Last Broadcast, The (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
Known as the inspiration of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Last Broadcast” is an effective faux-documentary, not a found footage film that some may incorrectly lead others to believe. The camera doesn’t just sit on one spot or lugged around. The majority of the picture consists of looking into a crime by hearing from professionals and law enforcers, going over the identities of those involved, sifting through evidence after the murders, putting together clips from various perspectives, and posing questions such as what really happened in the woods and what is the mythical Jersey Devil.
Co-writers and co-directors Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiller, also playing two of the victims, are able to create an engaging crime-mystery. It is so interesting and so creepy, I found myself feeling cold in the middle of it, forgetting once in a while that its contents are entirely fictional. Strong horror films grab the viewers by the throat and don’t let go until the credits roll. Although its final five to ten minutes are somewhat laughable and ridiculous, the rest is near perfect in terms of what it sets out to accomplish.
The mystery involves forty-seven pieces of scattered body parts in Pine Barrens, New Jersey. The investigators found no evidence of struggle, no footprints, not even a hint of the kind weapon used to commit the grizzly murders. But they did have a suspect: Jim Suerd (Jim Seward), a self-proclaimed psychic who volunteered to guide the co-hosts of “Fact or Fiction” (Avalos and Weiller), a local cable TV paranormal variety show. There is a fourth man involved, Rein Clackin (Rein Clabbers), the soundman… but his body was never found, only his hat and a whole lot of blood.
Most impressive about the picture is that it doesn’t bother to amp up the scares in any obvious manner. In fact, it employs a relaxed approach through simple gestures like a flashcard that reads, “The following people are not actors.” A handful of actors portraying various professionals command an authenticity to them. It is in how they sit, how they present their findings and what these might mean, how they look at the camera with utmost solemnity.
When it does show footages of the soon-to-be dead men in the woods, the camera shakes but never to a point where it is dizzying or unbearable. For instance, nobody runs away from danger and the camera just so happens to point down at the ground as holder huffs and puffs to safety. For a movie with a budget of $900, it is professional, commanding a high level of control that more expensive projects severely lack. Further, it is a great decision to show so-called found footages only in parts and so over time it is like putting together the pieces of a complex puzzle.
“The Last Broadcast” is impaired by the sudden, out of place, frustratingly ineffective third person perspective during its closing minutes. One gets the impression that Avalos and Weiller felt the need to provide a definite or concrete answer as to what really happened out there in the woods rather than trusting the audience to come up with their own conclusions. Sometimes it is the right move to end a story, when just about every element is done right, on vague terms—as what should have been done here. Still, the rest is absorbing.
Blair Witch (2016)
★ / ★★★★
The scariest thing about “Blair Witch,” directed by Adam Wingard, is its audacity to exist despite having no good reason to. From top to bottom it reeks of mainstream horror film stench, from the painfully standard jump scares to the ostentatious exhibition of paranormal phenomena. Its most crucial limitation is that it has forgotten what made “The Blair Witch Project” so effective and chilling as a found footage picture: every image in the 1999 instant classic is so realistic, one can believe—and people did believe—that it actually happened.
This unbearably dull modern sequel dares to establish a tenuous connection to the first simply by mentioning a doomed character’s name from its predecessor whenever convenient. It makes no effort to establish an identity of its own despite being a sequel—curious because Wingard has shown in the past that he is a filmmaker who understands the importance of tone and mood to support a specific story being told. “You’re Next” and “The Guest” showcase his abilities from behind the camera. Put this work next to these films and it not merely pales by comparison but it disappears completely.
The curious twenty-somethings who venture into the woods (James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott) are not at all interesting. A fresh idea is that the four friends are equipped with various gadgetries. However, the writer, Simon Barrett, fails to inject intelligence, creativity, irony, or even a sense of humor into the increasingly desperate situation. Instead, we get the usual servings of the place, or possibly the witch, or witches, who reside in the forest, supposedly being able to manipulate time, potential victims running around while screaming, and flashlights not working during crucial moments. Not one personality is memorable.
