Tag: found footage

Hell House LLC

Hell House LLC (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Stephen Cognetti’s “Hell House LLC” could have been a great haunted house film—a literal one because it involves a group of friends from New York City moving to a Podunk town to turn an abandoned hotel into a haunted house for the month of Halloween—because it is not at all tempted to utilize CGI and other ostentatious visual effects to scare the audience. When this movie employs practical effects, like creepy masks and bloody cosmetics paired with inanimate objects suddenly moving on their own in the middle of the night, it’s quite spine-tingling. It is let down, however, by the tropes and limitations of the found footage subgenre. Only a notable few are highly effective (“The Blair Witch Project,” “Lake Mungo,” “Troll Hunter,” “Grave Encounters,” just to name some) and this project is not one of them.

The idea that something goes horribly awry in a haunt is deeply unsettling because many factors can go wrong: malfunctioning props, drunk visitors acting a fool, discerning between what’s a part of the show versus an accident and actual cries for help. This is an effective hook, but it is not presented in a way that is clear, precise, or exciting. In the picture’s opening minutes, we are made to watch a video captured using a visitor’s cell phone camera. It is an annoying struggle half the time to try to make sense of what is happening due to all the screaming combined with rapid turns of the person holding the camera. Not to mention all the shaking. There is even a stampede. It is a frustrating way to invite the viewers into the story because we are given the initial impression that is going to be just like any other found footage flick: few fresh ideas, if any, and absolute minimal craft.

But this poorly executed introduction is not representative of the work. Soon we come to meet the group of friends who decide to turn the abandoned Abaddon Hotel into a walkthrough (Danny Bellini, Ryan Jennifer Jones, Gore Abrams, Jared Hacker, Adam Schneider). We learn a bit about how they get along, what they think of each other, their sense of humor, their experiences with creating memorable haunts… what scares them, who gets easily spooked, who reacts with anger when faced with paranormal phenomenon. I wished, however, that the question of why Alex (Bellini), the leader, chose to revive this specific hotel, which had been closed for thirty years, is communicated early on. Did he buy it? Is he renting it? Did it come cheap? Is he attracted to its shocking history? For the sake of establishing a thicker atmosphere, these questions ought to have been answered.

The best scares are found in the middle of film, when characters wake up in the middle of the night due to noises downstairs, a strange feeling, or for no discernible reason. All of us have experienced waking up in the middle of the night so the situational horror is immediately relatable. Of course, they go investigating. And, of course, they see or experience something they wish they hadn’t. At times their reactions are humorous. And there are other times when we understand why they would be upset and express wanting to leave the hotel for good. I loved that although I am not scared of clowns… in the moment the movie convinced me I was.

Details prove to matter. Like how the three mannequins’ heads—wearing clown masks—are stuck in one position. Our protagonists even force to move the heads because they claim it would be far scarier if these clowns were looking in different directions during the haunt—like no matter from which angle you enter the room, you find at least one of them looking at you. No luck. They wouldn’t budge. And yet… and yet. It seems like the longer Alex and company stay in that hotel, the place gets angrier. There is escalating tension after every scene.

The climax is handled disastrously. It is shown to us what exactly happened during the haunt’s opening night which resulted in multiple injuries and casualties. Like the uninspired opening scene, this, too, is filled to the brim with screaming and shaking of the camera. A little bit is enough. It appears as though the writer-director is convinced that the more he shakes the camera, the more realistic the movie comes across. The reality is that everyone knows the movie is not actually found footage. So why cheapen a good time?

The Houses October Built

The Houses October Built (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Like countless disappointing found footage flicks, many of them a complete waste of time, “The Houses October Built,” directed by Bobby Roe, ought to have strived to become a better movie considering that it really does provide an interesting premise. Either through sheer laziness or wishing to be so different that it ended up backfiring, the picture does not have a third act nor does it provide the catharsis required in horror films.

Five friends (Brandy Schaefer, Zack Andrews, Bobby and Mikey Roe, and Jeff Larson) embark on a cross-country trip to visit “extreme haunts” five days before Halloween. It is rumored that a handful are so intense, people who choose to partake are separated from their pack, tied up, blindfolded, dragged, and terrorized in all sorts of ways as if they were in a real-life horror film. Some of the people who work in these “extreme haunts” are even said to be genuine criminals, actual serial killers.

