Damascene (2017)

The democratization of filmmaking technology has meant that it’s now affordable for anyone to have a voice in modern cinema, whether or not they have properly funded distribution or production values to back them up. Films like Creep, Primer, and Tangerine, while benefiting from traditional modes of distribution, have been exciting reminders of just how much a no-budget indie can accomplish with the right players & screenplay. The recent found footage dark comedy Damascene, which saw its world premiere at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest, isn’t nearly as high profile of a release as those shining examples of minimalist digital filmmaking, but is just as worthy to be lauded for the effect it accomplishes with severely limited, available-to-anyone means. Detailing a single, hour-long conversation shot on two bike helmet-mounted GoPros, Damascene boasts the bare bones storytelling of a one act stage play. It makes the best of its limited resources it can, though, reaching into the discomforting dark humor and emotional trauma typically reserved for deep-cutting stage dramas. It’s an exciting reminder that a great film doesn’t necessarily require a great budget, that a handful of people and a commercially-affordable camera are enough resources to produce top tier cinema in the 2010s.

Two old lovers reunite by accident after a long absence while biking to a mutual friend’s party. They film each other in conversation with their own helmet-mounted GoPros while cruising the streets, parks, and back allies of a sunshine-drenched London. The conversation starts amicably enough. The woman is guarded & perhaps even annoyed by the intrusion of her old boyfriend on what was a solo bike ride, but they find enough common ground to casually discuss as they leisurely make their way to the party: making fun of their friends for treating romance like a social media meme, reminiscing over half-remembered anecdotes and a shared political interest in war-torn Syria, pop culture touchstones like Friends, Event Horizon, Bukowski, etc. Thiis protective shield of social niceties eventually corrodes, however, and their rapport takes a dark turn. Picking at the barely-healed scabs of their failed romance uncovers a long-buried trauma and an unresolved act of violence that can’t remain undiscussed forever. The darkness at the heart of Damascene gradually creeps in with a casually tossed-out sexist joke or an alcoholism-blurred memory of an nonconsensual public groping, chipping away at the pair’s apparent camaraderie. Once the guard wall is fully breached there’s a full, unstoppable catharsis in the film’s tragic streak that poisonously overpowers any kindness or illusion of healing that came before it.

It’s initially tempting to view Damascene as a Before Sunrise descendant, if not only for its structure as a single conversation contained mostly between two romantically-linked characters. The film is so much more caustic than Richard Linklater’s melancholic romance series, however. Its thematic explorations of unchecked privilege, toxic masculinity, and lingering trauma sit heavy on the audience’s conscience, especially as they’re brushed aside with playfully dark social humor. It makes total sense that one of the two main players is a former playwright, since this mix of comic & tragic tones combines with the conversational storytelling to amount to a very distinct stage play aesthetic. Staging this conversation through hydraulic-smoothed GoPro footage makes this dialogue-based work feel inherently cinematic, though. The camera operators build tension by squeezing between cars in London traffic and offer an eye-level version of drone footage of the city that feels unique to its productions style. Better yet, it’s often easy to forget you’re watching GoPro footage at all, once the dread & mystery of the dark places the conversation is going commands the back half. Damascene is proof in itself that there are great films to be made out of less than ideal equipment, even if it is never distributed wide enough for most audiences to see that proof for themselves.

-Brandon Ledet

Afflicted (2014), Unfriended (2015), and the Future of Found Footage Horror

After the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the horror market was flooded with found footage echoes of that pioneer work that diluted its legacy. Titles like [Rec.], Willow Creek, Paranormal Activity, and straight-to-DVD dreck too bland to even be named exhausted the possibilities of how the found footage gimmick could be kept fresh on the horror landscape despite the limitations of its form. There’s still an occasional success that follows a traditional found footage formula (The Visit & Creep both immediately come to mind), but for the most part that subgenre still feels oddly faithful to the roadmap laid out by Blair Witch almost two decades ago. For me, the most exciting developments in found footage gimmickry have been the instances where movies leave behind the handheld camcorders of Blair Witch entirely and switch up the technology of the devices used to record their horrors. Our current Movie of the Month, Unfriended, is my go-to example of how updates in technology can keep this genre alive. Framed entirely within the POV of a laptop screen during a deadly Skype conversation, Unfriended offers a new, novel perspective on found footage storytelling. It recaptures the “It could happen to you” verisimilitude of Blair Witch’s camcorder format without merely repeating the trick. The subsequent shift to smartphone POV (via Snapchat) in Sickhouse wasn’t quite as memorable, but at least offers hope that future technology jumps can keep this genre fresh. We can’t continue to produce carbon copies of The Blair Witch Project and expect them to remain effective. Its modes of “documentation” no longer reflect the way we film our lives, in supernatural thrillers or otherwise.

I believe Unfriended is the best technology jump I’ve seen among Blair Witch descendants, but it wasn’t the first. A year before Unfriended hit wide release, a much smaller indie horror titled Afflicted offered its own Blair Witch technology advancement in what could (reductively) be described as GoPro Horror. Written, directed by, and starring Derek Lee & Chris Prowse (who use their own names & old photographs in the film), Afflicted adapts vampire transformation horror to the format of a reality show-style travelogue. Two American buddies take a break from their daily drudgery as an I.T. bro (who’s suffering an aneurysm-causing brain disorder) & a low-level documentarian (who just wants to shake his bestie out of his medically-induced rut) to backpack through Europe in search for excitement, experience, adventure, and distraction. They document their every waking moment on a shared “video travel blog” titled Ends of the Earth. Things take a bad turn when the aneurysm-suffering tech bro engages in a one night stand hookup with a French girl and is unwittingly turned into a vampire. The bubbly self-promo energy of the reality show travelogue then slips away as the focus shifts to documenting the supernatural changes in his body, which range from the ailments & abilities of a superhero to those of a bloodthirsty monster. By the end of the film he’s a fully feral Nosferatu, wreaking havoc in the streets of Paris with wild abandon. Afflicted is an exciting balance of dirt cheap, accessible technology (most notably in its use of GoPro footage) and large scale CGI horror spectacle. The tension between those two aesthetics pumps fresh blood into the veins of two over-drained horror subgenres (the found footage horror & the vampire myth) while still maintain the feeling of two normal buds making a no-budget indie together. As the technology of its camera equipment becomes more obsolete, it might stand a chance as surviving as an essential cultural document, just as Unfriended captures what life online feels like in the 2010s (except maybe with less vampirism & ghost murders, respectively).

As much as I remain impressed with Afflicted’s use of new technology to revitalize the found footage gimmick, I do have to admit that its basic accomplishment have become less novel over time. Spring offered a much better version of the supernatural European vacation from Hell narrative (sans the found footage device). They’re Watching (although total garbage) was more fully invested in the reality show turned found footage horror format (which still has more room to be fully explored). Most importantly, though, Unfriended’s commitment to framing its entire story through a single Skype session has since made Afflicted’s only occasional use of GoPros seem a little half-assed in retrospect. At this year’s New Orleans Film Fest I saw a darkly funny, merciless drama titled Damascene that proved it’s possible to film an entire movie on GoPros without it inherently feeling like a Hardcore Henry-style first person shooter. Afflicted mostly saves its GoPro sequences for its final, action-packed stretch as our vampiric antihero is being chased by Interpol for his crimes against innocent Parisians. Most of the movie is seemingly filmed on handheld digital camcorders, which makes it more a direct Blair Witch descendant than the much more fully committed Unfriended. Still, an intense focus is placed on the technology behind the documentation, even including a scene where all of the documentarian’s gear is laid out & cataloged on a hotel room bed (chest-mounts, GoPros, zoom lenses, etc.). The movie also finds the technological novelty in its attention to the two buddies’ travel blog, especially in how they crowdsource information through the comment sections. Afflicted may be slipping in my estimation in how its GoPro horror gimmick is used to revitalize the found footage format, but it’s still endlessly impressive in how it punches above its weight by playing with the latest available technological tools.

