Tag Archives: found footage

ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN Get the Found Footage Treatment: DEVIL’S DUE

DEVIL’S DUE


(2/5)

Pros: Sense of ambiguity and mystery; first half of the film isn’t bad


Cons: Ending is a disappointment; too many cheap thrills, not enough genuine tension

With the ghost story formula of Poltergeist and numerous other films tackled using first-person perspective in 2007’s Paranormal Activity and even The Exorcist getting the discovered footage/mockumentary treatment in 2015’s The Atticus Institute, why wouldn’t horror film fans expect a found footage variation of Rosemary’s Baby and/or The Omen to pop up at some point? Abandoning any attempt to justify that formatting, 2014’s Devil’s Due presents the story of newlywed couple Zach and Samantha McCall who, after a honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, start to suspect that something is very fishy about their subsequent unplanned pregnancy. With shadowy figures and pseudoreligious symbolism appearing all around them, it would appear that Samantha is about to give birth to the antichrist, but husband Zach doesn’t seem willing to write off his unborn child just yet.

Devil’s-Due-(2014)-HollywoodInsert John Williams’s Jaws Theme here…

Told by way of any number of handheld and closed-circuit security cameras which seem to capture any and every aspect of the McCall’s everyday life, there’s not so much as a hint of authenticity to this film. I suppose in a way it’s advantageous that filmmakers have decided that the found footage gimmick can be used just because (some) audiences enjoy it: there doesn’t really have to be any effort made to make these films seem believable anymore since no one would in the first place. As such, Devil’s Due writer Lindsay Devlin and co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett can concentrate on telling their story in the best way possible, without any concern for upholding the illusion of the film portraying real events. Unfortunately, the film they’ve delivered becomes ever more goofy as it goes along – in the lousy way these “scary” moments are crafted onscreen, I half expected comic-book style balloon descriptors to intrude, accentuating the film’s action (BOOM! BANG! POW!) but more importantly pointing out exactly how the writer and directors wanted the audience to react (GASP! SHIVER!).

devils-due-mainNot quite normal behavior from a pregnant woman…


In dealing with a story like this, it’s almost inevitable that the fear of pregnancy itself is the most frightening notion being dealt with. Devlin’s script might not be the most logical thing in the world, but it does a satisfactory job of capturing the anxiety of the prospective parents. Cast members Allison Miller and Zach Gilford handle this material fairly capably, and there are some genuinely uncomfortable moments in a first half or so that’s much more reliant on subtle, eerie elements and a palpable sense of dread rather than obvious cheap thrills. I could even buy into the obligatory dark ritual which resulted in Sam being impregnated: related to the camera in a protracted, very mysterious manner, I wasn’t sure quite what I was seeing, but it was appropriately spooky and bizarre – even more so when placed alongside joyous images taken during the couple’s honeymoon.

The film has some downright uncomfortable moments early on relating to the fear of pregnancy.

Down the stretch though, Devlin throws any notion of subtlety out the window and revels in the same sort of basic ingredients found in virtually every supernatural-related horror flick – people and objects being tossed around by unknown forces, a group of zombie-like fiends seemingly pulled straight out of John Carpenter’s under-appreciated Prince of Darkness, a priest making desperate exclamations about the end times. It was at this point that Devil’s Due started to lose me…and eventually made the transition into being more funny than scary. It’s been quite a while since I chuckled at a straight horror movie as much as I did at the final third of Devil’s Due. At a certain point, Devlin goes completely overboard in an attempt to give what had been a slow-burner of a creepy movie a wopbop-a-loobop-a-lopbamboom conclusion. Making up for lost time in an appeal to the ADHD generation, this loud finale went against everything that had occurred earlier and wound up turning this fairly typical but nonetheless watchable flick into a mostly ludicrous hunk of cheese.

devils-due-zack-wallNicely executed?  Sure, but slick visuals can’t make up for a script that runs out of ideas.


As was the case in The Atticus Institute, Devil’s Due suffers from a lack of legitimate tension – the film actually lets the viewer off the hook precisely when one would expect the suspense level to be nearly unbearable. Honestly, the only moment in which I was truly unnerved was during a child’s “hide and go seek” game – this scene had been featured in the advertisements for the film and I was a bit apprehensive awaiting the inevitable jump scare that I was sure would occur very shortly. Imagine my massive disappointment when even this scene didn’t offer up that much of a jolt in the end – the suspense was mostly in my mind. Perhaps that notion suggests the most damning thing about this film: it shows too much to viewer. Movies like The Blair Witch Project, the original Paranormal Activity, and even Jaws for that matter worked as well as they did because they more often than not forced a viewer to imagine the monstrous entity at their center: as has been proven time and again, the human mind is capable of visualizing much more disturbing and unsettling imagery and ideas than what any crack team of special effects artists can create. By simply allowing its more fantastic scenes to play out on screen, Devil’s Due actually becomes less effective as a horror film even though the effects themselves aren’t bad.

maxresdefaultEnjoy it – the only really creeped-out moment in the film.