Being a found footage film, there are plenty of expected camera shaking. This conceit can be overcome given that something interesting happens on a consistent basis. However, here, much of the dialogue is flat and repetitive; the action is standard and uninspiring. Exchanges inside the RV ought to have given us insights about who the characters are outside of the road trip and why they have chosen to partake in the adventure in the first place—and still continue with their plans even though their instincts are telling them they should go back as they are thrusted into increasingly terrifying situations. Instead, we get mere vocalizations of how freaked out they are. Successful horror films thrive on showing rather than telling.

Shots that take place inside the haunts are downright awful. I imagine people who would get scared during these scenes are those who choose to not go into one in the first place. The director, Bobby Roe, needs to understand that just because a found-footage film is being made does not mean that filmmaking techniques can be thrown out the window. The pathetic walkthrough sequences are so terrible, anybody else without camera experience but with a sharp eye and intention to capture images that stick in the mind could very likely record scenes that are much stronger than what are offered here. The astounding lack of effort is an embarrassment and an insult to the viewers. It’s not even worth uploading on YouTube.

The picture provides no catharsis. Think of the best horror movies or even those you remember as if you had seen them only yesterday. In general, these films allow for the protagonist, or protagonists, to fight back against their terrorizers. Whether our heroines or heroes succeed or not is irrelevant. What matters is that they are given a chance to survive—and we root for them to see the light of day. This movie, on the other hand, does not provide any of these elements. It simply ends, and some random man is shown being interviewed—reiterating a point the prologue had already made. Clearly, the project does not value anybody’s time or intelligence.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes

The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

The premise of “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” directed by John Erick Dowdle, is an interesting one because although it belongs under the found footage sub-genre, it does not involve supernatural occurrences to try to scare the wits out of the viewers. Instead, its content is presented as an investigation by means of interviewing various experts, from forensic pathologists, FBI field agents, police offers, to medical technicians, and presenting the images contained within the videotapes that the serial killer left behind. One can choose whether or not to believe in ghosts, but it is certain that there are many serial killers out there who have not been caught—and may never get caught.

The film makes a few severe miscalculations that break the realism it creates. When certain supposedly real footages are shown, like the abduction of a little girl who is playing with dolls in her family’s yard, a dramatic score can be heard and eventually reaches a crescendo. A person may or may not believe that the tapes are real, but the fact is this: the movie is presenting its content as potentially real. Thus, it must be evaluated within the parameters or standards of the sub-genre.

Why add an eerie score to an already chilling course of action? What this scene, and others like it, communicates is a lack of confidence in the images being shown. We all have that fear of a complete stranger walking up to a child, interacting with him or her, and then taking the child for a ride. A score that functions to underline the importance of the scene is unnecessary because we already have a gut reaction to it. Clearly, sometimes less is more.

Some of the images are extremely difficult to see. While a certain level of graininess, lack of light, and ambiguity is required, there are full sequences here where we can walk away for two minutes and not miss a thing. Why? Because we can listen to the sounds and imagine a more horrific encounter than the obfuscatory images.

Its strength lies in some the extended sequences of a tape’s content. A particular standout involves the killer breaking into the Dempsey house while Cheryl, a home alone teenager whose parents are away, is in the shower. The way it unfolds is frightening because there is a mechanical calm to the man holding the camera. He makes sudden movements only when absolutely necessary. The sequence tells us a lot about him. First, it may not be the first time he has snuck into someone’s home to spy on them. Second, we see how patient he is. For example, he does not attack his victim in the shower because she is expecting her boyfriend to arrive at any time. He waits until the opportunity is exactly ripe for the picking.

“The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” written by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle, is also quite engaging when certain experts are in front of the camera. Most creepy is when an FBI field agent is walking around a property pointing to us which specific areas contained corpses and how mutilated they were. It is only three minutes into the picture and already we understand that what we are dealing with is a monster with an insatiable dark passenger.


Chronicle (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

With a terminally ill mother (Bo Petersen) and a drunkard of a father (Michael Kelly), Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is far from a happy teenager. To everyone’s surprise, Andrew decides to buy a video camera and begins to film the ordinariness of his life, from the bullying he endures in and out of school to the moments when he feels open enough to reveal his secret insecurities to his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell). From looking at his bright eyes, weighed down by darkening eye bags, we can surmise that maybe he decides to record so that he can later watch the footages and find some sort of reassurance that his life is worth living. While at a rave, Matt and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), a popular jock, invite Andrew to an underground cave. Inside houses a structure that emanates strange lights and sounds. The next couple of weeks, they begin to exhibit powers starting with psychokinesis.