In the middle of the picture, I caught my mind going back to the original and appreciating its minimalist approach. There are no flying yellow tents, no skeletal-looking figure lurking in the woods, no sudden boom in the score or soundtrack. Instead, there are creepy shadows (accidental or on purpose), it captures the eeriness of the forest even though the camera sees nothing there but the movement of the leaves, and the silence is deafening when a subtle sound of twigs breaking can be heard in the night. There is an escalating level of tension and suspense that this horrific sequel lacks.
Nobody expects “Blair Witch” to reinvent the found footage subgenre or to be as impactful as its predecessor, but I do expect it, at the very least, to try to deliver the requisite chills and thrills that should come with the kind of movie it attempts to be. But I got the impression that the filmmakers here did not even try to make a good movie but to merely cash in on a familiar name. The lack of inspiration is palpable in every frame.
Area 51 (2015)
★ / ★★★★
The first thing I did after watching “Area 51,” directed by Oren Peli, was to check the picture’s budget. I was horrified that five million dollars was put into the film but it looked like it had a budget of about five thousand dollars. It is very student film—by one who is meant to fail the class because he or she does not understand how to set up elementary elements, like how to create tension or suspense. This is key because the genre is sci-fi horror but the result is, for the most part, boredom.
It starts off on the wrong foot. People talk directly to camera about how three friends—Reid (Reid Warner), Darrin (Darrin Bragg), and Ben (Ben Rovner)—had gone missing ever since they decided to break into Area 51, a government facility that supposedly house extraterrestrial evidence. This is a mistake because it signals to us that it is one of those so-called found-footage pictures where it all goes terribly wrong in the end—meaning there is likely no survivor. Already we get the impression that it is a pessimistic film.
One might be tempted to compare this work to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project.” After all, they have more than a few similarities: three protagonists, characters going on a journey in search of proof, and they come to regret their decision to plunge carelessly into the unknown. But to make that comparison is an insult to the 1999 classic. That film has plenty of memorable scenes. It may frustrate many at times but one cannot stop looking at it because there is a quiet menace underneath the desperation of the characters.
Here, just about everything comes across as forced and false. For instance, as the protagonists finally arrive at the facility, one can barely see anything. The break-in occurs at night so it is very dark. In addition, the hand-held camera shakes so relentlessly that it is dizzying and we are unable to appreciate the environment or marvel at the government’s secret area. There is an exchange among the characters that the point of them going on this mission is to show the public what is hidden. I found it ironic that in the end it shows us nothing of substance.
The visual effects during the latter half are ugly and fake: floating meteorites, seemingly conscious liquid, spaceships—even invisible extraterrestrials (how convenient—it must have been so expensive creating invisible aliens on screen). One of the problems with these images is a complete lack of imagination. These are things that we have seen before in better television shows and movies. Peli’s film does not bother to be creative or offer something new. It takes tired images and formulas, chews them up, and regurgitates them. Then the filmmakers, through our eyes and brain, expect us to digest these recycled trash. Don’t you find that insulting?
Halfway through the picture, something in me—one who knows better—wished that I were watching the Season One finale of Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” That one episode is everything this movie is not: sharply written, imaginative, envelope-pushing in terms of the medium, the performances are memorable, and the revelations stick with you like a sentient goo from outer space.
Willow Creek (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
A firm believer that Bigfoot actually exists, Jim (Bryce Johnson) invites his girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), to go on a camping trip with him to Shasta-Trinity National Forest and find the area where Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin supposedly captured Bigfoot on film in 1967. Along the way, they interview residents of Willow Creek, the Bigfoot capital, and a few give caution that the couple ought to stay away from the woods. After all, bears, mountains lions, rattlesnakes, and other creatures roam free there.
If “Willow Creek” had been released right before Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ highly influential “The Blair Witch Project,” people would likely to have believed that it was indeed a real found footage film. Supernatural elements are kept at a bare minimum. Some might argue there is no supernatural element at all. The picture may not have very many scares but once it reaches the climax, its sharp claws do not let go of our attention.
I am referring to the exemplary tent scene where the take appears to go uninterrupted for about half an hour. It is so simple but extremely effective: Two people woken up in the middle of the night, clearly out of their depths, by strange noises in the woods. First they hear knocking sounds from afar. Kelly, a Bigfoot non-believer, claims it is only a prank.