Eventually, all the smoke and mirrors in the world can’t save Devil’s Due from seeming like anything other than a run-of-the-mill found footage flick that picks up ideas from various classics of the horror genre and mashes them together into tiresome hodgepodge. The film is capably made, and has some clever (if rather familiar) moments, especially early on. I also rather liked the sense of ambiguity that seeps into the film during certain stretches, although many viewers take a more negative view of events not being explained thoroughly. By the time the story heads into the home stretch however, the fresh ideas have clearly been exhausted and a viewer is left to trudge through a gory but mostly ineffectual and unsatisfying final act. To be honest, Devil’s Due isn’t as truly abysmal as I thought it would be, but it’s hardly something that I’d urge people (even those who enjoy b-grade or found footage horror) to see – if you do enjoy this sort of movie and have an hour and a half to kill, knock yourself out…but don’t expect greatness.

Rest assured – this publicity stunt is much more clever than anything in the film:

 


6/10: Though relatively bloodless early on, it unleashes a torrent of gore by its conclusion.

7/10: Fairly regular use of profanity, including numerous f-bombs.

1/10: Extremely brief nudity shot from a distance and some mild sexual references.

6/10: A rather ambiguous found footage Omen that has its moments but is ultimately disappointing.

“Children, it is the last hour / and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming / so now many antichrists will come / Therefore we know that it is the last hour…”

A Found Footage EXORCIST: THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE

THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE


(2/5)

Pros: Not terribly bad as a mockumentary horror flick


Cons: Story covers familiar territory and the ending is a letdown

“Dr. Henry West founded the Atticus Institute to study telekinesis, clairvoyance, and other psi-related phenomena. Thousands of subjects were tested using the scientific method, many of whom expressed supernatural abilities that defied explanation by known physical laws. The small parapsychology lab operated for nearly a decade until it was mysteriously shut down in November 1976 by the US government.”

The-Atticus-Institute-2014-movie-Chris-Sparling-4

So reads the introduction to 2015’s The Atticus Institute, which plays out in the manner of a documentary examining the history of the titular establishment. We’re initially introduced to Dr. West, whose goal it is to prove once and for all that wild and bizarre psychic powers are indeed real. To this end, West opens his facility in Pennsylvania and begins to screen various unique individuals to determine their level of extra-sensory abilities. Though there are some promising findings, the credibility of the lab is thrown into doubt when members of the scientific community uncover a gimmick used by one supposedly psychically-gifted experimental subject. Just when it seems that any further research is futile, Dr. West and his team are introduced to a middle-aged woman named Judith Winstead whose psychic abilities are far beyond what any of the researchers had encountered before. When it becomes clear that the facility is unprepared to handle such a person, government officials are called in, eventually becoming interested in using Winstead’s powers for military purposes. As everyone involved soon discovers however, messing around with supernatural powers has its consequences…

the-atticus-institute-official-trailer-640x360Appropriately washed out images make the archival footage appear to have been filmed in the mid-70s.

To a large extent, The Atticus Institute resembles a found footage movie since the story is told mostly through “archival footage” which depicts events that happened in the 1970s. This material is complimented by interviews with various personnel involved in the events, including the researchers who worked at the facility as well as various family members and even government officials. The finished film then winds up not be so dissimilar to those Discovery Channel faux-documentaries that have been popping up over the past few years. I’ve often said that if things like the Megalodon or Russian Yeti program were marketed as B-horror movies, they’d find an audience who was willing to be entertained by them. The Atticus Institute establishes the fact that there is indeed a market for these types of films, but broadcasting them on “educational” cable channels just doesn’t seem to be the proper way to get them out there.

11228_1Unsurprisingly, the experiments depicted in the film start to get out of control once the government gets involved.

Consistent with the aforementioned mockumentaries, The Atticus Institute actually does a pretty solid job of selling the authenticity of its content – at least for a while. Archival footage and photographs seen in the film look appropriately washed out and sometimes shows evidence of deterioration – this is exactly what I would expect from materials produced some forty years ago. Viewers unaccustomed to really analyzing the images they’re seeing from a filmmaking standpoint might have a hard time distinguishing that this footage was actually staged, and it’s only fairly late in the going that a viewer’s suspension of disbelief is pushed to the breaking point. Eventually, one becomes aware that it would be highly unlikely that seemingly inconsequential personnel meetings and each and every detail about the ongoing experiments would be recorded – to say nothing of the fact that the camera operators seem to know things about to happen before they actually do (hell, maybe the researchers should have focused attention on their camera crew). Additionally, while the main story being told here takes place in the mid ‘70s, the Atticus Institute is virtually blanketed in CCTV coverage – this despite the fact that we’re told the lab was woefully underfunded.

atticus-1Well there’s something ya don’t see everyday – a priest in a gas mask.

In a way, it’s mostly beside the point to criticize this film strictly on the grounds that it doesn’t quite maintain authenticity: most viewers would know very well going into this film that it’s entirely fictional. What is more problematic in my book is the fact that, while the film does cover some interesting topics – namely, US government experiments related to supernatural abilities (research that actually took place) – it gets caught up in the usual type of paranormal movie content, becoming increasingly tiresome once it starts to do so.

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Rya Kihlstedt as Judith gets to act like a crazy woman, but she actually seems strangely underutilized.

Early on, it’s kind of neat to watch as Winstead’s astonishing abilities start to manifest themselves in somewhat small-scale, subtle ways – there are several nicely-executed sequences in which objects are manipulated through telekinesis in the background of shots while more pressing action occurs in the foreground. As the film drags on however, The Atticus Institute becomes a sort of poor-man’s Exorcist, with Winstead now being declared to be “possessed” by some unknown force that the government seems quite interested in not only controlling but also exploiting. This “possession” tag of course means that Winstead now proceeds to speak in “animal-like” voices, vomit a black tar-like substance, and generally contort wildly while growling at anyone who comes close to her. This is the sort of ho-hum material seen in just about every demonic possession film ever made, and even the slight variation in how this particular film operates can’t excuse the fact that most everything in director/writer Chris Sparling’s script has been seen before.