Although Afflicted is not as fully committed to its employment of GoPro technology to revitalize found footage horror as Unfriended was with Skype or Sickhouse was with Snapchat, it’s still worthy as an early signifier that the genre will only survive & remain fresh if it’s allowed to keep up with the technology of its time. I’m not convinced that Afflicted would have been half as interesting as a vampire transformation narrative or as a found footage horror piece without its GoPro technology & travel blog documentation providing modern online culture texture to its basic aesthetic. Just a year later, Unfriended did the same for the traditional ghost story within a found footage context, although admittedly with a fuller, better-realized commitment to its gimmick. It’s unclear what the next technology jump is for the found footage genre (although it’s likely a return to the Sickhouse smartphone gimmick is likely what’s next for Unfriended 2, at least), but the further the genre moves away from the handheld camcorders of The Blair Witch Project the better. There’s no reason for the genre to remain stuck in the technology of 1999 and the more it makes an effort to keep up with the gear available to its characters in the era they’re terrorized onscreen, the more effective it will remain as a mode of true-to-life horror & a cultural document.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017), and last week’s discussion of our hopes for it just-announced sequel.

-Brandon Ledet

What We’d Most Like to See from the Sequel to Unfriended (2015)

It takes a few months of vetting & email exchanges to pull off our regular Movie of the Month discussions, so our individual selections for the feature are typically scheduled long before they’re published on the site. Even with that publishing delay, though, our selections often stumble into serendipitous timing. For instance, it turns out this October was an especially good time for us to return to the found footage social media horror Unfriended for a Movie of the Month round-table. Not only did the conversation happen to coincide with the American release of Unfriended‘s German knockoff, Friend Request, but it was also just announced that a sequel to the laptop-framed sleeper hit has already been filmed and is looking for a near-future release date. So, with this already-completed sequel lurking on the digital horizon and its gimmicky supernatural horror predecessor fresh on our minds, we thought it’d be a good time to weigh in as a crew on what we’d most like to see from Unfriended 2.

Britnee: What I most want to see in Unfriended 2 would be for the victims to actually leave their homes in order to get to the bottom of a cyber mystery. Confining the entire crew of teens to their bedrooms for most of the first Unfriended got to be a little boring. Each teen could be on FaceTime together (I think more than two people can be on it at once?). They’d all be tasked with figuring out the true reason Laura Barns died by visiting her grave, the place where she shot herself, etc. The idea of using smartphones to communicate with each other instead of laptops seems to be more modern, so I’m assuming the film will go in that direction.

Also, what if Laura had a brother or sister that wanted to avenge her death? A Barns sibling could act as a lure to get shitty teens to visit Laura’s haunted cyber world where they’d meet super crazy/brutal deaths. Laura can kill a couple of teens and her sibling can try their hand at murder too.

Brandon: My initial impulse would also be to switch up Unfriended‘s technology gimmick to a new device or platform from the laptop-framed Skype chat POV of the original. The mental roadblock I’m running into there, though, is that a lot of the better options have already been taken.  Sickhouse already delivered a Snapchat Story version of The Blair Witch Project, so smartphones have been done. Afflicted already supposed what a supernatural horror would look like filmed entirely through GoPros. Neither work is perfect, but by repeating either gimmick, Unfriended 2 risks becoming a kind of redundancy. Its only technological refuge from there might be framing its story from the POV of an Apple Watch, and I’m not even sure I would want to watch that.

With little choice but to repeat the laptop-framed Skype conversation format from the first film, I think Unfriended 2‘s best chance for satisfying audiences is the usual route taken by slasher sequels: going broader with the humor and gorier with the kills. There’s an endless sea of electronic appliances out there that the next wave of online teen bullies could be forced to kill themselves with by Laura Barns’s ghost. Salsa blenders & hair straighteners have already been employed, but there’s still clothing irons, trash compactors, egg beaters, dishwashers, light sockets, and all kinds of other household electronics that could be used to dispose of Unfriended 2‘s teenage trash. Just look to the bonkers Stephen King trash fire Maximum Overdrive for more inspiration there. The sequel could even forgo the verisimilitude of the online experience in the first film and go full-on live action cartoon in its sense of gimmick-dependent novelty. Why not fully commit and kill the new batch of kids with lethal pop up ads or literal computer viruses?

Basically, like with most slashers, I don’t expect Unfriended 2 to be anywhere near as good as the original film, so I think its best chance for memorability is to be as violent and as silly as possible.

Alli: I know you think smartphones and Snapchat wouldn’t be original enough, but I haven’t seen a movie that utilizes those in this context. I really would like a ridiculous Unfriended-style murder with the dog Snapchat filter flipped on. Or maybe a horrific face swap.

Also, the ending is a little ambiguous. Maybe Blaire lived to tell the tale. Maybe Laura messed her up just enough that she’s going to be babbling about ghosts for the rest of her life, which could lead to the cliché, but inevitable horror movie mental institution scene.

There could even be an element of The Ring involved, where the YouTube video of Laura’s suicide is now cursed. A group of kids from the same high school could have watched it and now face the same fate as the original teens.

I know all of this sounds very derivative, but the idea of a sequel to a movie that was this tightly wrapped up seems like a cash grab.

It could also be interesting if Unfriended 2 went straight to a streaming service and worked that in somehow. An “Are you still watching?” prompt after a violent death scene would be a delightfully goofy moment.

Boomer: I’d like to once again note my surprise at the fact that not only was Unfriended decent, but actually pretty good. With that in mind, I don’t have much hope for the sequel. The Blair Witch Project is a fantastic movie, but the need for a sequel gave us the underwhelming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which I think actually works on some levels as a creepy film about people losing time and being possessed in the woods, but is terrible as a continuation of the original story for various reasons, not the least of which is a rejection of the first film’s found footage roots in favor of a more traditional cinematic style). Alternatively, we could end up with something like Scream 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a film that is competent and almost as good as the original, if not of equal quality.

My biggest complaint about Unfriended was that it set Blaire up as a traditional Final Girl and then cut her to shreds. I remain unconvinced that she was deserving of the retribution that she received; I was never fully convinced that she participated in the creation of sock puppet accounts to encourage Laura to kill herself, and the fact that she (in her own drunkenness) filmed Laura in her inebriated, passed out state (but didn’t, at least in my reading of the text, share the video) is casually unthinking but not outright cruel. If anything, I’m hoping that the sequel will clarify this and show whether or not Blaire was, in fact, deserving of the vitriol heaped on her. Maybe we’ll see her as the new internet poltergeist, doling out unbalanced revenge on those who commented on her own Facebook, or she’ll be like Alice from the first two Friday the 13th films, surviving to the end only to be killed off in the first scene of the follow-up. Only time will tell.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how its committment to its gimmick distinguishes it from its German knockoff Friend Request (2017).

-The Swampflix Crew

Unfriended (2015), Friend Request (2017), and the Value of Committing to Your Gimmick

The recent German horror import Friend Request was always going to suffer unfavorable comparisons to its found footage American predecessor, Unfriended. Not only was the film originally titled Unfriend in its German release, but it also follows a plot about a group of morally flawed teens who are hunted through social media from beyond the grave by the vengeful ghost of a peer they bullied into suicide, just like in Unfriended. Although it generally has been met with shitty reviews and an ocean of eyerolls, I quite enjoyed Friend Request as a modern slice of digital schlock. It’s in so many ways a conventional horror film that just happens to graft itself onto themes of social media-era technophobia, but those are two aesthetics I generally have a fun time with, so the proposition of that formula isn’t such a raw deal for me. The film’s comparisons to Unfriended, the Citizen Kane of its micro-genre, did the film no favors, however. By stripping Unfriended of its defining found footage gimmick & applying its same story to a more formulaic horror aesthetic, Friend Request illustrates just how silly & ineffective that Blumhouse-produced modern classic could have been if mishandled. You can’t fully appreciate the tonal miracle of Unfriended‘s social media horror achievements until you see the film cheapened by Friend Request, which wasn’t anywhere nearly as committed to their shared gimmick.

