, it could be freaky…the teeth when uncovered are actually creepy.  The final image, with one character standing in a corner before the camera slaps down and the film runs out…it works to an extent.  You don’t really have time to read it.  It’s freaky because it doesn’t make sense, but that’s all you’re left with in the end.

Now I say this because this is my takeaway from this viewing of The Blair Witch Project.  And again, I didn’t think it was awful by any means.  I think there is an honesty and a commitment to the narrative and idea to which most “faux found footage” films since have often paid poor lip service.  But I also don’t think it stands up as a “great” horror film, even of its time.  I think it’s influence and innovation stand strong.

That said, Felix was pretty freaked out by the end of the film while most of the film he was almost kind of bored.  The ending is the film’s best sequence.

In the end, the film is more iconic for its influence and sadly that influence is a litany of much crappier and cheaper horror films on the whole.  I look forward to a gap in the production of “faux found footage” films.  Maybe after some long break from them, someone will innovate again.

Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report (2013) movie poster

director Sebastián Cordero
viewed: 12/04/2013

Recommended by a friend as a preferred alternative to Alfonso Cuarón’s much-praised “trouble in space” movie Gravity (2013), Europa Report is also a “trouble in space” film, though in far deeper space, the moon Europa which orbits Jupiter.  It’s also of far more obscure notice.  Cuarón’s film, which I have yet to see, is on many a best of list for 2013.  Europa Report is one of those flashes in the cinema that comes and goes quickly.  It hadn’t been on my rather well-spread radar.

Interestingly, it falls into a more odd and obscure subgenre of science fiction, “realistic” or at least more “scientifically-grounded” science fiction.  I say this because I’ve been stumbling around and bumping into a few other films that meet this qualification, oddly enough mostly at odds with the far out qualities that make a lot of science fiction enjoyable.  However, for the more science-y folks who indulge in the genre, it’s something that seems to be appreciated for its sincerity and adherence to plausibility.

In this case, this story follows a crew on its way to explore Europa for signs of life.  Only, once they get out to the moon of Europa, things start going wrong.  Not mysterious things, but the kinds of disasters that could easily happen to someone in far space: contamination, loss of communication with Earth, missing landing targets, falling through ice.

Okay, spoiler alert.  If you think it sounds good, see it.  It is pretty good.  But read no further.

There does turn out to be life there and there is an alien creature, only at the very end, and though it sort of accidentally kills the crew, it’s not like Alien (1979) or anything.  It’s almost beside the point, though it is what the crew are after.

The film is good.  Unfortunately it’s shot is partial “faux-found footage” style which I’ve come to deride largely.  I will say that this style doesn’t take away from the film as much as it does in others.  As the story gets moving, you get a little detached from being aware of the style of shooting to create a sense of verity of documentary footage captured by neutral instruments.  Credit to director Sebastián Cordero  and crew for making this whole thing work.

I was noting, oddly enough, that this is the first “faux-found footage” film that I’ve seen since I watched the tremendous documentary Leviathan (2012).  I say this because Leviathan was filmed entirely with cameras situated to parts of a boat and to certain fishermen’s clothing.  There is no talking to the camera, which is a common pretense in “faux-found footage”, someone with a camera, talking to someone beyond the screen.  Really, the contrast is just more jarring in the pretense of shooting a fictional narrative to make it look like documentary.  It’s really a cheap effect, not freeing, not clever, not insightful.  Please stop employing it.

The Bay (2012)

The Bay (2012) movie poster

director Barry Levinson
viewed: 03/06/2013

The increasingly tired “faux found footage” style of filmmaking, most popular so it seems in the horror genre, is only even possibly interesting when in the hands of a more established director.  Case in point: Barry Levinson (of Diner (1982), Rain Man (1988), Wag the Dog (1997) among many others).  He’s made some good films, some pretty mediocre films, he’s won a Best Director Oscar (for Rain Man).  Hasn’t done much recently of major note.  But when he helms a biological disaster horror film (which had decent reviews), it seemed worth the while.