Scary moments here are few and far between.

A further problem with the film is that, although it’s occasionally loud and flashy, with glitchy camerawork that seems designed to amp up a viewer, it frankly isn’t very scary. As might be expected, Atticus Institute has a few jump scares achieved by having something pop up suddenly in front of the camera, and I actually really did like a sequence in which the viewer watches as a series of CCTV camera perspectives are cycled through, waiting with building suspense to see what’s happening in one of the rooms being monitored. Still, partially because of the predictability of the script and partially due to the lousy execution of various sequences, there’s never a prolonged buildup of tension – I’ve seen numerous TV shows filmed in “haunted” abandoned locations that are much more creepy than anything here. A minor subplot in the picture deals with Dr. West’s increasingly fragile mental condition, a situation made worse by his dealings with the ever-more erratic Winstead, but there’s never any point to this story arc and it comes across as being pure filler. Furthermore, the film’s “big climax” is especially lackadaisical and disappointing, with an ambiguous ending taken directly out of the Paranormal Activity playbook. Ultimately, even if the film isn’t dull, it never quite satisfies on the level viewers would want it to.

The somewhat spotty CGI effects make it fairly obvious that The Atticus Institute was put together on a relatively low budget; that being considered, I have to give director Sparling some credit for turning in a film that’s fairly entertaining despite its imperfections and limitations. As mentioned, the faux-documentary structuring works out pretty well, and I thought the cast for this film (particularly the actors portraying the interview subjects) were much better than is the norm for this type of production. It’s nevertheless curious that Rya Kihlstedt playing the (one would think) pivotal role of Judith Winstead is actually given precious little to do most of the time: I’d almost say that she’s wasted in the part. When all is said and done, The Atticus Institute doesn’t wind up as a classic of the genre – even in the undeniably iffy genre of found footage-type movies – but a viewer is left with a watchable and perfectly tolerable time waster. I probably wouldn’t flat-out recommend this movie, but those who enjoy found footage horror flicks will probably get a kick out of it.

 


5/10: Not so much gory as somewhat disturbing in its imagery and story.

1/10: Maybe one or two instances of minor profanity.

0/10: Documentary-like format doesn’t allow for any salacious content.

6/10: It doesn’t break new ground, but The Atticus Institute is actually kind of fun for what it is.

“You don’t get to play games with the devil, and if you do, you damn sure don’t get to make the rules…”

“At the Sound of the Trumpet, the Dead Will Rise”…Cue the Trumpet: AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

AS ABOVE, SO BELOW

(3/5)

Pros: Claustrophobic settings and nice photography make it effectively suspenseful

Cons: Goes overboard in the last act, getting pretty goofy in the process

One of the better recent found footage horror flicks, 2014’s As Above, So Below follows a team of would-be archaeologists and urban explorers deep in the extensive maze of catacombs under Paris in search of the mythical philosopher’s stone used by medieval alchemists. After discovering an artifact that allows for the decoding of ancient alchemical texts, archeology and alchemy student Scarlett Marlowe finds some clues that seem to point to a sort of treasure vault lying in a remote, undiscovered portion of the Paris catacombs. Joined by documentary filmmaker Benji and a fellow researcher (and former boyfriend) named George, Scarlett enlists the help of a team of urban explorers who offer to lead her through the catacombs in exchange for half of any treasure discovered. After some interesting objects have been uncovered, things take a turn for the worst when it becomes evident that this section of the catacombs can detect the fears of those who journey through them. It isn’t long before each of the team members is facing a sort of personal hell.

e2b343c24fd55fc9e621636ccdc6edabdd45d668“What was that?”

Directed by John Erick Dowdle (and co-written by he and brother Drew), As Above, So Below benefits immensely from taking place in near darkness in a disorienting and incredibly claustrophobic setting. This was filmed in the actual catacombs of Paris, with little use of props and I have to give credit to cinematographer Léo Hinstin for not only getting the job done in difficult conditions, but actually making the most of them. As was the case in The Blair Witch Project, the most scary thing in the film isn’t the murderous beings that prowl these catacombs and occasionally come into view, but rather that which exists in the mind of the viewer. Much of the film is photographed using cameras (supposedly) mounted on the headlamps of the team members, and the only source of light in the catacombs comes from these lamps. Hence, there typically is only a small patch of light visible directly in front of the camera: the sides and background of virtually every shots is completely obscured in shadow. With the sides of the frame literally closing in on the characters much of the time as they scurry through ever more cramped environments, a viewer spends half the time watching the periphery in hopes of spotting threats before they reveal themselves. Needless to say, the prevalence of darkness ensures that when the inevitable jump scares do pop up, they’re real doozies: this is the perfect scary movie to watch at home with all the lights off.

8H89_D003_00327_RV2_CROP-300x217Solving puzzles during the film’s opening, Indiana Jones section.