The thing I love most about social media horror & thrillers of the 2010s is the way they document the mundane details of what modern communication actually looks like. Unfriended‘s structure as an 80 minute “real time” conversation via Skype, framed from the POV of the Final Girl’s laptop, could not be a more perfect vessel for that kind of internet-age time capsule. An unseen laptop operator clicks from program to program (Facebook, Skype, music players, meme generators, creepypasta forums, Chat Roulette, etc.), simulating the exact experience of communicating in a groupchat circa 2014 (give or take a murderous ghost). Friend Request is much looser in its social media documentation. Before its various kill scenes start bloodying up the screen, the film does pay a lot of attention to what scrolling through a “Facebook” timeline looks like (it’s actually a generic knockoff of Facebook, but the effect is the same). The plot is advanced through timeline-scrolling montage, with attention paid to mundane functions like cover photos, “liking,” “friending,” etc. When the killer Facebook ghost starts tormenting her main victim with video posts of their friends’ suicides, the film also lingers on details like error messages, deleting posts, disabling accounts, etc. The traditional ghost story narrative structure of the film (as opposed to Unfriended‘s found footage structure) prevents it from capturing too much of the 2010s social media zeitgeist past that, though, as only a few stray details can make it to the screen between kills.

Fully committing to the social media gimmick does more to distinguish Unfriended from Friend Request than just in terms of memorable novelty & capturing a cultural time capsule; it also makes for a genuinely eerie movie-watching experience for the audience. Watching a story unfold on a laptop screen feels real to our own experience browsing the internet (whether or not we’re idiot teen bullies who deserve to be murdered by a vengeful ghost). This verisimilitude extends to the frustration of pop-up ads, lagging, and desire to control the mouse cursor ourselves in a way that builds genuine tension between each supernatural kill. Stripped of that gimmick, Friend Request struggles to find ways to make the 2010s social media experience scary. Instead, it looks to generic, haunted house-setting horror movie scares to build that tension, constructing its kills around the mirrors, baby doll parts, woodland settings, and swarming bugs we’ve seen so many times before. Without that tension, the movie’s technophobic scares amount to something much sillier than what the (playful, but effective) kills that Unfriended achieves. When the Facebook ghost is revealed to be employing “demonic” code that transcends our 1’s & 0’s or when the laptops themselves are designated as being evil, dark magic objects that must be destroyed, the film can only be appreciated as a goof. Thankfully, it knows how silly it’s being and makes room for lines like “Unfriend the dead bitch!” in its porn-tier dialogue.

Friend Request isn’t completely devoid of fresh contributions to the social media horror genre. Its criticism of the way we curate the image of our lives & are fake-polite to strangers for attention online isn’t anything new, but I did find some fascinating detail in the way it overlaid images of characters’ faces in their device screens along with their timeline scrolls, as well as the way it made the concept of having absolutely zero friends on an outline platform seem eerie & bizarre. Mostly, though, the film is fun as a campy, internet-age lark and an illustration of just how well-mannered Unfriended‘s own social media horror aesthetic is handled. Unfriended‘s full commitment to its found footage social media gimmick is more impressive in terms of craft, more useful in terms of cultural documentation, and more effective in terms of delivering traditional horror scares through fresh, innovative devices. I can only recommend Friend Request as a delightfully dumb slice of internet age schlock. The more fully-committed Unfriended, on the other hand, is essential viewing, one of the more significant horror canon entries of our time.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the laptop-framed found footage horror Unfriended, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Unfriended (2015)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made BritneeAlli, and Boomer watch Unfriended (2015).

Brandon: I generally don’t have too much personal interest in modern mainstream horror as defined by filmmakers like James Wan, Eli Roth, and Fede Alvarez, but there’s one trend within that herd that always has me on the hook. Recently, I find myself increasingly fascinated with modern technophobic horror & thrillers that incorporate throwaway digital imagery into their visual language. From dutifully retelling The Blair Witch Project as a Snapchat story in Sickhouse to finding unexpected horror in innocuous programs like Pokemon Go & CandyCrush in Nerve #horror, respectively, I find this aggressively modern mode of digital schlock endlessly exciting. The documentation of modern online discourse for the means of cheap thrills schlock instantly dates each of these pictures in the years of their release, but will also serve as an excellent time capsule of what modern communication looks & feels like because of that of-the-moment quality. Classier major studio horrors that attempt a more timeless aesthetic and avoid the convenience of smartphone technologies by setting their narratives in the past will be much less useful in that way and thus, by my estimation, much more likely to be forgotten.

It’d be impossible to define this hyperspecific subgenre without highlighting its crown jewel, the 2015 found footage horror Unfriended. Shot entirely through the first person POV of an especially gossipy teen girl operating a laptop, Unfriended  wholly commits to its digital interface gimmick. As an audience, there’s some frustration in watching an unseen user operate the computer as they bounce back & forth through programs like Skype, Facebook, iTunes, ChatRoulette, and YouTube. Something within us wants to take over the wheel & snatch the mouse from their hand. The movie deliberately derives tension from that frustration and piles onto it with similar anxiety from glitches, time delays, pop-up ads, and unresponsive computer programs. Not only is this digital verisimilitude impressive in terms of storytelling craft, especially in its editing; it also reaches past movie-necessary modes of communication (Skype) & diegetic music generators to integrate practically all other modern forms of online media (memes, creepypasta forums, dick pics, revenge porn, etc.) to capture the full, ugly zeitgeist of internet communication in the 2010s. It was surreal to see these disposable forms of communication projected on the big screen in 2015, but I believe their inclusion in the storytelling had genuine purpose within the film as a tension-builder. From the laggy Universal logo in the opening credits to the visible ellipses of desperately waiting for a response to a message as it’s being typed, the digital landscape of Unfriended leaves me on the edge of my seat with anxiety, itching to reach for phantom mouse to click my way to the exit.

As a found-footage horror & an intentional genre innovator, Unfriended obviously owes a lot of influence to the legacy of The Blair Witch Project; it even names its laptop-wielding protagonist Blaire to acknowledge that debt. Past its single-gimmick surface, however, it’s much more faithful to the formula of a first wave slasher from the 70s & 80s than it is to that late 90s update. Six despicable teenagers share a live video group chat on the first anniversary of the suicide of their dead friend, Laura Barns. Like the slasher victims of the 1980s, each obnoxious teen is revealed to be an irredeemable bully, to the point where the audience cheers for their violent deaths as they’re doled out one by one. Besides their casual participation in racism, transphobia, misogyny, and rape, these teenage dirtbags also each had a direct hand in bullying their deceased friend to the point of suicide, a sin they haven’t had to reckon with in their privileged, suburban lives. On the anniversary of that suicide, they’re trolled from the dead friend’s social media accounts, seemingly by her ghost, into confessing their wretched guilt and then killing themselves one by one with nearby household appliances as payback. Once Laura Barns’s ghost is believed to be the real deal and the teens start dropping off in increasingly violent ways, the mystery of their plight shifts to discovering what involvement, if any, our potential Final Girl, Blaire, had in the death of her supposed bestie and whether she’ll be allowed to survive the night.

The conversation surrounding Unfriended is always likely to center on its aesthetic-defining gimmick, something I was certainly guilty of when I first reviewed the movie two years ago. I do find it impressive how well the film adapts a classic slasher story to that gimmick, however. It could easily be near-unwatchable in the wrong hands, but even on this revisit I found myself shaking with anticipation to discover what happens next as the cursor drifted across the screen from program to program. Britnee, while watching the movie did you find yourself at all invested in the story it was telling or did the gimmick of its Internet Age communication remain a constant distraction? Did you see Unfriended only as a single-gimmick genre experiment or did you actually lose yourself in its teen slasher narrative?

Britnee: I actually really enjoyed the story of Unfriended, and I didn’t feel like it was overshadowed by the highly entertaining social media gimmick. If anything, the interweb aspect made the typical teen slasher plot more vibrant and interesting. During the entire film, the audience is experiencing everything from the point of view of Blaire’s laptop, which is brilliant. When she has side conversations via Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch, I felt like I was in on their little secret conversations. Watching Blaire type and quickly redact her initial responses to the mysterious Laura Barns Facebook account brought me to the edge of my seat. Using programs that just about everyone is familiar with (Skype, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) is a great way to really put the fear in viewers and keep them interested in the plot. The mystery of why Laura committed suicide lingers for most of the film. Once it’s obvious that the YouTube video that keeps popping up but never finishes contains the answer, I became so frustrated (in a good way). There were moments where I would find myself motioning to click the play button, but this wasn’t my laptop.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Unfriended was released in a  sort of movie/video game hybrid? Just pop the DVD into your laptop and join the Laura Barns ex-friend chat via Skype while getting harassed by ghost Laura via Facebook. This could really be the future of horror.