“Chronicle,” based on the screenplay by Max Landis, takes advantage of the found footage sub-genre, so often used as a disappointing gimmick, by telling a rather surprisingly moving story of a young man who has grown so tired of being pushed around. What if one day that person gets enough power to fight back?

One of the reasons why I enjoyed the picture so much is, especially during its early scenes, its consistency in quickly turning events from somewhat harmless fun to life-threatening. For instance, eventually discovering that they are able to will their body to levitate, the trio decide to play catch amongst the clouds. Suddenly, the peaceful game turns deadly when a plane in full speed reveals itself from an awkward angle. The initially relatively stable camera, controlled by Andrew’s mind as it hovers over and around them, goes through appropriate convulsions once panic sets in.

As much as it is very amusing to watch the guys discover and experiment their newfangled abilities, the more interesting moments involve Andrew talking about how he feels so lonely sometimes. I must admit that I began to get a bit teary-eyed because I found myself able to relate to the essence of his loneliness. As hard as he tries to fit in during social gatherings, he just has a sensitive personality which often leads to disappointments and other emotional disasters. It is obvious that he is grateful of the powers because the experiences bind them as soldiers do when in battle.

Prior to their trip to the cave, Andrew is not really close to Matt even though they are cousins. And Andrew certainly is not a part of Steve’s social circle. Steve’s friends–including himself, at least initially–mostly see Andrew as that loser who wears the same grey sweater every day to school. At one point, when Andrew confesses to Steve and Matt that he has just had the best day of his life, it does not feel like some cheap cliché. The line holds meaning to us because the camera captures the essence of their bond and it shows us the value of Andrew deciding to come out of his shell a little. I think that emotional honesty moved me so much because when he does terrible things later on, I was still able to root for and empathize with him.

Despite its very short running time, Andrew’s character arc feels complete and the denouements feel just right. Directed by Josh Trank, “Chronicle” could have used less scenes of Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) the blogger, Matt’s romantic interest, in order to make the final product even leaner. The romance brings nothing special to the film and I felt the momentum slow down each time they flirt in such a boring way. They are so cutesy around one another, I was just thankful there is not a “No, you hang up first!” scene. Still, the pathos of Andrew’s suffering is so strong, brilliantly played by DeHaan, everything else feels secondary.

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Katie (Katie Featherston) delivered a box of videotapes to her sister’s house (Sprague Grayden) which contained events in September 1988 when young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and young Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) lived with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Julie and Dennis decided to make a sex tape. Just when things began to become pornographic, they were interrupted by an earthquake. As the couple ran from the room to get the kids, the camera captured an invisible figure with the help from the dust that fell from the ceiling. This strange occurrence inspired Dennis to install cameras for two reasons: to gather evidence that there really was a ghost in the house and to see what it wanted from them. “Paranormal Activity 3,” written by Christopher Landon and Oren Peli, did not only deliver a dearth of genuine scares, it offered only one piece of new information that connected Katie and Kristi’s stories from Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” and Tod Williams’ “Paranormal Activity 2,” respectively. When the credits rolled, I wondered why they even bothered. There was no connection, as a family, between the characters and everyone seemed to be playing dumb. They consistently waited to hear weird noises or see furnitures move by themselves instead of actually doing something to try to prevent them from happening again. Perhaps I would have felt more scared for the family if the parents were more protective of their children by allowing their instincts to take over once in a while. Sometimes we just know that there’s something really wrong. We don’t wait for all the facts before taking action especially when it comes to survival. If Dennis reviewed the tapes each day, I didn’t understand why the filmmakers did not allow him to see the videos in which Katie’s bed was moved by an unknown force and she being violently dragged across the floor. That was an important moment, a potential climax, and it should have been shown. If I was their father and I saw what happened to my kids the night before, there was no way I was going to stay in that house and allow my children to be harmed. In some instances, the film failed to milk what they had. Dennis and Julie hired a babysitter (Johanna Braddy) so they could have some alone time in the city. It was the ’80s and teen slasher flicks, most of them involved babysitters, dominated the horror genre. It could have been more pointed with its irony when the house ghost, with a white sheet over its head, inched toward Lisa as she read a book in the kitchen. Once the sheet fell to the ground, the tension was gone and it reverted to being a soporific bore. “Paranormal Activity 3,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, had very limited tricks up its sleeve. I was thunderstruck not because of the visual effects behind the paranormal happenings which, by the way, were just mediocre, but because of its overall lack of imagination to propel the story forward. If I were to compile a ratio between scenes of nothing happening and “scares,” the former would outweigh the latter by a factor of five.