Though I’d imagine most viewers would go into this film expecting a scary movie, I actually really liked the sections that play kind of like an Indiana Jones or Da Vinci Code. The first half of the film has relatively few obvious horror moments, and instead is more an adventure that finds characters searching for obscure clues, secret passages, and hidden inscriptions. The first-person perspective actually works out surprisingly well during this portion of the film, but by the time things transition into straight-up horror movie mode (after the obligatory – and legitimately distressing – “we’re lost” section), it would seem that the writers decided to make up for lost time, cramming as many shadowy and creepy beings, jarring camera moves, and strobe effect edits into the film as possible along with a spattering of gore.

as-above-so-below-movie-trailer-paris-catacombsCreepy!

As Above, So Below does become quite suspenseful during its last act, but the Dowdle’s seem to have gone a bit overboard in an attempt to appeal to horror fans: there’s almost too much craziness happening to keep track of it all, and the vague explanations provided don’t keep things from frequently getting downright goofy. I guess we’re supposed to believe that the characters are faced with some sort of dark magic inflicted on them by the alchemists who once used these tunnels, but this is never quite made clear. It’s kind of shame that things do get so confused and muddled down the stretch: this film had the potential to be something really cool – and even as it is, it’s significantly better and more effective than many modern horror flicks. I just wish the director would have tightened the reins a bit at a certain point instead of letting jagged shaky cam and paranormal mumbo-jumbo take over.

kc2nx52skpr6c3nfr3zgThis probably isn’t the best movie for those with either motion sickness or claustrophobia.

Generally, I thought the cast here did a decent job. Cute British actress Perdita Weeks plays Scarlett, and even though the character had an uncanny (and pretty much impossible) ability to piece together solutions to extremely obscure puzzles in record time, I thought the performance was fairly credible. Even if none of the performers quite hit the right note during moments of hysteria and panic, the script doesn’t do them any favors, sinking to a low point when, after one team member has just succumbed to injuries, Scarlett drops the trademark line of “we have to keep moving,” repeating the line ad infinitum from then on out. Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar play the French urban explorers who find themselves in way over their head, while Ben Feldman sort of underplays George, Scarlett’s former flame who reluctantly joins the team underground. Edwin Hodge initially seems like the proverbial “voice of reason” playing the documentary filmmaker along for the ride, but following a moment in which Hodge overplays the hell out of getting stuck in a crevice, he’s more or less doomed to suffer at the hands of the shadowy figures lurking in the dark. Special notice among the cast has to go to Cosme Castro who creeps it up as the long-lost tunnel dweller who miraculous appears out of the shadows but doesn’t seem to be the same guy that went missing years before…

slime.jpbYeah.  I don’t know either.

In the end, As Above, So Below isn’t covering especially new territory – the burial tunnels under Paris had previously been utilized in the altogether mediocre 2007 film Catacombs after all, and first-person scare flicks seem to be a dime a dozen these days – but it’s undeniably effective at building suspense and tension even though it resorts to an overload of horror imagery in its last reel. Found footage films are notorious for having endings that can either make or break them, but I thought the conclusion here was actually kind of clever. The sound design is also pretty neat and appropriately unsettling – I love the occasional bits of eerie, pseudo-religious music that echoes on the soundtrack, and Max Richter’s score plays like dark ambient at its most menacing. I often trash modern horror flicks just because they’re modern horror flicks, but every once in a while one surprises me: though I fully expected it to be completely lame, As Above, So Below turned out to be more entertaining than it really should have been. I’m not calling it a masterpiece or a game-changer, but it’s definitely worth a look.

maxresdefaultwait…what…

5/10: Plenty of intensity and some blood, though to the film’s credit, this isn’t remotely as hideously graphic as many of today’s horror flicks.

6/10: Intermittent strong profanity.

1/10: A few  glimpses of women in semi-see-through clothing.

6/10: Competently made and fairly suspenseful found-footage horror. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

“The only way out is down…”

Contamination of the Redneck Zombies: I WAS BITTEN – THE WALKER COUNTY INCIDENT

I WAS BITTEN: THE WALKER COUNTY INCIDENT on Animal Planet

(2/5)

Pros: Not bad as a sketchy found-footage film

Cons: …it’s getting to be that you can’t trust nothing on the “educational” channels…

After several days of redundant River Monsters specials and some decent legitimate documentaries relating to , , , and , Animal Planet’s Monster Week 2015 finally got around to unleashing yet another test of audience gullibility. First airing on May 22, I Was Bitten: The Walker County Incident follows the story of a young man named Daniel who claims to have been bitten by an unknown creature in the Alabama woods. In typical pseudo-documentary fashion, a film crew quickly arrives to document the man’s inevitable hunt for the creature that attacked him, one which eventually uncovers a particularly ambiguous (and thoroughly unexplained) conspiracy relating to the local nuclear plants. Just when a viewer thinks this program will end without shedding light on anything, The Walker County Incident unleashes one of the worst endings ever seen in this already suspect genre of television. One is left wondering how such a thing wound up airing on a supposedly “educational” channel in the first place: this is virtually tailor-made for the Syfy Channel.

wuh?
No…it can’t be…not another phony documentary passing itself off as the real thing…

Circa 2015, the basic formula for the made-for-cable mockumentary has been well-established – we’ve had multiple seasons of Mountain Monsters after all, along with a host of even more reprehensible imitations. While its main story arc is woefully familiar, what separates The Walker County Incident from its kin is that this program mainly revolves around a single main character as opposed to a team of buffoons. Daniel comes across as the prototypical redneck, albeit one who’s become increasingly paranoid and maybe even delusional since he was attacked near his home by an unknown creature that he speculates may in fact be a zombie. The guy’s main goal is to identify and eliminate his attacker, but he also has to take the safety of his family – namely, a concerned wife along with his gun-toting mother and her Elvis impersonator husband – into account. To that end, Daniel installs a series of CCTV cameras on the property, which he insists on monitoring at all hours of the day. Ultimately, Daniel’s obsession with the beast that attacked him results in an inevitable showdown between the increasingly lethargic and glassy-eyed hunter and his fed-up wife.