Problem is, the film is produced by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity (2007), ad nauseum) and the film bears a lot more of Peli than of Levinson.  In fact, as an Oren Peli production, the surprises wouldn’t really be surprises.

As far as “faux found footage” films go, this one doesn’t try too hard to craft believability.  Footage has been compiled years after the incident that was hushed up and is comprised of various cameras’ found footage, plus security videos, produced videos, news reports, police car videos, tons of sources.  And the story is told in retrospect via Skype by a survivor.

The story is the one infamous Fourth of July, a biological crisis started hitting Chesapeake Bay.  There’s a bit of mystery, but the story is a little choppy, but you get pretty early on that as a result of steroids in chicken poop flowing into the water, a little-known parasitic crustacean, Cymothoa exigua or the “tongue-eating louse” (this is a real thing), winds up growing huge, entering people and eating them from the inside out, planting eggs, lots of gross stuff ensues.

It’s pretty creepy.  It’s pretty gross.

As I find myself thinking, often, about films shot in this style, I have to wonder if the director could not have made a more effective film in a more traditional style with the general storyline he was given.  It’s a cheap effect, faking the found footage, and it’s as tired as tired can be.  Even in the hands of a more seasoned director, it still often falls short of worthwhile.  And that’s sort of the case with The Bay.  It would have been a lot better, made in about 1981, and produced instead by Roger Corman.

V/H/S (2012)

V/H/S (2012) movie poster

directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
viewed: 12/20/2012

V/H/S is an anthology-style horror compendium with its distinction being that all of the films are shot in the “faux found footage” style.  With different directors for each segment, the film also features a central, framing narrative in which a group of thieves/miscreants search a house for a specific VHS tape.  The short films are shown as scenes watched by the guys as they look for their film.

So, like the “film within a film” motif, we now have “faux found footage” within “faux found footage”.

The thing is, and maybe it’s just that I limited my reading about the film, that the movie has a fair amount of surprises.  With six narratives, you’ve got six little horror films with their own logic, creeps, mysteries, and shocks.  And while no one of them is so good that it would work as its own feature (any better than a lot of average feature-length horror films), the chaotic unknowns play out cleverly.  Or cleverly enough, anyway.

The only one of the directors with whom I had any familiarity with is Ti West.  But that is perhaps the best thing about the film and the reason I’ll just leave it at this.  Not knowing what might happen, what to expect, earns an edge for these shorts and while I’m about as tired of “faux found footage” as anyone, I’ll say that this is a decent project and worth seeing if this sounds like your kind of thing.

Snuff (1976)

Snuff (1976) movie poster

directors Michael Findlay, Horacio Fredriksson, Simon Nuchtern
viewed: 08/04/2012

This “notorious” exploitation film is really two films in one.  The main part of the film, shot by Michael and Roberta Findlay, is a garbled story of female bikers, drug enthusiasts, a Charles Manson-like leader, and a whole lot of confusion.    Shot in Argentina and originally planned to be titled “Slaughter,” it’s a very low-grade of low-grade movie.  And it’s a wonder if it would earn any notoriety on its own.

Some time later, a final sequence was shot, in which the film pulls back from the final scene to reveal the film-makers shooting the flick.  And then one thing leads to another and the crew turns on a woman, binds her, chops off her fingers and then disembowels her.  Like a “Snuff” film.  And the film was then marketed against that schtick.

Like other films that eventually fall into the “faux found footage” genre like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) to The Blair Witch Project (1999), the film’s only real powerful calling card was in fooling anyone to believe that this was indeed real, not a fake. It’s hard to imagine anyone believing it.  Except for the disemboweling (gruesome-looking intestines) and the rough cut sudden ending, it doesn’t scream of verity.  And then you had to sit through the rest of the other part to even get to it.