The idea of the dead being able to manipulate the internet is fascinating, yet terrifying. When it comes to internet applications such as Skype, Facebook, and Gmail, it seems that only a hacker or some sort of glitch could cause things to go wrong. We have so much control over things that exist in the digital world. The idea of a ghost being able to upload pictures, prevent users from unfriending, or remove the forward email option is so spooky. Who do you contact to help you get rid of the ghost on Facebook? Facebook administrators are not trained to be ghost hunters (and vice versa), so you’re pretty much screwed.

Alli, did you find the idea of a ghost in cyberspace to be scary or silly?

Alli: I feel the need to warn everyone that I’m about to get a little too deep about a trashy internet ghost slasher, so here I go.

First, I really like ghost stories, so I didn’t think of it as any sillier than the idea of a ghost being inside of a house, or an object. The idea of being trapped and held in a particular space with unfinished business is a really old one. We keep things that remind us of loved ones. Objects and places preserve some of the essence of people who are lost to us.  It’s scary to think about what’s left of us being preserved on the internet after we’re gone. Our personalities and images are preserved more now than ever. Our ancestors only had paintings, locks of hair, and other little memento mori type things. It’s hard these days for people to truly disappear, even after death. There’s a weird, conflicting thing that happens to grieving people now. You know your loved one is gone, but at the same time so much of everything is there. During this movie, when Blaire starts having Laura reach back out to her really kind of hit me in a bad way. It’s already hard to accept that a person is gone, but then for them to start talking to you again . . . that’s messed up. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a technophobe or someone who spends all day online, that idea is uncanny and a little horrifying, maybe even more horrifying than a haunted house. We go through and will believe really weird stuff when we grieve, and when we regret the way we treat someone it’s scary that we’ll never get to apologize or make it right after they die. Guilt haunts us. Of course, fictionally we would take that idea even further to poltergeists. And of course now, with kids getting cyberbullied and committing suicide it was only a matter a time until a vengeful internet ghost movie happened.

All the same, it still felt silly in a lot of ways. I know Brandon said above that it the online discourse makes this feature dated afterwards, but to me it felt a little bit dated already. Did kids in 2015 still use video chats on their computers? Snapchat was a big thing then. Did kids in 2015 have no idea how to take screen shots? It just felt like none of these kids, not even Ken, were technologically savvy. It’s silly to me that their identities wouldn’t have been tracked down by law enforcement in the first place, especially since Blaire is clearly the one who took and uploaded the video. I know it’s hard to track down internet crimes, but I feel like all of these teens were careless enough to get caught. Also, the anti-bullying message seemed super over the top.

What did you think of the heavy handed moral of the movie, Boomer? Do you think that was effective or just kind of goofy?

Boomer: As someone who was the victim of cyberbullying as a teenager (via LiveJournal, which really shows you how old I am), I don’t think that it’s possible to be too heavy handed about the effect of bullying on the psyche, both in the real world and online. Humans can be pretty horrible to each other, and the addition of apparent anonymity gives people who are already disposed toward cruelty a kind of permission to say things to others that they would never be able to say in person . . . sometimes. On the other hand, while Unfriended  felt preachy to me, “Don’t Cyberbully” wasn’t really the moral that I inferred from it.

To be honest, at least from the outset, this group of characters didn’t seem like terrible people to me. In fact, I kind of liked them, and I was immediately pulled into their camaraderie and got a real sense of bon homie from their intimacy and the way that they quipped with each other. They reminded me of myself and my friends, or the “unsympathetic comedy protagonists” of shows like Seinfeld. I did find it strange that they weren’t more upset about the anniversary of their friend’s death, and their blasé reactions to the reminder that it had been a year were unusual, but teenagers (and adults) deal with grief in different ways. Case in point: last year, a former classmate of mine from high school brutally, and I mean brutally, murdered his parents, and it was a weight on my mind for weeks and weeks afterward. Then, last month, some friends were moving out of their apartment after a long feud with their property manager, and held a “hex the apartment” reverse housewarming party on the eve of their move-out. To up the “spoopy” ambiance, they had a Halloween playlist and created a slideshow of famous killers that played on the TV throughout the party, including people like Aileen Wuornos and Jeff Dahmer, but also featured Tilikum and Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer, as well as my former classmate. The initial horror and despair I felt last November when watching the press conference in which the local sheriff described how my old acquaintance chopped his parents up had become a kind of gallows joke, a way to lessen the real life horror of the event. As such, I couldn’t really begrudge Blaire and her posse for working through (or compartmentalizing/ignoring) their pain in a way that could seem callous from the outside, but which rang true to me.

As a result, the thing that worked least for me in this film was that the sudden reveal that every member of this squad had perpetrated cruel (and in the case of Adam the date rapist, outright evil) acts on other people above and beyond the normal amount of between-friends teasing that people of a certain sense of humor have. I believed Blaire when she told Laura’s ghost that she hadn’t been among the masses sending the latter “kill urself lol” messages, and from what we do see of Laura briefly (and the way that her ghost enacts its revenge), I get the sense that she was just as bad, if not worse, than her victims. I just didn’t read these teens as cyberbullies; as such, the moral I got from the story, and one which I see aimed at teens more often, was “Don’t Drink Alcohol.” From the chronological outset, the bad things that these kids experience mostly come from partying too hard: Laura’s falling out with people at a party and passing out so hard that she soiled herself, Adam and Blaire hooking up, Val passing out and having things drawn on her—these are bad choices that result from drinking too much, not cyberbullying. There’s an argument to be made here that I might be blaming the victims of cyberbullying, but the fact of the matter is that Laura doesn’t make up things to post online or share in the video chat, she just uncovers things that people actually did and keep hidden out of a sense of embarrassment (it’s notable that the worst thing a character does, Adam’s rape, isn’t revealed by Laura, but by Mitch). Obviously, Laura took her own life because she was bullied online, but I felt like the film was more of an anti-drinking screed than a jeremiad about the dangers of cyberbullying.

That brings me to my question. Brandon, who do you think this film is for? Other than the repeated uses of “fuck” and various other expletives, there’s really nothing in this film that should ensure an R rating, especially given that those over 17 are presumably not the intended audience. For instance, I found Mitch’s reaction to finding out that Blaire and Adam had hooked up to be comically overblown. It reminded me of that scene in The Simpsons in which Homer teases Bart about a falling out with Milhouse, mocking him for thinking that grade school friendships are eternal; only someone who is the age of the characters (or the age the characters are supposed to be; William Peltz was 28 in this movie, whereas I assume Adam is supposed to be 16 or 17) would be so emotionally invested in this relationship.

Brandon: If the story of recent box office successes like IT, Get Out, and Annabelle: Creation is any implication, this kind of wide release horror fare has a very wide appeal that should transgress age demographics. In a climate where a lot of major studio releases are struggling to turn a profit, horror is right up there with superhero action fantasies as a bankable genre that’s almost guaranteed to get butts in seats no matter how poorly other films are performing. It also helps that horror is relatively cheap to make. Financed by the notoriously frugal/lucrative Blumhouse brand, Unfriended cost only $1 million to produce, which made its $64  million box office returns a pleasantly hefty payoff. Common wisdom, though, would say that the payoff would have been doubled if the film had curbed a little bit of its violence & crude dialogue to achieve a PG-13 rating, opening its ticket sales to a wider market. I maintain my belief the film has contempt for the fictional teens it brutally murders, but I also believe that their peers were largely its intended audience, which oddly adds to its appeal as a curiosity for me as an Old Man.