if only
If only there was some sort of attack at any point…

Par for the course in a show like this, The Walker County Incident tries its damnedest to pass itself off as a legit documentary. The majority of the show is filmed from the perspective of a camera crew who are (inexplicably) right alongside Daniel as he tracks down his attacker and goes about his daily business. In my opinion, the show looks a little too flashy in terms of its image quality and editing, seeming to capture all-too-convenient angles on various, supposedly live events to be authentic (do you think the camera crew…like…knew what was going to happen before it happened???), but the show does seem to maintain a decent amount of semi-credibility up to its thoroughly ridiculous ending. I could see someone almost …almost… buying into this account prior to the ending, which is jaw-droppingly goofy, making a mockery of everything that came before it. I’ve seen most every one of these faux-documentaries that’s out there and have suffered through some mightily lousy conclusions in my day, but the climax of this program (replete with a “hand over the camera lens” final shot) takes the cake. It really seals the deal on the fact that a viewer has just wasted two hours of life.

show might
Program might have been better had it combined balt salt cannibals with backwoods hunters.

Considering the number of painfully similar programs out there, I hope that most viewers would watch this not because of its supposed verisimilitude, but rather because it’s a somewhat entertaining time waster. If nothing else, this show does make fine use of location shooting: along with the story elements, the director includes numerous montages which help nail down the setting in which the events depicted occur. These sequences are somewhat reminiscent of certain moments captured in the first season of HBO’s True Detective, and they go a long way in establishing Walker County, Alabama as a sort of decaying hell on Earth, ripe with pollution and plenty of tall tales. As is the case with many of today’s found footage-type productions, The Walker County Incident also utilizes different types of cameras, including cellphone videos and nightvision footage in the finished film along with the more professional-looking narrative camerawork. Interviews conducted with locals unaffiliated with the production itself are thrown in to add flavor to the proceedings, and the overall editing of the show is quite slick, with appropriate music cues and over-emphasized sound added at key moments.

edubucation
One has to wonder what sort of edubucation folks get in the Walker County School System…

Even if the production would be somewhat compelling for those who thrive on monster-related programming however, there’s really no denying that The Walker County Incident is sluggish in terms of how it plays out. There are very few genuinely exciting sequences in this ninety-odd minute show (two hours with commercials), and a vast majority of its running time is dedicated to documenting Daniel’s increasingly eccentric everyday life. We see the belligerent young man going to several doctors who attempt to analyze the strange injuries Daniel sustained during the attack and he even tries hypnosis to recall details about the incident that he had forgotten over time. These sequences do add dramatic tension to the piece, most of which relates to Daniel’s deteriorating relationship with his wife Krystal. Unfortunately, not only would most viewers have seen this sort of material before (it’s exactly what one would expect, with minimal imagination applied in an effort to spice things up), but the story also gets plain dumb at times, hitting a lowpoint when Krystal blows her top after Daniel skips out in the middle of one of his stepfather’s Elvis-inspired performances. Combine the predictability and absurdity of the story elements with the fact that there are so few moments of genuine tension or suspense and one is left with a program that’s not only genuinely ludicrous but also plain dull for most of its duration. The writers make absolutely no effort to explain a damn thing with regard to the creature/entity/force being investigated, and a viewer is left to stare perplexed and googly-eyed at the screen by the time this thing is over.

hell...
Hell, this story sounds as reasonable as anything put forth in this “documentary.”

Relying almost entirely on smoke and mirrors to sustain viewer interest, The Walker County Incident never quite compensates for the fact that it’s heavy on dialogue and speculation but contains nary a smidgen of actual “evidence.” Of all the recent phony documentaries dealing with unexplained phenomena (The Devil’s Graveyard), mysterious events (Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives), or unknown creatures (Wrath of Submarine), The Walker County Incident is probably among the more disappointing of the bunch – primarily because it doesn’t solve a damn thing, unveiling a cop-out ending right when the audience should be getting the veritable money shot. Capably shot and well-assembled but essentially a semi-ripoff of History Channel’s Cryptid: The Swamp Beast, I Was Bitten: The Walker County Incident offers nothing new to the savvy viewer. It might be acceptable as a C-grade found-footage thriller, but I’d call it rainy day entertainment at best.


RAWR

Finally this horror sub genre doesn’t put out a complete dud.

The Houses October Built                                        

(3.5/5)

Pros: Very interesting story and plot, likeable and believable characters, some creepy moments

Cons: Overly predictable, style alters pacing some

5 friends lead by Zack (Zack Andrews) recording their progress decide to take a road trip and visit several haunted houses/fun houses across the state of Texas in hopes of enjoying a really scary experience while counting down towards Halloween.  Their destination finally lands them in Louisiana for what may be the ultimate experience. -summary

The found footage style of horror receives a lot of hate and rightfully so. Many of these films hope to provide a gripping, life like POV experience but the end results are usually disastrous, in fact, almost always to the point of even being unwatchable. Director Bobby Roe must have understood this and he shot for a pretty original premise and did a fine enough job, I think, in delivering a rather creepy experience.