But then the knocking sounds get closer. They hear rustling near the tent. Kelly starts to get anxious. She sits in the dark, her eyes wondering if she had been wrong to doubt this whole time. Jim’s eyes, too, wonder if he had made the wrong decision to invite his girlfriend. If things did not go well in the next few hours, the body count would be two.
The scene inside the tent reminded me of Chris Kentis’ highly underrated horror film “Open Water.” Like that gem, the focus is on two people stuck in a very scary place. They know that a threat is out there but nothing else. How many are hunting them? When will they strike? Will they make it through the night?
With such a short running time, writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait is aware that he must be efficient in telling his story. And he is. There is a defined rising action in a form of comedy. That is, the quirky interviews with the townsfolk who make a living selling various Bigfoot merchandises. I also enjoyed the silly debates between Jim and Kelly in the car. They sound like a real couple on a getaway.
Subtract the final thirty to thirty-five minutes, Goldthwait has created a good travelogue. As I watched the pair eat a Bigfoot sandwich, it occurred to me that I would like to visit Willow Creek, California some time. I would, however, stay far away from the forest. I am not camping person anyway.
★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene of the Spanish film “Eskalofrío” depicted Santi (Junio Valverde) desperately running away from the sunlight as if he was a vampire. When he woke up from the nightmare, we learned that he wasn’t a vampire but had a condition in which his skin had an acute sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Direct contact to sunlight weakened Santi and could potentially kill him so the doctor recommended that Santi and his mother (Mar Sodupe) move to an area where the sun did not appear for very long. Coincidentally, when the mother and son moved to an isolated village in the mountains, grizzly murders started to occur. The film successfully generated genuine thrills and scares. Even though the movie felt small due to the budget, it had confidence in putting characters in really scary situations and allowing them to extricate themselves from painful deaths. Santi was someone we could immediately root for because he craved the life of normalcy but instead had no choice but to only be active at night due to his strange condition. He was outsider in the city and he was still an outsider in the small village. For a horror film, it was extremely fast-paced. Quick cuts were abound but I did not find them distracting because each scene was straight to the point, one rising action after another up until the first murder in the woods. Was the murderer a person, a monster, or perhaps both? Once the movie forced us to ask questions, its momentum and sense of dread consistently increased. What I loved about the film was once it reached a boiling point, it delivered one or two terrifying scenes, and would continue to build again. The most memorable scene for me was when Santi was alone in the house and he started to panic about the murderer possibly wanting to break in. It was very funny to watch because he did exactly what I would have done: Run like the wind and lock all the doors and windows, block the fireplace using a couch, grab a weapon, and sleep in the biggest area of the house. But it was also scary because we knew nothing of the intruder other than it was very strong and capable of killing in a heartbeat. Another great pay off was when Santi and his friends went into the woods à la Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez in “The Blair Witch Project,” video camera and all, in hopes of catching the killer on film to prove to everyone that Santi was not the murderer. “Eskalofrío,” directed with quiet power by Isidro Ortiz, is one of those gems that worked as a thriller and a horror film. It had a small twist in terms of monster flicks and it made me wish that American horror and thrillers would aspire to be just as inspired and imaginative.