Outside of a couple brutal kills and a few more repetitions of “fuck” than the prudish MPAA tends to allow,  Unfriended  already feels like a PG-13 film. Mitch’s high school drama outrage over Blaire’s infidelity is indeed a moment of (presumably) unintended camp and a blatant indication that the producers intended teens to at least be a significant fraction of the audience, if not the majority. Its adoption of teen speak & real world apps can sometimes feel like Steve Buscemi’s private eye going “undercover” as a high school student on 30 Rock (“How do you do, fellow kids?”), but I’m sure that the expendable pocket money teen market was in the film’s crosshairs from conception. Even though a large chunk of them were unfortunately shut out of buying a ticket to see Unfriended on the big screen, I hope they now find their way to it in its video-on-demand afterlife. A 2010s high schooler blind-watching this movie alone on a laptop is probably its best chance to leave a decades-lasting impression the way catching Child’s Play, a stray Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, or (personally speaking) The Dentist on late night television scarred much of our generation when we were in that age range (or, let’s be honest, way younger).

Softening Unfriended‘s rating might have only required minor edits, but I’m glad they stuck with the few details that landed it an R. Slashers are often reduced to the value of the novelty & brutality of their individual kills and this movie delivers on the implausibility of its supernatural forced-suicides alone. Watching one teen dismember himself with a salsa blender that just happens to be plugged in next to his bedroom PC (we’ve all been there, right?) is one of the more hilariously inane horror moments I can remember seeing in the last decade. Conversely, there’s a kill involving a curling iron & a meme generator that genuinely made me gasp at its cruelty both times I watched the film, which is a rare reaction from me, considering how often I dwell on this genre. Britnee, what did you think of the way onscreen violence is handled in Unfriended? Do you think the teen suicides earned the film’s R rating? Are they just as creative & memorable as the film’s Internet Age found footage gimmick or more of a genre-requirement afterthought?

Britnee: The “suicides” in the film were quite brutal, making it very worthy of that R rating. What is so interesting about the creative teen deaths is that they are all very unexpected. Val was the first victim of Laura’s vengeful internet ghost, but her death was pretty mild. She drinks bleach and falls to the floor. That’s it. It’s not bloody or violent, but it’s still creepy enough to get under your skin. It’s really Ken’s death that starts up this ultra-violent suicide streak. When the internet phantom is lurking in Ken’s room and his screen freezes after the discovery, I expected the screen to flash to a bloody body on the floor. It’s obvious that he was going to die, but nothing prepared me to see him shoving his hand in a salsa blender. There was most likely remnants of a previous salsa batch still in the blender, and all that old sauce and hot pepper juice was mixing in with blood and flesh. That’s as gross as it gets. It’s really Jess’s suicide that takes the cake, though. Shoving a steaming hot curling iron down your throat is so damn disgusting. What confused me about this suicide was the small amount of time it took for the curling iron to heat up. Even extremely high quality hair-styling tools take a good couple of seconds to get to a decent heat level, and there’s really no indication that it was plugged in when Jess got to the bathroom. I’m sure some super cool ghost power got the iron to heat up in, like, 2 seconds, but it would’ve been more interesting if the camera showed Jess in a trance plugging it in and staring at it soullessly until the temperature was just right.

I really have to commend the film for being able to balance out horror and violence so well. Recent horror films seem to be more gore-driven, and it really takes away from that unsettling sense of the unknown that a good horror flick gives off. Seriously, nothing is worse than expecting to get a case of the willies from a horror movie but actually ending up on the verge of puking because of all the gore. I’m looking at you, Saw franchise! While the deaths are so disturbing that they will haunt your mind weeks after watching the movie, they don’t really overpower the film. When I think about Unfriended, the first thing that comes to my mind is all the fun internet ghost moments, not the deaths.

Because all the characters were total shit bags, it was difficult for me to care about their survival, but it really made me like the movie more. Teens are assholes, and it was interesting to see them portrayed as such. Alli, did you find the characters to be annoying as all hell? Do you think this film would be as good if they were more likable?

Alli: I know teenagers are horrible. They’ve got those underdeveloped brains and crazy hormone changes. They’re figuring out the world and gradually being given more and more responsibilities they can’t handle. I know that it’s not just angst when they say that they’re misunderstood. But these kids I really had a hard time empathizing with. I just really disliked all of them. I think one of the reasons I feel that way is that they’re all pretty well-off suburban kids. They have nice houses, all this technology, cars, name brand clothes, and even personal salsa blenders. It’s really difficult to feel bad for entitled people. I get it. There’s that suburban angst of your parents being inattentive and distant, but that doesn’t really resonate with me in the slightest.

Then there’s the fact that they did this to their own friend! They released that video. They made fake accounts to bully her. And it seems like this is the first time it’s really hitting them how messed up what they did was. It’s debatable with the way they treat each other whether or not these kids have friends at all or if they’re just caught up in a shallow and vain lifestyle. They fall back on drinking as an excuse for their actions, but ultimately as they’re discussing and panicking and hiding the truth, you can see that they’re truly that terrible. Yelling at one another. Calling each other names. Even in a matter of life and death, they’re still focused on petty drama.

Had I felt sorry for them the movie would have been even more tense and scary. Not that it wasn’t already tense, but there was something worth reveling in when it got to the gruesome death scenes. They were gross and nightmarish, but also satisfying in a way. (Maybe I just have a revenge problem?) Had I liked the characters, I would definitely think they were unfairly being targeted. Instead, I actually applauded the ending.

Boomer, what did you think of the ending? Was it as satisfying for you as it was for me?

Boomer: The ending didn’t really do it for me, and it’s not just the goofiness of the jump scare and the fakety fake fake image of ghost Laura (or the fact that Blaire’s screen froze instead of following the line of site her webcam would as her laptop was closed, or any of the other things that make no sense from a technological perspective). I think that part of the reason for this is that the ends feels loose for me. For instance: Blaire tells Laura’s ghost that Mitch is the one who posted the video, and we do see that the edited video that wound up online has added text and cuts out before we see Blaire laughing about how Laura soiled herself. Was this true, or not? My reading is that Blaire filmed the video, but Mitch made the finished product and put it online, possibly without Blaire’s permission. That makes her complicit, sure, but I’m not sure that it makes her guilty enough to deserve her fate. (Granted, this might be my mind refusing to accept that the apparent Final Girl was actually not the Final Girl at all.) In a different context, in which Blaire took the video of the unconscious Laura and laughed at her, with the intention of showing Laura later and joking about it together, would be just an example of kids being kids. Unless Blaire actually did encourage Mitch to upload it, but I didn’t read that from the text. Overall, I would have to say that the ending rang a little hollow for me, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed the film as a whole, given my reservations. 

Lagniappe

Boomer: I would actually love to see this idea applied to a romcom, showing the building of a relationship entirely through social media. Befriended.

Britnee: A grown-up version of  Unfriended would be an interesting watch. The drama and bullying that goes on between my adult family members on platforms like Facebook is definitely more prominent than what I see among the youth that I know. I would love to see a group of 50-something-year-olds in the same situation as the teens in this movie.

Alli: I really want to show this movie to a group of teens just to see how they receive it. I want to know if this is relatable to them or not, since they are presumably the intended audience. Would it actually be an edge of their seat thriller or would they write it off as silly nonsense? As of now, I’ve only watched it with an adult man and his reaction was “hoo boy.”

Brandon: I’m starting to feel like somewhat of a phony fan of this movie even though I often go out of my way to promote its legacy. I’ve now watched it on the big screen and on my living room television, but I’ve never bothered to screen it with headphones on my laptop for the Pure Unfriended experience, the way I assume it was intended to be seen. This feels like the inverse of the blasphemy of a young brat watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on a smartphone. It’s also further implication that I’m an out of touch old man who has no business taking as much pleasure in these teen-oriented, social media-obsessed genre film frivolities as I do.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)
December: Boomer presents Wings of Fame (1990)
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Sickhouse (2016)

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threehalfstar

I’m a huge sucker for throwaway details from internet-specific visual palettes being employed in my cheap genre cinema. Titles like Unfriended, Nerve, #horror, and Beware the Slenderman have all incorporated bullshit, disposable internet imagery in their visual aesthetic to terrorize audiences with social media alarmism in a way that feels fresh & fascinating to me, making for some of my favorite cinematic experiences in the past few years. I honestly believe that these films, although instantly dated, will serve as a great time capsule of where our culture is currently at mentally & spiritually a few decades down the line, the way slashers defined the 80s & torture porn ruled the 00s. The dirt cheap, smart phone-filmed found footage horror Sickhouse joins the recent trend of social media-obsessed genre cinema by pushing its premise even further into verisimilitude. Released over three days last Spring via a series of posts on the Snapchat app, this hour-long cheapie actively participates in the social media platform it openly condemns. By adopting the format of its critical target right down to its mode of release, Sickhouse emerges feeling like a newly exciting filmmaking innovation, despite easy complaints that could be lobbed its way in terms of narrative ambition. Admittedly, the film doesn’t stray too far from its Blair Witch But With Snapchat premise in any narrative sense, but as an experiment in genre film technique, that formula was more than enough to generate some interesting results, especially for those as enamored as I am with films like Unfriended and Nerve.

“Have you ever seen The Blair Witch Project?” A character bluntly asks his fellow teens this blatantly silly question over a campfire, knowing full well that they’ve already been living the exact plot of that late-90s milestone. A handful of young, overconfident fools venture into the woods to investigate an urban legend about a haunted house, documenting their every move with an ever-present smartphone. Like with Blair Witch, their dialogue is mostly improvised, one character is blamed for getting the whole crew hopelessly lost, and there’s an excess of extratextual material backing up the central folklore to make it feel legitimate (visitsickhouse.com). According to that smokescreen website’s account of the True Events, the titular Sickhouse has three defining rules: 1) Don’t make any noise, 2) Don’t go inside, 3) Leave a gift on the porch. Like with Blair Witch, our dumb teen protagonists turn their noses up at genuine engagement with the local legend, laughing off the danger of the scenario and breaking every single rule set before them. Also like Blair Witch, they’re punished within the house they clearly should have avoided venturing inside in the first place, but there is no gore or violent end shown onscreen. Anyone looking for more than a brief flash of a face or a hand from the teens’ supernatural tormentors is going to be disappointed by what’s delivered. The film instead attempts to creep the audience out through pure folklore & mythology. Have I mentioned The Blair Witch Project enough to get the general vibe & narrative of the film across? Because it’s exactly like Blair Witch.

What’s most important here is form, not content. Sickhouse is shot entirely through the rectangular aspect ratio of a vertical smartphone video. Onscreen text & MS Paint quality doodles overlay the imagery in the way most Snapchat videos would be hastily edited. Because shots cannot extend past 10 seconds in length due to Snapchat’s formatting, the film finds kinetic energy in a never-ending series of rapid fire shots. Characters philosophize about the nature of Snapchat and social media at large at length. When our smartphone-toting protagonist is admonished for posting too often, she’s told, “Snapchat’s not a documentary. It’s just . . . stuff.” As an audience, we all know that it’s carefully curated “stuff,” though. Even when the two girls that drive the plot are sleeping, camping, or running for their lives in a haunted house, they’re always wearing make-up and always attempting to choose the most flattering angles for their omni-present faces. One of those two girls is played by *shudder* “YouTube personality” Andrea Russet, who brings a kind of authentically false persona to the role of a narcissistic brat who obsessively cultivates online fans, but will also chide friends for using their phones too often. Russet’s real life YouTube Channel features bafflingly popular videos with inane titles like, “Dying My Hair Purple,” “Cuddling With My Ex-Boyfriend,” and “My Morning Routine,” so her onscreen presence, as painfully inauthentic as it feels, actually has a lot of credibility to it that makes Sickhouse feels as close to the genuine thing as possible.

I’m not convinced writer-director Hannah MacPherson knows exactly what to do with all of this internet age narcissism & over-sharing except to represent it onscreen. There’s nothing to Sickhouse‘s social media themes that are explored too far beyond maybe a character ironically declaring, “Social media is a plague” while obsessively uploading short-form videos to Snapchat or a few online “followers” becoming stalker-level followers in a much more literal, physical sense. Still, the way MacPherson applies the visual & narrative techniques of broadcasting a curated personal aesthetic on social media to a standard obnoxious teens getting punished for smoking weed & having sex horror structure make for some really exciting results. I have my own stray complaints about some of her individual choices (the ending could’ve been more jarring, the third act body horror of the teens becoming ill could’ve been pushed further, there really was no need for any non-diegetic music), but for the most part I was delighted & energized by what she pulls off here. Many will brush off Sickhouse as a gimmick, an act of frivolity, but I think it’s secretly a doorway to the future of filmmaking. Not the long-term future, mind you, but certainly what’s soon to come. Even Sickhouse‘s phone screen aspect ratio makes it feel as if you’re peeking in on the film through a doorway and that space-conscious tension allows for an unnerving feeling in images like a mangled deer or a well-arranged still life of “gifts” left on the titular house’s porch. That won’t be enough of a payoff for everyone who tunes in, but I at the very least found it to be an entertaining experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

Blair Witch (2016)

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three star

Director Adam Wingard & writer Simon Barrett have made an exciting reputation for themselves with their last two feature film collaborations: the home invasion subversion You’re Next & (my personal favorite) the action thriller by way of John Carpenter horror The Guest. Unfortunately, their usual knack for subversion & experimentation within genre bounds is mostly checked at the door in their latest feature, the years-late sequel/reboot hybrid Blair Witch. In the years since its 1999 release the original The Blair Witch Project has earned a growing reputation as being one of the greatest American horror films of all time, but has also suffered the misfortune of inspiring an entire subgenre of imitators. In the late 90s a found footage, documentary-style horror played like a game-changing innovation, to the point where some audiences were even convinced that the film was “real.” In 2016 the gimmick can feel a little tired & old hat. For every found footage horror that feels exciting & fresh (Creep, Unfriended) there’s a heap of examples that feel unnecessary & more than a little bit silly (The Visit, They’re Watching, Cloverfield, Exists, Da Hip Hop Witch, etc.). That’s why it’s a shame that Wingard & Barrett delivered such a straightforward found footage horror here. There are some interesting, bizarre ideas & rug pulls that shape their Blair Witch film, but they’re not pushed nearly far enough to distinguish the final product from the billion other The Blair Witch Project devotees we’ve encountered since 1999. Blair Witch finds Barrett & Wingard working in the straightforward genre picture mode they started their careers with in the horror anthology V/H/S when the film desperately needed the prankster spirit they brought to You’re Next & The Guest.

There’s not much of a plot to spoil in Blair Witch if you’re already experienced the original film. In this version of the story the younger brother of one of The Blair Witch Project’s documentarians/victims ventures back into the woods to investigate his sister’s mysterious disappearance. The original film was a search for the truth about an old world mystery. This followup is, by contrast, a search for closure. As the missing woman’s disappearance is well over a decade in the past, her brother is presumably less hopeful about actually finding her than he is about finding what happened to her. Over the course of the film, in a way, he finds a little of both, but the answers come in the form of violence and more questions (duh). The narrative setups to these films don’t really matter all too much, though. They’re basically excuses to a) get young potential victims to the woods and b) commit to a classic horror film dynamic where out of towners are punished for scoffing at locals’ superstitions. Blair Witch mirrors the basic structure of its source material to the point where it occupies the same sequel/reboot gray area of titles like Ghostbusters (2016) & The Force Awakens. The only noticeable update in the film’s basic structure is in the quality of technology available to the film student documentarians capturing the strange, spooky happenings of the woods. There’s as much focus on gear here as there is in Russ Meyer’s love letter to pinup photography, Heavenly Bodies!, with a wealth of shots devolving into people filming each other filming with various gadgets: old camcorders, state of the art Cannons, drones, earpiece cameras (which affords the film a few scenes of a Hardcore Henry style of 1st person POV), etc. It’s a detail that points to both the passage of time between the two films (especially in moments where the HQ digital photography of today clashes with the standard definition DV tapes of old) & the sequel’s reverence for found footage aesthetic (while also poking a little fun at it as a contrivance). However, it can also feel like wasted time in a film that mostly plays by the rules of its genre, never pushing that aspect to the point of self-aware parody.

That’s not to say that Blair Witch is a strict retread of its predecessor, however. Wingard & Barrett do seek out a few opportunities to pull the rug from under the audience, especially in the film’s final act. If there’s an essential difference between Blair Witch & The Blair Witch Project in terms of narrative approach, it’s that the original film was dedicated to the process of telling while the modern version lives by the virtues of showing. The 1999 feature sidesteps depicting onscreen violence by coding its witchcraft folklore into simplistic visual cues like stick figures & characters staring into the corner. The 2016 version somewhat blasphemously trades in that atmospheric terror with real, physical manifestations of its witchcraft: objects moving on their own, body horror in a pulsating, infected wound, visual confirmation that the titular witch is indeed a physical entity, etc. What’s much more interesting, though, is the way the film carves out new, original forms of terror in its play with the otherworldly logic of the woods. Time & space shift in unexpected, unsettling ways that help mark the film’s shift within its franchise from authenticity to entertainment. In its better moments Blair Witch deals in go-for-broke abstraction that somehow makes the expansiveness of Nature feel like a tightly confined space. There’s enough weirdness in the film’s final stretch that suggests that Blair Witch could’ve stood as a much stranger outlier in the found footage oeuvre were it pushed further into the directions teased by the perception-shifting instincts of its black magic spookiness. Instead, it plays like a competent, but obedient genre exercise.

In a lot of ways the mistake Blair Witch makes mirrors the folly of its protagonist: you can’t return to the past. The shaky-cam addled slowburn of the film’s opening pays plenty tribute to what made its source material so striking in 1999, but that territory has been explored a few dozen too many times in the years since to remain fresh or exciting. There’s a value to a steady camera & a cinematic eye, as evidenced by this year’s other found footage update, 10 Cloverfield Lane, but Blair Witch does manage to find other modes of blasphemy in its rug pull of a third act without ditching the found footage gimmick. It just isn’t nearly blasphemous enough. A lot of the leadup to what makes Blair Witch distinct could’ve been condensed to shorthand, given how familiar the film’s story & character beats are to anyone who’s seen a found footage horror before, and that change would’ve left a lot more room for the reality-shifting finale to run wild & free. Blair Witch is a perfectly solid genre exercise in found footage’s now-familiar thrills & chills, falling just on the right side of the divide between entertainment & tedium. If Wingard & Barrett weren’t involved this review wouldn’t likely have such a vague air of disappointment, but rather a tone of acceptance & routine. Then again, I likely wouldn’t have rushed to watch the film in the first place without their involvement, given the dime-a-dozen nature of post-The Blair Witch Project found footage fare.

For Wingard & Barrett Blair Witch stands as a step back to their humble beginnings in the serviceable horror anthology V/H/S. For a no-name, workman filmmaker that humble beginnings aspect wouldn’t be much of a detriment, but I’ve come to expect more from these two. Blair Witch boasts a few moments of flashy weirdness & reality-bending excitement that made the exercise feel at least worthwhile. Yet, on the whole the film feels a little regressive considering the immense talents who delivered it & how much it’s rooted in tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Cloverfield (2008)

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twohalfstar

News broke late last week that sometime after J.J. Abrams had wrapped filming on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, his production company Bad Robot had “secretly” filmed a “blood-relative” followup to his 2008 production Cloverfield. I personally had a mixed reaction to the revelation that a second Cloverfield film is headed our way. I absolutely hated the original Cloverfield film when it was released in 2008. Loathed it. A sequel (or a “blood relative” semi-sequel) would not likely be something I’d be interested in, then, except that the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane is so thoroughly badass that it made me reconsider my stance on the original entirely. So, for the third time in eight years I decided to give Cloverfield a chance to grow on me. I’m bummed to report that although my hatred for the film has calmed down a great deal, it’s still not my thing.

Found footage horror films are a dime a dozen (almost literally; their attractively low production costs are a large part of why they’re so plentiful). Cloverfield is a step above the rest in terms of what it accomplishes with the limited scope of the found footage horror as a genre. On the monster end of the equation, the movie nails everything it aims for. Its lumbering, Godzilla-sized creature is a sight to behold (whenever you can get a good glimpse of it) and the broad strokes of its threat on New York City is complimented nicely by an evil army of tiny insectoid (baby?) versions of the larger creature. The movie is smart not to over-detail exactly why or how the monster arrived. Is it from the ocean floor? Is it from another planet? These questions are asked, but never answered. Instead, Cloverfield focuses on detailing the mayhem: rockets launched, buildings demolished, oil tankers tipped & set aflame. It’s honestly not at all hard to see why so many people have latched onto Cloverfield as a breath of fresh air in the creature feature genre.

What sinks the film for me is the human end of the equation. The characters are understandably panicked by the sight of a grand scale monster tearing the city down around them, but their shrill, frantic reactions are relentless & honestly, annoying. As an audience member it’s far more entertaining to focus on what the gigantic (alien?) beast is up to instead of hearing someone shriek “Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone!”, especially since Rob & Beth are so vaguely defined that they’re barely more than total strangers. It’s an exciting feeling to be chased down to a creature you barely comprehend, but when you’re only interacting with the damned thing through brief flashes & the creatures you do spend time with are just as barely-comprehendible New York City nobodies, the whole ordeal can be very frustrating. Despite the presence of future-greats Lizzie Caplan & T.J. Miller, the human toll in Cloverfield feels greatly deserved, a debt well paid. I wanted (most of) these characters to die at the monster’s hands(? tentacles?). I doubt that was the desired effect.

Still, I find myself excited for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Maybe it’s the narrative remove from the found footage format that’s working for me in that ad? Cloverfield aims for a kind of authenticity that I’m not sure it achieves. It bends over backwards to make sure there’s a reason why the cameraman (Miller) would be filming in the first place (a going away party for Rob! Rob! Roooooooob!). It goes way overboard on that end, though, with the cameradude explicitly saying “This is going to be important. People are going to want to see this.” There are also some eyeroll-worthy instances of coincidence (like the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling to a stop at these exact characters’ feet) & terrible self-survival choices (even for the horror genre) that compromise the film’s attempts to feel like a document of a “real” supernatural event. Really, though, what doesn’t work for me in Cloverfield is its human casualty stockpile. It’s especially sad that they’re so blandly represented & so unable to generate sympathy even though the monster mayhem doesn’t start until 20 minutes into the runtime & the characters in question never leave our sight. They’re always around, waiting to baffle & annoy. 10 Cloverfield Lane promises almost the exact opposite experience: three characters trapped in a small space through a cinematic lens instead of a faux documentary one. I expect that set-up (and what promises to be one intense John Goodman performance) will be a much more satisfying experience. I believe this despite optimistically giving the first Cloverfield a shot three separate times, with my opinion only being raised from white hot anger to mild displeasure. That’s still progress, I guess.

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

 

 

Da Hip Hop Witch (2000)

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halfstar

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When Britnee & I used to work together in New Orleans East, she once gently pressured me into taking a couple DVDs out of the trunk of her car that even she couldn’t stomach, despite typically having a much stronger fortitude than I do when it comes to total shit cinema. One of those putrid slices of schlock was Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, a movie so amateur that I had a hard time convincing myself that it was an actual, legitimate feature film & not some 80s punks’ super 8 home movies. The other was Da Hip Hop Witch, which I am sad to report is most certainly not a legitimate feature. It is, without question, a home movie (this time filmed on a camcorder instead of a super 8 camera). It just happens to be a home movie that features a long list of famous (and not-so-famous) rappers. Even accounting for the “film”‘s straight-to-DVD cheapness, it’s difficult to pull any entertainment value from Da Hip Hop Witch, except maybe from the schadenfreude of watching Eminem embarrass himself.

Because it is the sole moment of genuinely entertaining content in the movie, I’m going to transcribe here the entirety of Da Hip Hop Witch‘s prologue: “In December 1989, in the Newark Projects, there were a series of unsolved attacks and one murder. Residents claimed that it was an angry spirit, who became known as ‘The Black Witch of the Projects’. Ten years later, the attacks began again. This time, occurring in every inner city project on the East Coast and targeting every Rap star in the Hip Hop scene. An aspiring reporter determined to find out the truth and five white kids & a pug from the suburbs were determined to become famous for capturing Da Hip Hop Witch.” I promise that passage is much more fun than a proper plot synopsis would be. The only other chuckle-worthy bit of text in the film is the line, “Yo, check it! This is Salem, Massachusetts. You know, the place the witches are from?” Dear God. That about sums it up for the film’s enjoyable dialogue. For the other 90 minutes of runtime you’re pretty much left to fend for yourself.