The plot follows the five friends which is made up of four guys and one girl, as they travel from one haunted house to another. Along the way they hear of a truly extreme type of experience delivered by a traveling attraction called Blue Skeleton, where its said by some people that they will go as far as possible to deliver a truly frightening experience just short of killing the people whom are looking for a good time. This immediately grabs Zack’s interest as he pushes forward to find this acts next location.

The Houses October Built is definitely among the better found footage horror movies out there. While it does have its flaws which I will address, it does manage to work really well with its horror elements as the movie progresses. The characters have a very natural feel to them to the point where I believe many viewers will feel for them, and certainly hopes nothing bad happens to them because they aren’t out looking for trouble nor bothering anyone, and simply don’t come off as jerks.

The movie tries to fully follow a documentary style and it provides a decent enough, inside look on the fright techniques used inside of haunted houses. If these things are for real then I would love to check one out some day; these places seem to be pitch dark, full of wild gimmicks, and creepiness around every twist and turn; this is clearly meant to rope in the viewer in hopes to blur the line on what’s real and not real. Which later works into the movie’s plot and climax down the road.

The movie works very well with its horror elements and the documentary style which creeps up again later delivering the chills. I was never scared while watching the movie, but I was definitely concerned for the characters safety and for that I have to give this movie points.

The only real gripes I can think of is that the movie couldn’t stick with one particular style; it shifted quite a bit from the documentary style to a fictional horror format, and this did rub me the wrong way in regards to pacing and being able to properly settle down and fully enjoy the movie. It was also unbelievably predictable because anyone will be able to tell where this was going.

When it comes down to what I look for in my horror movies; I can say that The Houses October Built did a swell enough job not only holding my attention but arousing some type of emotion because the ending made me angry, yet this was in a good way.  I liked the acting and chemistry among the characters; I could feel their fear when they couldn’t draw the line between real and phony. This is not the type of horror movie for the gore hounds. I mainly recommend this to the type looking for some type of story free from the severed limbs and stuff. It’s not exactly a great movie I’ll admit, but I won’t say it’s bad either.

A Lame, Found Footage Monster Mess: THE DINOSAUR PROJECT

THE DINOSAUR PROJECT

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or at Amazon

(1.5/5)

Pros: Location filming in South Africa; neat basic story

Cons: Unlikable characters; lousy acting; predictable to the extreme; mishandles the “found footage film” format

Though the flaws inherent in the “found footage” genre of film (i.e. a picture that attempts to pass itself off as being first-hand, authentic record, made up of film footage supposedly taken by the characters who are actually experiencing the story) have been well established by the 2010’s, Sid Bennett, director and co-writer of 2012’s ambitious but messy The Dinosaur Project, apparently didn’t get that memo. During the course of his film, a British/South African co-production, it becomes clear that he and the production crew are figuring out as they go along that it’s more difficult than one might initially think to create verisimilitude in a film of this nature. Bennett and fellow script writer Jay Basu come up with a few clever explanations as to why we’re seeing this amount of camera coverage on events we’re supposed to believe are happening spontaneously, but they ultimately don’t seem to be able to think outside the box far enough to leave conventional film technique behind. The long and the short of it: this film simply doesn’t work.

locations
Awe-inspiring location filming is one of this film’s only highlights.

The script begins with a crash course in the real-life legend of the (“Mo-kay-lay Mm-bem-bee”), a dinosaur-like creature that’s reported to inhabit the jungles of central Africa. The legend of this creature has been around for centuries, and The Dinosaur Project documents an British Cryptozoological Society expedition, led by noted adventurer Jonathan Marchant (played by Richard Dillane as an arrogant dictator), that goes in search of the creature. Joining Marchant on the expedition is Charlie, a would-be explorer (played by a weaselly Peter Brooke) who’s arranged funding for the journey, a spunky female medic (the cute Natasha Loring, who maybe got two days work here), an African woman who’s serving as a sort of guide, various essentially anonymous camera crew – and Jonathan’s patently irritating son Luke (played by a downright annoying Matthew Kane), who not only has snuck his way onto the helicopter taking the gang deep into the jungle but also (conveniently) just so happens to be a tech wiz and audio/video expert. As might be expected, things don’t exactly go according to plan once the expedition gets going – before a viewer even really knows what’s happening, the expedition’s helicopter crashes in a remote jungle, an area that (surprise!) seems to be hiding an array of prehistoric creatures that have miraculously survived until the present day.


Many instances of actors talking directly to the camera seems like laziness on the part of the writers and director to me.

From here, The Dinosaur Project alternates between typical jungle adventure scenes of the expedition members attempting to trek through inhospitable terrain, and ones in which they have to deal with one variety or another of dinosaur (mostly, large predatory birds that show up at most inopportune times). Considering this film’s modest budget, one can assume that it doesn’t quite offer the viewer everything he might want, and be correct in that thinking. The script offers up few surprises – you’ll see everything coming from a few miles downriver – and legitimate action in the story is fairly minimal. Since this is a “found footage” film, we never quite get a good look at what’s happening during the few suspense sequences that are here, since shaky camerawork, digital artifacts, and harsh edits are used to create an chaotic atmosphere – and completely obscure the action taking place. There are only a handful of (computer-generated) dinosaurs seen during the film, and much more time is devoted to Jonathan and Luke’s expected father-son conflict – one which ends on such a lame, cringe-inducing note that all I could do was cover my eyes and groan. I’m frankly shocked that this extremely predictable film didn’t throw in the almost obligatory “LUKE – I AM YOUR FATHER” scene just for the hell of it.

