You all know the shivering story I’m sure, of how back in the shadowing eaves of the 20th century a couple of inventive film students improvised one of the most terrifying films of modern times? The original Blair Witch Project was quite the phenomenon of its time, an early beneficiary of viral market on the nascent net, and a clever fiction shrouding back-story that convinced the more ghoulish gullible that the footage was genuine. I liked the 1999 original a great deal, I found it genuinely unsettling with a killer final moment, all qualities which the detested Book Of Shadows sequel neglected to its forgettable reputation. Unlike contemporary post-modern and J-horror tropes of that period the picture had a genuine ferocity, a freshness which traded on elemental fears buried deep in our primitive brains, the numbing notion of being stalked and chased in the wilderness with no savior coming, of the unknown spectral lurking on the fringes of our rational civilization. Given it’s ratio of budget to profit it is no surprise that another crew would have a crack on establishing a new franchise, this long gestating sequel carefully shrouded in secrecy, engineered with a canny eye for modern marketing and internet appreciation by the cult movie team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. Operating under the working title The Woods the real horror was revealed at the San Diego Comic-Con premiere a few months ago, and now the film has finally been unleashed to shriek through the multiplexes, alas for me this is several generations away from their clever genetic genre The Guest and much more in line with You’re Next, a project grasping for purchase far beyond its instinctive reach, with a fatal void of genuine terror or original thought.
Like its nefarious forebear the films opens with a grim title screen incantation – that the footage we are about to be exposed to was recovered from the Burksville woods, in the year 2014. Yes we’re back in shaky-cam found footage territory, the for some nauseous technique which abandons any primitive props such as a camera mounts or spirit levels, branded with a 21st century update – all the principals are equipped with ear mounted GoPros, lightweight digital palmcorders, multi-gadget GPS synchronization. In a further nod to modern filming techniques the inquisitive group have even brought along a camera-drone contraption in order to pierce the forest canopy, a clever plan to potentially locate the ruined dwelling that was the site of the doomed sortie’s last frantic frames of rushes. A contemporary connection is sparked through James (James Allen McCune) who is still haunted by the disappearance of his older sister Heather some fifteen years ago, and he seeks closure by travelling to the Burksville woods in order to retrace her final steps. Accompanying him is media student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who naturally wants to make her own film of the experience, marshaling friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) in order to stump up the slaughter shrieking numbers. After a brief contextual sequence the team stop briefly to recruit a couple of locals who are fascinated with the legend, enlisting the environmental and historical knowledge of the slightly sinister Lane (Wes Robinson) and his friend Talia (Valorie Curry) before they hesitantly hunch into the foreboding wilderness….
Your patience with Blair Witch will be largely dependent on your capacity to endure long, sustained shaky-cam footage of characters rushing through murky environments, all the while screaming and yelling for the preservation of their precious immortal souls. After a perfunctory context setting scene you have to admire Wingard for getting straight down to business in the increasingly eerie woods for the films remaining 75 minutes, but critically unfortunately any genuine chills are largely absent from this increasingly redundant sequel. Like may sequels it is a greatest hits revamp of the originals increasing desperation – the futile return to base camp after hours of hiking, the ghostly appearance of Wicca inspired charms and dreamcatchers, but there is almost nothing new here that is comprehensively and chillingly inducted. Some new concepts are inflicted – a sliver of body horror after a characters flesh wound starts to manifest necrotic qualities, sanity shredding time disruption and disorders seem to be pushing into our dimension through the porous location of the Burksville woods, a wider excavation of the Blair Witch mythos and origins are muttered between the increasing hysteria – but these strands are left fatally unmolested, as both director and screenwriter seem uncertain of where these strands will conclude and how they could match the fate of their characters. Instead once the crew find themselves adrift in the dark, dark woods the film is punctuated with a handful of cattle-prod scares, the usual ‘oh don’t sneak up on me’ cliches which are thoroughly unnecessary, while the film sorely lacks that lurking, coiling dread that the original mustered as the light began to fade and the night shadows started flickering, bringing with them another long and fearful period of cowering in your tents while something prowled around outside…..
After an interminable period of screeching, fumbling and overall stumbling our surviving prey arrives at the same decrepit domicile, deep in the delirious woods. Alas the enthusiasm has ebbed to such levels at this point that the prospect of some final glimpsed vision of the titular crone had long lost its lusture, and if I’m honest I was just patiently awaiting the pandemonium to end. Throughout the entirety of Blair Witch there was one singular moment which raised the hackles but it is merely an amplification of a story beat from the original film, a brief detour into building tension and apprehension before the plot diverted back to the same visual and cluttered incomprehension. There has been no empathy built as to the fate of these hapless souls, and its difficult to understand where or why characters are frantically careering through certain paths, whilst some of the young cast meet their fate in the most undramatic and perfunctory methods possible – this my learned friends is not how you make a horror movie linger and lurk in the memory. It’s a shame, a real missed opportunity with this setting the potential was there to really craft a 21st century update to a milestone genre film if they only had some supernatural inspiration and an eerie execution. For now the fate of the 2016 horror genre rests on a few possible shrieks at the LFF and Don’t Breathe which I’m going to see tomorrow, but as the cabal currently chants the only withered and accursed crone worth your time mounted her broomstick some two hundred and fifty years ago…..
How the mighty have fallen eh? This seems like an apt summation of some film-makers careers, those bright lights that blaze with a intense fury across the media landscape, a debut or sophomore film which for some reason strikes a chord with the public and the cultural temperature of the time. Those were my initial thoughts when I was invited to a preview screening of M. Night Shyamalan’s new film The Visit, a prospect rendering me slightly more interested in finally visiting the new screening facilities than I was in seeing the one-time wunderkid of suspense cinema in a post screening Q&A. Where once he sailed high as the critical and commercial darling of The Sixth Sense, stridently hailed in certain places as the new Spielberg his career has taken a icarus alike fall in the 21st century, with the unintentional hilarious The Happening, the cringe worthy Another Earth and unfortunately named The Last Airbender all failing to connect with audiences or critics alike. Somehow he still manages to leverage purse strings for production budgets, his modest yet being The Visit, a project which also appears to have sneaked onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon with predictably tedious results. Does the sprawling landscape of suspense and mystery movies really need another verite violation? No, of course it doesn’t, but this isn’t the total disaster that a horrendous trailer and Shymalan’s fading reputation suggests…..
The spine-chilling terror hinges on what could be a terrifying prospect for some – a visit to see Grandma and Grandpa. Rebecca (Olivia De Jonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbold) are the two siblings of single mom Paula (Kathryn Hahn), the former a keen budding filmmaker who plans to make a documentary of the vacation with the now ubiquitous portable digital camera. Rebecca does have an ulterior plan, as her mom fell out with her parents causing her to leave home when she was young, all due to some secret infraction that has kept them asunder over the past fifteen years – so maybe a visual piece could prompt some reconciliation. Rebecca has some body image issues, while her brother suffers from a mild germ related OCD, two conditions that arose when their father left them a few years ago. Arriving at their home in wintry Pennsylvania initially the grandchildren warm to their sundered elders, keeping in touch with Paula through regular skype sessions. Alas though this is a Shyamalan picture so things are not always what they seem, as the grandparents behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and portentous, out all alone with them in their remote, winterlocked family domicile……
Tyler, the younger kid raps. He raps around three times in this film. It is embarrassing and I didn’t know where to look. IO have to say though that the audience I saw this with found these sequences adorable judging by the reaction, so maybe I’m just being a horrible old grouch. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but this film wasn’t as bad as anticipated, in fact it has a few well-constructed sequences, but these are few and far between in what I must label as something of a viewing slog. It has the feel of Shymalan getting something of his system, a mood piece, an experimental work shot in few dozens of days rather than a protracted, bloated, big studio behemoths he’s vomited into our laps recently, but whereas that verite immediacy can spark some genuine chills The Visit struggles to raise the hackles. The thumbscrews are tightened over the course of a week which is really far too long, but once the twist is revealed – oh c’mon, this is a Shyamalan film so of course you knew there’s a twist coming – the gears shift upward for a fairly tense final act, and by this point you’ve mostly forgotten about the tedious asides to the camera or the excuses to just drop the fucking thing and run for your life. I just didn’t once find this genuinely scary, other than the tedious jump scare / cattle prod incident there really isn’t enough to get your teeth into, even if the director has engineered some redemptive resolution for his characters absences which he programmes into every single one of his movies – a priest resurrecting his faith, a man coming to terms with his demise.
The Q&A was fairly entertaining, and having heard some rather disquieting things about the man over the years – that he was completely obsessed with himself and his genius, that he treats assistants and lackeys with the whole ‘do you know who I am?’ treatment – he seemed like a genuinely friendly and enthusiastic guy. Yes, he was a trifle pretentious at times (I know, I know, pot, kettle black right?) but fairly eloquent when he came to explaining his craft, asserting that everything comes down to character and they should drive the plot, master the narrative, rather than imprint cinematic tropes like twists and turns purely for the sake of sensationalism. timing. It was quite amusing to learn that he was offered the gig for Life Of Pi which he turned down, to the tune of $600 million at the domestic box office and the Academy Award as he good humouredly recalled, and fans of Unbreakable which has built its own cult following yes he would do a sequel but there isn’t any script. So not a bad evening and the cinema itself will get a better report another time (all the press screenings for the LFF are being held here post 7th October so I’ll probably test drive all the screens), if you’re bored then maybe give The Visit a, erm, visit, if you lower your expectations you might find the experience worthwhile. How’s that for a passive-aggressive recommendation?
Yes I’ve been quiet, and yes this is more mere filler, but when you see what I have been quietly beavering away on some of you SF genre fans should be intrigued. I have been toying with posting the ‘new’ Fantastic Four trailer but it just makes me want to clobber things, and yes I know a final Mad Max trailer is doing the rounds which I refuse to watch as anticipation levels are high enough as it is, so instead here’s the new M.Night Shayamalan’s alleged high quality return to his spooky case-studies;
Oh, I see it’s a found footage picture. Nothing desperate then after the catastrophe of Another Earth ’cause that terror delivery system’s not been done to fucking death….
Meet Scarlett Marlowe, multiple PHD graduate, fluent speaker of several current and dead languages, with an unfortunate streak of Oedipal rage and her dead fathers obsessively fuelled suicide. When we first spy this impulsive, some may say foolhardy young woman she is sneaking across the Iranian border, secretly filming her furtive expedition to an archaeological tomb which is under threat of destruction by some destructive religious zealots. It’s found footage in technique and frantic whip-pan pacing all the way as Scarlett uncovers ancient clues pointing to the location of the legendary philosophers stone, the holy relic which is able to turn base elements to gold, the search for which she drove her beloved father to his death. Her friend Benji (Edwin Hodge) is recording her search on the streets of Paris as she enlists her old friend George (Ben Feldman ) to translate some clues from ancient Aramaic, leading them inexorably into the medieval Paris catacombs with a couple of gallic hipster tour guides in tow. As the descent proceeds through the eerie caverns the spookiness closes in with thumbscrew intensity, as images and spirits from the entire parties turbulent pasts are animated and made flesh, the cramped lunacy drawing them to the labyrinthine homestead of Old Nick himself…..
If I were to reduce the film to the usual Executive pitch I’d cite As Above, So Below as one part Indiana Jones, one part The Descent with a quantifier of The Blair Witch Project, suffice to say that if you are in any way claustrophobic then you’d best steer well and truly clear of this cramped descent into a garbled but occasionally spooky hell. To its merit the film builds a certain momentum and sense of claustrophobic terror, but it takes a little too long to raise the mortal stakes and at the risk of sounding sadistic it really needed to be much more creatively ruthless if it was aiming to get the hackles arisen. It also labours with that perennial problem of found footage pictures, they usually fail to end the picture on a suitably shriek inducing point which is really the entire point of these rollercoaster rides, you’ve got to leave the audience exiting the theatre with a slight chill and something to clutch each tightly as they make their way to a post atrocity drink, something which the makers of Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch instinctively understood. The cast is adequate with Perdita Weeks as Scarlett not being as irritating as the trailer and opening scenes suggest, and apart from the now clichéd ‘characters walking across behind characters which they don’t see but the audience does’ tricks of the trade the film does offer a couple of genuinely creepy uncertainties.
What are we to do with the whole found footage genre eh? It’s been drunkenly lumbering around for years now, a convenient premise to hang your cheapo budget picture upon, and maybe it still yields with some fading bloodstreaks of the social immediacy of new technologies omnipresent and an increasingly interconnected world. The problem is with credulity and maintaining that spell of authenticity, when we are presented with material edited in a clear linear fashion without extraneous redundancy, and of course quite why the fuck you would continue filming when under assault from horrific supernatural forces is usually beyond absurd. To its credit As Above, So Below evades the latter pitfall with a coherent and logical filming premise, it also efficiently slaughters the threat quenching saviour of mobile communication devices due to the subterranean locale, but it fails in having a French character long-lost in the catacombs encounter the party and immediately start speaking English without explanation – that’s just lazy writing. So a solid three fathom effort which will immediately dissolve from the memory when you stumble back out into the light, it’s a shame they didn’t give a little more thought to some of the mechanics and basic rules of the genre. Now, in a frantic effort to pad this post out to a half reasonable length I guess one should remark upon this years Frightfest, it was a strong year I’m told with a few brutal contenders for future dissection, the aforementioned The Babadook won the audience over with genuine creepy chills, Coherence continues to build significant cult movie buzz following US festival screenings whilst Wolfcop delivers the horror-comedy grins and Creep won the real aficionado’s souls – no trailer yet so we’ll have to make do with this again;
Claustrophobic? Too fraidy-cat to watch The Descent? Then this probably isn’t for you;
The whole found footage thing is getting increasingly tired but this could be fun, it at least has a kinda interesting Paris catacombs premise……