If you haven’t yet guessed based on the film’s title, release date, or the phrase “The Black Witch of the Projects” in the prologue, Da Hip Hop Witch is a found footage Blair Witch Project spoof. Just by genre alone, the movie may already sound lazy to the uninitiated, but I swear it gets worse from there. More than half of the film’s runtime consists of staged street interviews in which famous rappers call the titular witch a bunch of names, coming off a lot like foul-mouthed schoolyard bullies. Imagine Eminem, Pras, Mobb Deep, Vanilla Ice, Ja Rule, and (for reasons unknown) graduation dances staple Vitamin C mumbling things like “That fucking bitch,” and “I was like, oh my God, what is up with this fucking bitch?” and you pretty much get the gist of what the film has to offer. To keep up the appearance that it has some sort of narrative structure, there are some non-Hip Hop Witch TV (as the interviews are dubbed in the film) storylines involving some late 90s, dreds-rocking, white hip hop kids & an investigative journalist all attempting to prove that Da Hip Hop Witch is a hoax created to sell records & garner buzz. Unfortunately, Da Hip Hop Witch is very real, and so is this piece of shit movie.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Da Hip Hop Witch is that it wastes a pretty killer title. I like the decades-late idea of a blaxploitation horror comedy like Blackenstein or Blacula (those are real movies, in case you’re wondering) updated for the late 90s/early 00s era. Besides the prologue & a laughably bad, Russ Meyer-esque tour of Salem’s street signs, though, the only value the film brings to the world is in embarrassing Eminem, as mentioned earlier. According to some reports, the blowhard, dickhole rapper’s lawyers attempted, but failed, to have his part removed from the film entirely & also tried to completely block the film’s distribution. A lot of the dialogue in Da Hip Hop Witch ranges from the misogynistic (women are feared & ridiculed because they might be the witch) to the transphobic (there’s a whole lot of “She looks like a man!” bullshit), but Eminem’s street interviews are are particularly cringe-worthy as they go on & on about how the witch tried to finger him. He just endlessly rambles about the witch’s “basketball fingers” and his own precious butthole to a near-obsessive degree and because he was such a hot comoddity at the time of Da Hip Hop Witch‘s release date, they kept every embarrassing second of it. If you dislike Eminem as strongly as I do, Da Hip Hop Witch provides a deeply satisfying feeling of knowing that he hated his contribution as much as he did, but the movie was released anyway.

The only stipulation is that the movie is so horrifically unwatchable that most people will never be able to participate in Eminem’s public shaming. Vanilla Ice also gets his fare share of embarrassments here, as Da Hip Hop Witch was filmed during his nu metal phase, but that detail is honestly more sad than it is satisfying. Every other rapper (and there are dozens involved that I haven’t bothered to list here) get by more or less unscathed. Ultimately, who cares who’s involved, since Da Hip Hop Witch isn’t a real feature film anyway? It’s a DVD version of a home movie that never should have left the confines of Britnee’s trunk. Well, Eminem cares. When the film was set to be re-released in 2003 (what? how? why?) the rapper managed to have its cover art that prominently featured his likeness scrapped before it reached the shelves, reportedly under undisclosed, Shady circumstances. As terrible as Da Hip Hop Wtich is on the whole, Eminem’s reluctant involvement still shines as a beacon of delectable embarrassment from within. I wouldn’t say that the full experience was worth it for that aspect, but it honestly didn’t hurt.

-Brandon Ledet

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

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three star

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I’ve happily managed to avoid seeing any of the Paranormal Activity films until now (with ease, I might add), but a convenient showtime & a free ticket recently changed that for me. My first Paranormal Activity film ended up being the sixth in the series and you know what? It was actually pretty enjoyable. A found footage ghost story set during Christmastime 2013 (a temporal detail that adds essentially nothing to the equation), The Ghost Dimension is a fairly straight-forward collection of jump scares & spooky happenings. It’s a film that never dares to stray from its basic, by-the-books formula, but I have to admit that the formula kinda worked for me. Nothing about the film’s over-reliance on the idea that children are creepy or its assumption that all Catholic priests are prepared at a moment’s notice to wage metaphysical war on demons is anything new in terms of ghostly horror movies as a genre, but those tropes exist for a reason. They’re good for a cheap, easy lark. I could see how six films into the franchise someone could tire of Paranormal Activity‘s over-simplified ghost genre formula, but since I was just looking for a pleasant slice of generic horror, I was well satiated.

I’m guessing that what most distinguishes The Ghost Dimension from its five predecessors is the attention paid to the camera that records the film’s ghostly events. An old, bulky VHS camcorder from the 1980s (yes, that decade’s aesthetic is now antiquated enough to be spooky, as evidenced by the V/H/S franchise), this special piece of recording equipment has a built-in lens that allows it to pick up the, um, paranormal activity that plagues the film’s haunted house. It’s spirit photography made easy. At first, the film’s central pair of protagonist brothers don’t’ know how seriously to take this discovery. The iconic hipster asshole of the pair jokes while filming his paranoid brother, “My camera’s picking up something! It’s a dipshit.” Tripping on psilocybin mushroom doesn’t help the paranoia factor, especially once the brothers start diving into the box of VHS tapes that arrived in tandem with the camera. Much of The Ghost Dimension works this way, like a scary version of those hopelessly useless YouTube “reaction videos” people seem to be endlessly churning out lately. At one point, the brothers end up filming themselves watching themselves watch the haunted VHS recordings. It’s quite silly. What’s much more interesting, of course, is what’s actually on the tapes themselves: the home tapes of two young girls being raised/manipulated by a cult called The Midwives. That’s right. They’re a 1980s coven of devil-worshipping child care witches. In other words,, they’re total badasses. Too bad they get a pitiful amount of screentime.

No matter. Things pick up once the non-hipster-mustache brother’s little girl gets recruited by this cult through some space-time tampering in order to do the bidding of a wicked demon named, you guessed it, Toby. Once the little girl is in cahoots with Toby she transforms into a little Satanic badass– burning Bibles, biting priests, and burying rosaries in the backyard. By the time she’s talking to ghostly beings on the other side of mirrors & opening a physical portal to the titular ghost dimension, I was totally on board with what she was selling. Too bad her pesky parents get in Toby’s way & try to muck up his plans with their “innocent” little girl. There’s a surprising amount of ghostly action to be found in the film as these modern Toby/little girl shenanigans clash with the 1980s timeline of The Midwives coven, the world crashing in around them as they join forces.

What I thought I understood about Paranormal Activity as a franchise leading up to The Ghost Dimension was that the films required a lot of patience. It seemed that to attempt a “realistic” aesthetic (and to save money) the earliest films in the series were a slow burn of security footage-style still cameras & Paris Hilton night vision. The Ghost Dimension is much more kinetic that I expected based on this assumption. It’s packed to the gills with violent jump scares & images of Toby taking form by gathering a gestalt of black spiritual particles that’re pretty much the philosophical opposite of Dust in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The film is relentlessly dumb & resistant to reason. For instance, why would the parents move their daughter out of the house immediately instead of videotaping her & lightly suggesting that she stop talking to Toby? Why does Toby show up on the 2013 recordings, but not on the 1980s VHS tapes that were presumably captured with the same equipment? Why would someone, when fleeing from an interdimensional demon, shout to their spouse, “Stay upstairs! Lock the door!” as if it would make a difference? How could a bulky camera from thirty years ago seemingly manage to have a 24 hour battery life? These are silly questions to ask of such a silly movie. Continuity & basic logic aren’t nearly as essential to The Ghost Dimension‘s trashy charms as the simple pleasures small children acting creepy, CGI ghosts reaching for the audience in fits of 3D format gimmickry, and good, old-fashioned cheap jump scares. Perhaps after five similar films this wasn’t enough to hold the attention of returning audience members (there was a lot of iPhone scrolling & open conversation at my screening, despite it being opening night), but as a newcomer I was pretty well entertained.

-Brandon Ledet