aww cute
Aww, look at the cute little dino…

The thing that bothered me more than the fact that I knew damn well what was going to happen well in advance of it actually playing out (this just in: Charlie is tired of playing “second banana”), was the fact that director Bennett goes out of his way to ruin the illusion of this being an actual first-person account of a “real” expedition. There are many glaringly obvious “establishing shots” in this film that simply wouldn’t have been possible had this been a document of actual events. The camera coverage throughout the picture seems way too cinematic and convenient, as if there’s miraculously a camera sitting on every tree that just so happens to be pointed in the direction of anything (supposedly) exciting that occurs. The audio elements here are similarly too crisp and clear, and I sensed that Bennett really wasn’t comfortable making a film like this – his abilities seem more geared towards making a straight-forward narrative film and it seems like he used the found footage gimmick simply because it’s popular nowadays, not because that’s where his strengths as a filmmaker lie.

and then
…and then there’s this guy…

Having multiple characters provide commentary directly into the camera (“I’m making this video diary…”) doesn’t really cut it in a found footage film anymore, but when Luke is forced to deliver a Blair Witch Project-like weepy plea for help (“…is there anyone out there…?”) despite the fact that we’re repeatedly told that the footage from his camera is feeding onto hard drives in his rucksack, it attests to the fact that the writers simply ran out of inspiration at some point and tried to nurse this film along to its conclusion. I realize that any sane viewer would know that this film is a phony, but half the fun of the found footage genre is making yourself believe that the film could be real and it seems to me that the job of the director would be to ensure that his film maintains that illusion. To that end, Sid Bennett’s heart just doesn’t seem to be in it.

dramatic tension
In a better movie, a scene like this could have been tense.

Much as the film did make nice use of often breath-taking locations in the South African jungle thus ensuring that the setting was at least believable, there’s not much else here that’s honestly any good. Sure, the dinosaurs look pretty cool but they’re simply not in enough scenes to sustain a viewer’s interest – the film falters whenever we’re forced to concentrate on the cast of downright unlikable human characters and the hokey “drama” that plays out around them. It’s kind of shame that a cool basic idea was handled so poorly – The Dinosaur Project had much more going for it than the typically claustrophobic and miniscule found footage production of the Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity variety. I’d have to call this one of the most disappointing of this often-maligned genre: though it has some clever ideas, it would be a time-waster at best.


Widescreen DVD from Vivendi Entertainment boasts no special features. Not a huge loss in this case, but still a pretty trash DVD.


3/10 : A few dinosaur attacks; very minimal blood or gore. Some “intense” moments of suspense.


1/10 : Surprisingly clean, with maybe a few instances of rough language.


1/10 : Horndog Luke focuses his camera on the “assets” of the only cute girl in the film at one point. That’s about it.


2/10 : Has some clever story ideas, but the handling of material is pretty lousy. Most viewers won’t care a whole lot about this one.


Famous Last Words: “There’s nothing out there…was there?”

Trailer:

The Snowman Exists! RUSSIAN YETI: THE KILLER LIVES

RUSSIAN YETI: THE KILLER LIVES

(3/5)

Pros: Parts relating to real life Dyatlov Pass Incident

Cons: Parts relating to existence of unknown hominid

As if it’s not bad enough that educational channels like History, Discovery, The Learning Channel, and Animal Planet constantly air low-grade reality TV, producers on these channels now seem to have come to believe that the pseudo-documentary or “mockumentary” if you will, is the way to increase viewership. First, we had Animal Planet’s Mermaids: The Body Found, which based its argument that mermaids are real on a unexplained marine sound which was recorded on a US Navy hydrophone. Then came Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a program that presented a case for the existence of an enormous prehistoric shark, using stories about a 30-foot long “submarine shark” in South Africa as its inspiration. Compared to these somewhat entertaining but iffy time-wastes, 2014’s Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives has the most basis in actual, hard facts since it revolves around an incident which undoubtedly happened and is plenty bizarre. From this foundation in reality however, the program veers into fantasy land, eventually winding up being yet another typically goofy first-person suspense film and more proof that public fascination with all things “monster-related” continues.

tent
Search and rescue party finds the missing students’ tent.

As a starting point, Russian Yeti tells the tale of the so-called Dyatlov Pass Incident that occurred in the remote Ural Mountains of the (then) Soviet Union in 1959, in which nine college students (two women and seven men) on an expedition deep into the wilderness were killed under mysterious circumstances. After an extensive search and rescue operation, the group’s tent (which showed signs of being ripped apart from inside) was discovered, and shortly afterward, the nine bodies were found. At this point, considering the bodies of the missing students had been found, one might think the cause of their death would be obvious, but instead, the discovery of the bodies only added to the mystery surrounding the case. Many of the dead students bore horrific and almost unexplainable injuries: some of their bodies had been crushed by incredible force, and a few were mutilated in strange ways. One woman not only had her eyes gouged out but also her tongue had been removed. Soviet authorities listed the cause of death as being due to a “compelling natural force,” whatever the hell that means, and plenty of speculation over the years hasn’t provided a satisfactory explanation as to what really happened.