Last Exorcism, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) agreed to have his last exorcism to be documented on camera. In the first few minutes, he admitted to us that exorcism was only real in the minds of religious Christians plagued by something they cannot explain. In other words, the placebo effect guided the effectiveness of an exorcism. Despite Reverend Marcus being a sham, strangely enough, I understood why he made a career out of it because he had an obligation to provide for his family, especially his son who had difficulty hearing. Understandably, people feel the need to compare the movie to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” because of its faux-documentary style. But I say it was more like John Erick Dowdle’s chilling remake “Quarantine.” However, I think “The Last Exorcism” had its own identity and therefore its own strengths and weaknesses. The film was its best when it described the history of the practice, the circumstances in which one should get an exorcism, and the religious heretics so willing to go to the extreme to the point where they became blind to more conventional explanations such as the so-called possessed person having an undiagnosed disease or mental disability. I was also happy with the fact that it acknowledged the cruel act still happening today in various forms depending on the culture. The picture thrived on the build-up of strange information especially when we finally met a farmer (Louis Herthum) with a creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) and “possessed” daughter (Ashley Bell). The rising action of the girl sleepwalking, killing animals, being violent and making strange noises was unsettling and sometimes downright horrifying. However, the movie’s weakness was its own conceit. The faux-documentary style did not always work because there were times when the daughter, in an altered state, would pick up the camera and we saw what she saw and did. I loved that the film was purposely comedic, especially in the first half when the techniques of the scam were revealed, but the comedy and horror did not always complement each other in one scene. Instead of feeling scared, I felt detached and I almost felt the need to laugh because there was an underlying message that the devil despised the constructed false (if not almost illusory) reality like in movies mentioned earlier and reality shows on television. I also found some inconsistencies such as the addition of music during the scarier scenes (it was supposed to be a found footage!) and camera angles that only one cameraman can normally accomplish. Although I give kudos to Daniel Stamm, the director, for infusing a sense of (sort of campy) fun and intelligence in his project, I wanted more scenes where I find myself cowering in my shoes. I suppose that’s the reason why a lot of people did not like the movie: they wanted to feel more scared. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed “The Last Exorcism” because it was concise, confident with where it wanted to go and what it wanted to achieve, and its constant build-up was elegant. It made me think of respectable horror pictures from the late 60’s and ’70s.
Død snø (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The Norwegian horror-comedy “Død snø,” or “Dead Snow,” told the story of eight medical students (Lasse Valdal, Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Evy Kasseth Røsten, Jeppe Laursen, Jenny Skavlan, Ane Dahl Torp) who decided to go to a cabin up in the snowy mountains over Easter break. Little did they know that the land covered in ice had a history of Nazi occupation and that those Nazis turned into zombies. They only found out about the land’s history when a creepy stranger (Bjørn Sundquist) dropped in on them in the middle of the night. I love zombie flicks so I just had to see this movie even though the synopses I read sounded a bit cheesy. As cheesy as the movie was, I did like it in parts because I thought it managed to capture the eerieness of being in the middle of nowhere and all we could hear was the wind and all we could see were endless land of ice. In a way, the very isolated environment reminded me of a hybrid between “The Thing” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Unfortunately, the setting and the occasional effective scares toward the beginning were the only elements that kept this movie afloat. Perhaps I was lost in translation (I did see the movie with subtitles) but I just did not find the jokes to be funny. In fact, I felt like it was trying too hard, kind of like the American teen slasher flicks. I’m not quite sure if the movie was trying to be ironic by featuring medical students who are not very bright or lacking survival skills and instincts. But what I am sure of is the fact that it became the kind of movie that it was trying to poke fun of. A lot of horror-comedies fall into that trap and this one is no exception. I found the middle portion too stagnant–it felt like it didn’t know where it was going. Nazi zombies that could think and take orders was an original idea but the execution lacked tension. I really hated it when the characters would make jokes at each other when they were aware that a zombie was only a few feet from them. It worked for “Shaun of the Dead” because it wore its cheekiness on its sleeve but it did not work in “Dead Snow” because there were times when it aimed for seriousness. If I saw a zombie, I would either try to kill it (depending on its size and what kind of killing tool I have in my hands–yes, I’ve thought about this) or run like I’ve never ran in my life. Perhaps fans of gore and limbs flying everywhere might enjoy this zombie film. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite buy the universe that the characters were in. “Død snø,” written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, should have just been a straight-up horror picture. If it did, I probably would have liked it a lot more.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Oren Peli, “Paranormal Activity” claims to be real but it is far from it because, well, it was written and directed by someone. So save yourself the embarrassment and don’t yell out, “It’s real! It’s real!” in front of everyone. A couple from San Diego, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, decided to record the paranormal happenings in their house from September to October 2006. Katie was apprehensive of the idea because she has a history of a ghost following her ever since she was a child. Micah went ahead anyway because, a typical guy that he was, he wanted to record something awesome instead of taking the safer route. The movie started off with funny moments between the couple but it became more grim the deeper we got into the film. I’m not talking about just scary noises in the hallway. I’m talking about footprints, shadows, Ouija boards, sleepwalking, possession, and exploring the idea of a possible exorcism.
Comparisons with the highly influential and effective horror film that everyone thought was real at the time of its release in 1999, “The Blair Witch Project,” is inevitable. (I wonder why suddenly most people nowadays really dislike that movie.) Both movies used a hand-held camera that was shaky and it played upon one of people’s greatest fears: the unknown. Both movies also used the technique of a continuous rising action and ending the movie during its climax for full effect (and discussions after walking out of the multiplex). Although I consider “The Blair Witch Project” to be a better movie, it’s really all a matter of personal taste. I believe “Paranormal Activity” more than held its own because it captured genuine thrills and chills that most movies with big budgets (and far better special and visual effects) cannot. That fact alone should make the actors and the director proud of their work.
Essentially, “Paranormal Activity” thrived on realism. If you believe in demons or ghosts (or even if you’re not sure they exist–a group of which I belong in), chances are you will be cowering in your seat. If you don’t believe it demons or ghosts at all, chances are you’re going to laugh at the whole thing and maybe you shouldn’t even spend money to watch it. (Maybe catch it on DVD because it really is quite impressive.) I thought the movie was scary because it’s a classic haunted house movie: we see shadows, noises, and the things they do to the objects around the couple. And yes, they eventually do something to our protagonists other than scaring them out of their minds and desperately wanting to call an exorcist for help. I loved the bedroom scenes because those are when things started to get very… interesting. Even though the setting was rendundant (the whole movie was shot in one house), the things that were happening (that shouldn’t happen in the first place) was not. With each bedroom scene, the level of scare factor was amplified exponentially–by the fourth of fifth bedroom scene, I really wanted to look away because I found myself imagining the “What Ifs” when I would be the one sleeping and all the lights would be off.
This is not the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. But it is one of those movies that I couldn’t help but think about afterwards. Despite what we know (or “understand” might be a better word) of science, and as a person who values science, we shouldn’t disregard certain possibilities just because we haven’t gathered enough support about them. If you’re tired of the same generic slasher films and remakes that Hollywood is spitting out every week, then do yourself a favor and see this one. Stop reading spoilers and hoping that the fear will wane after you’ve read a description. Because chances are, images are stronger than words. And even if you don’t end up liking it, at least you’re supporting a small movie. By doing so, perhaps big studio executives would stop being so elitist and support smaller films in the future–a movement that I strongly believe in because, in my experience as a young cinéphile, most of the time smaller films have great ideas and better execution than big Hollywood movies.
★★★ / ★★★★
Having seen and being impressed with the remake called “Quarantine,” I just had to see the original. I think both are very effective even though they pretty much had the same scenes. In “[REC],” astutely directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, it had less exposition but the audiences quickly cared about the reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman. The reporter had a certain spunk and enthusiasm and what the cameraman saw, we saw so there was an automatic connection there. Everything starts off pretty light as the reporter interviewed the firemen about their every day happenings. Things quickly went for a darker turn when the firefighters got a call from an old apartment complex. At first, they thought it was just an old woman that fell and needed help. But when she started attacking and biting people, everyone pretty much knew that something more sinister was going on. People started dying in gruesome ways in the hands of zombie-like infected people and they get quarantined by city officials without an ounce of explanation. What I love about this film was its natural ability to build tension after each scene. There were moments when I thought that if I was stuck in the building with them, the exact same thing could happen so I was definitely more than engaged. “The Blair Witch Project” was undoubtedly this picture’s biggest inspiration but it managed to tilt just enough to have an identity of its own. The best part of the movie for me was the last fifteen to twenty minutes when they finally made it inside the apartment on the top floor. Such scenes revealed to us that it had more to it than “28 Days Later”-like zombies. The disease had a history and I wanted to know more about it. (Maybe a sequel?) But, of course, the scares did not end there. I felt like I was in that dark room with them as they tried to use the night vision option on the camera. I tried not to blink because I was expecting those “shock”/”jumpy” moments. But even then I was surprised and things popped out of nowhere. If one is a horror film fan, this is a must-see. However, this is definitely not for those who dislike shaky cameras in order to add some type of realism to its craft.