After reviewing the basic information surrounding this incident, the supposed documentary Russian Yeti begins to promote the claim that the nine students were attacked and killed by an unknown hominid (Bigfoot if you like) that stalks the remote regions of Russia. The program follows an “investigation” conducted by American researcher Mike Libecki who, along with a Russian translator/fellow investigator named Maria Klenokova, journeys deep into the Russian tundra in search of the creature. Along the way, various “evidence” is presented which seems to support the existence of the Yeti. Be prepared for shadowy videos, footprint casts, and “expert testimony,” culminating (like the Megalodon show before it) in a showdown between the investigators and an apparent Yeti lurking just off camera….

evidence?
I’ll just leave this here.

Material relating to the Yeti (or “Menk” as its called in the wilds of Russia) seems to have been lifted straight out of National Geographic’s Hunt for the Abominable Snowman which aired last year. Much of the same video evidence from that straight-faced documentary (which concluded that the Yeti may be a species of prehistoric polar bear previously though to have been extinct) is seen here, and Russian Yeti goes so far as to include interviews with many of the same people as seen in the National Geographic special. Video evidence supporting the Yeti’s existence is (as expected) a bit shaky, with grainy home video images showing something dark looming in the background of footage shot in the Russian wilderness; it’s exactly the type of sketchy “proof” that features at the center of every argument related to Bigfoot. Worth noting that the almost obligatory appearance by American scientist Dr. Jeff Meldrum, a Bigfoot researcher who without doubt appears in EVERY show related to unknown, large hominids, doesn’t occur until around the half hour mark – remarkable restraint for a program of this nature; I was expecting him to show up within five minutes.


This article wouldn’t be complete without Dr. Jeff Meldrum…America’s finest Bigfoot researcher?

Considering the ho-hum array of Yeti evidence, the highlight of the show for me then (and the reason why I believe that this may be the most downright intriguing of these recent pseudo-documentary films) was the part of the program relating directly to the Dyatlov Pass Incident. I had been aware of this story prior to seeing this show and admittedly find most all information related to it to be fascinating. In my mind, the story of the Dyatlov Pass expedition is probably one of the most downright strange of the twentieth century – it’s really no wonder why it’s become a sort of hotbed topic for mystery buffs lately, even inspiring a Hollywood film – and I thought Russian Yeti did a nice job of explaining it. Presented here are some fascinating photographs chronicling the doomed expedition itself (the students had at least one camera with them, which was recovered from their demolished tent), the subsequent search and rescue operation, and the examination of the bodies. This last element means that Russian Yeti may not be appropriate for the squeamish, since we get several gruesome black and white images of the students’ mangled corpses. This program also briefly explains some of the many theories relating to the deaths of the students – with everything from avalanches to secret missile tests to UFO’s being blamed for the deaths. What would one of these shows be without some type of government conspiracy?


The mysterious last photograph taken by the expedition’s camera. What does it show?

Though this program does present some factual information however, one can’t ignore the fact that it is by no means an honest documentary. It’s likely that some gullible viewers would take this film at face value since it does play in an identical manner to many legitimate documentaries that air on The Discovery Channel. The more savvy crowd though won’t be at all convinced by the hurried conclusions made by the program, slick camera work and editing that make this show look a little too cinematic, or by the recreated footage that attempts to envision what actually happened to the Dyatlov expedition by showing nondescript, shaky and grainy, black and white film footage that appears to have been shot by the expedition members themselves. Obviously, this material wasn’t filmed in 1959, but no declaration is ever made to point out the fact that it isn’t authentic. The idea of fabricated footage being presented as real-deal document is bad enough and in my mind, represents a strike against the production, but the program loses all credibility when, after the discovery of a (conveniently, previously unseen) photo from the Dyatlov expedition which shows a dark, humanoid figure prowling the nearby woods, the narrative shifts its focus onto Libecki and Klenokova’s search of the Russian wilderness for the Yeti. Resorting to the usual mixture of obvious sound effects representing an unknown creature screaming and hollering in the distance, dark shaky-cam cinematography that purposely doesn’t show the viewer much of anything, and lousy, strained acting performances during the moments of suspense, Russian Yeti eventually becomes downright pathetic and almost laughable.

Directed by Leon Rawlski and playing in a manner that’s strikingly similar to the influential 1997 film The Last Broadcast that inspired The Blair Witch Project and in turn, the entire “found footage” genre, Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives is another phony documentary that is certainly likely to get people talking. It also undoubtedly will convince a few folks – which only speaks to the fact that some people will not only believe anything they see on TV but assume that a+b automatically equals C. While I can’t in any capacity say that I support the decision to make programs like this and air them on “educational channels,” Russian Yeti is entertaining enough even though I would have much preferred it to be a straight documentary about the Dyatlov Pass Incident instead of a made-up story about oversized Russian ape men. As is the case with the similar mermaid and shark programs, this is enjoyable provided one doesn’t take it all that seriously.


Though it may eventually wind up on DVD, this made-for-TV program will probably see many repeat airings over the next couple months on either Discovery or Animal Planet.


6/10 : Actual images of the mutilated bodies recovered from the Russian wilderness, some quite graphic.


1/10 : Pretty sanitary, with maybe a minor cuss word or two.


0/10 : Not a thing.


8/10 : The Finding Bigfoot crowd will eat this one up.


Some advice from Igor Bourtsev, expert on the Russian Yeti: “If you go into the woods, don’t whistle, or the Yeti may come and punish you.”

Teaser: