Moving Violations

The Road Movie

by Hope Madden

This movie is nuts.

Russian documentarian Dmitrii Kalashnikov has gathered dashcam footage and assembled it into something fresh, wild and intriguing.

Dashcams are apparently ubiquitous across Russia and Kalashnikov pulls together a smattering of amazing clips to create an image that’s both universal and deeply Russian. If you worry that you’ll basically be viewing a barrage of YouTube clips, don’t.

This is a thoughtfully made, smartly paced movie—evidence of a filmmaker with style and authority. Kalashnikov creates a fascinating rhythm, expertly flanking longer pieces with thematic montages.

In the lengthier bits we’re privy to the conversation in the car, or maybe the sound of the radio. Both serve to heighten the bat-shit effect of what’s happening onscreen. And while the unbelievably appropriate talk-radio conversation being subtitles onscreen while road rage ensues in front of the windshield is inspired, it’s the often deadpan reactions of drivers that elevate the viewing.

Montages offer bursts of linked images, usually set to a jaunty Russian polka or some other weirdly whimsical piece. Sets of clips focused on natural disasters or animals or pedestrians punctuate the longer drives, allowing Kalashnikov to quicken the pace periodically and maintain an energetic cadence.

The film also has heart. This is not Faces of Death. There is carnage for sure, but don’t expect a grim bloodbath. Kalashnikov is more interested in the amazing, the weird, the insane—comets crashing, bears running in traffic, a guy with an ax.

For all its lunacy, The Road Movie is not a novelty or a trifle. It’s a rock-solid documentary, well-paced and informative. And it is nuts.

I Want to Believe

The Dark Tapes

by Charlotte Orr

A ten foot tall demon, devil possessed mistresses, and lizard-like aliens. All promise a terrifying movie experience, but does The Dark Tapes succeed?

Vincent Guastani and Michael McQuown’s film is a found-footage anthology documenting “transdimensional entities.” The first couple stories are enjoyable – I’m glad they reserved the better actors for these sections.

The remaining stories, however, couldn’t keep my attention. Unfortunately, the acting quality distracted greatly from their plots.

It’s a good thing there isn’t much to miss out on anyway. The installment “cam girls” has some of the worst acting in the whole film. I have to give the actors some slack though, seeing as they didn’t have much to work with. The script was unbelievably bland and predictable.

Same goes for “Amanda’s Revenge,” which gives little explanation as to what exactly is going on. This would normally be fine as long as enough is given to allow the viewer to run free with their own conclusions, but there just isn’t enough substance to formulate one’s own theories.

Each storyline in this film goes for the unexpected twist at the end, and these two simply fail to surprise.

With that aside, not every short in the anthology is lacking. The complex science behind the “To Catch a Demon” storyline required all my attention, and the eerily convincing demon was able to keep it. Kudos goes to Guastani for special effects and creature design.

The end of “The Hunters and the Hunted” left me pleasantly surprised. Initially my notes read, “not unlike every other ghost hunting film.” Which I subsequently had to cross out after a major twist.

The Dark Tapes proudly states that it’s the found-footage horror movie with the second most awards and nominations, coming in at 61. As a whole, this film failed to be up to par with others in the genre, such as Paranormal Activity.

It certainly was a valiant effort, but they should have focused on those couple storylines with potential and ditched the rest.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

Halloween Countdown, Day 5: Man Bites Dog

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Oh, Belgium. How we do love your horror output.

In a bit of meta-filmmaking, Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. It is about a documentary being made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. The subject of the fictional documentary is the charismatic Ben – serial killer, narcissist, poet, racist, architecture enthusiast, misogynist, bird lover.

There’s more than what appears on the surface of this cynical, black comedy. The film crew starts out as dispassionate observers of Ben’s crimes. They’re just documenting, just telling the truth. No doubt this is a morally questionable practice to begin with. But they are not villains – they are serving their higher purpose: film.

Eventually the filmmakers’ commitment to the project, fear of retaliation, bloodlust, or sense of camaraderie pushes them toward aiding Ben, and then finally, to committing heinous crimes themselves.

Benoit Poelvoorde’s (who also co-directs) performance as Ben is just as quirky, ridiculous and self-centered as it can be. He’s perfect. His character needs to move the group toward fear, camaraderie, and sometimes even pity – but slyly, he also moves the audience.

The film examines social responsibility as much as it does journalistic objectivity, and what Man Bites Dog has to say about both is biting. It’s never preachy, though.

Theirs is a bitter view of their chosen industry, and – much like The Last Horror Movie – a bit of a condemnation of the viewer as well. The fact that much of the decidedly grisly content is played for laughter makes it that much more unsettling.

There are cynical chuckles to be has as members of the crew die off, one by one, and the remaining crew come up with teary excuses to soldier on with the film. But filmmaker and views alike have been made unclean by what we’ve chosen to participate in.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Fright Club: Best Found Footage Horror Movies

It is the most tired and tiresome of all horror film gimmicks, but are there worthwhile found footage movies to be celebrated? Or are they all simply the result of an inexpensive narrative device that allows for sloppy filmmaking and weak production values? Well, we did the research and found that there are many worthwhile offerings in this field. Yes, the bad outnumber the good 10 – 1, but there are good ones. Here are our five (OK – 6!) favorites.

Listen to the whole podcast HERE.

6. Trollhunter (2010)

All ancient cultures generated fairy tales. They passed on stories that wrapped the virtues most respected at the time inside common dangers to tell tales of heroism and humor. Norway’s fairy tales all involve trolls. Indeed, their entire national culture seems weirdly identified with trolls. Why is that? Well, writer/director Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter suggests that maybe it’s because trolls are a real problem up there.

Ovredal’s approach is wry and silly – adjectives that rarely hang out together, but maybe we haven’t seen enough of Norway’s cinematic output. The FX are sometimes wonderful, and especially effective given the otherwise verite, documentary style. Ovredal makes droll use of both approaches.

Trollhunter is definitely more comedy than horror, as at no time does the film actually seek to scare you. It’s a wild ride into a foreign culture, though, and it makes you think twice about the Norway section of Epcot, I’ll tell you what.

5. Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity, or The Little Ghost Story That Could, opened on a handful of screens in just a few cities around the country for midnight weekend shows only. All screenings promptly sold out. Powerful word-of-mouth and an aggressive marketing campaign propelled the modest flick into multiplexes worldwide. Why the hubbub? Well, for those patient enough to let it seep in – for those who do not require a jump, a slash, or a violent act in every fifth frame – Paranormal Activity is an effective, creepy little production.

A classic ghost story, the film evolves Blair Witch-style, as a couple pestered by something spectral begin cataloguing incidents with a night vision camera. The entire film consists solely of the video footage, tracking about three weeks’ worth of rising tension, most of it captured in the couple’s bedroom while they sleep.

The couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) is annoyingly believable in their pensions for doing the wrong thing simply to cater to each other’s insecurities. This, and the simplicity in the filmmaking – limited effects, incredibly limited cast and sets, minimal backstory – create an unnerving air of authenticity. The cam-corder timestamp rolls quickly forward, providing shorthand imaging of the couple sleeping, then slows to real time tracking just as something is about to happen. This repetitive gimmick proves so succinct and effective that dread begins to build while still fast forwarding. By the time the clock slows, half the audience is holding its breath.

4. The Last Horror Movie (2003)

A clever concept handled very craftily, The Last Horror Movie is found footage in that we, the audience, have found it recorded over the VHS tape we are apparently watching. What serial killer Max (a top notch Kevin Howarth) has done, you see, is made a documentary of his ghastly habits and shared them with an audience that’s shown, by virtue of the movie it intended to rent just now, its predeliction for someting grisly.

There’s a lot of “yes, I’m a bad person, but aren’t you, too” posturing going on, and while it is an idea to chew on, it nearly outlives its welcome by the time Max applies his theory to concrete action. It’s an idea explored masterfully by Michael Haneke in 1997 (and again, ten years later) with Funny Games, and by comparison, The Last Horror Movie feels a bit superficial. (Not a huge criticism – few could withstand a comparison to Michael Haneke.)

But director Julian Richards deserves immense credit for subverting expectations throughout the film. Just when we assume we’re seeing a predator anticipating the pounce – just when we’re perhaps feeling eager to see someone victimized – the film makes a hard right turn. In doing this, Richards not only manages to keep the entire film feeling fresh and unpredictable, but he enlightens us to the ugliness of our own horror movie fascinations.

3. Man Bites Dog (1992)

Oh, Belgium. How we do love your horror output. In a bit of meta-filmmaking, Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. It is about a documentary being made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. The subject of the documentary is the charismatic Ben – serial killer, narcissist, poet, racist, architecture enthusiast, misogynist, bird lover.

There’s more than what appears on the surface of this cynical, black comedy. The film crew starts out as dispassionate observers of Ben’s crimes – which is certainly morally questionable to begin with. Eventually their commitment to the project, fear of retaliation, bloodlust, or sense of camaraderie pushes them toward aiding Ben, and then finally, to committing heinous crimes themselves.

It’s a bitter view of their chosen industry, and – much like The Last Horror Movie – a bit of a condemnation of the viewer as well. The fact that much of the decidedly grisly content is played for laughter makes it that much more unsettling.

2. [REC] (2007)

[Rec] shares one cameraman’s footage of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. The small news crew and two firefighters respond to a call from an urban apartment building. An elderly woman, locked inside her flat, has been screaming. Two officers are already on the scene. Bad, bad things will happen.

Just about the time the first responders realize they’re screwed, the building is completely sealed off from the outside by government forces. Power to the building is cut, leaving everyone without cell reception, cable, and finally, light. Suddenly we’re trapped inside the building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.

Filmmakers Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza make excellent use of their found footage approach, first by way of the news report, then because of the need to use the camera to see once power’s been cut. They play the claustrophobic nature of the quarantine to excellent effect, creating a kind of funhouse of horror that refuses to let you relax. The American reboot Quarantine is another excellent choice, but our vote has to go with the original.

1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. Yes, Cannibal Holocaust was the first film to use the found footage conceit, but a) it sucked, and b) it didn’t show the audience this footage exclusively. Cannibal Holocaust built a narrative around the film canisters, and then looked at them. One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that the filmmakers made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people.

Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were seeing a snuff film. Nice.

And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors, and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon primal fears.

Hey, What’s That Z About?

Jeruzalem

by Hope Madden

Doran and Yoav Paz have hit upon a ripe premise. Inside the walled city of Jerusalem is the epicenter for three of the world’s largest and most eruptive religions. If Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all share one holy land, is there something about this place – something otherworldly? And wouldn’t this be the likely spot for the Armageddon to begin?

Jeruzalem opens promisingly enough, inviting you into this microcosm of faith and humanity to witness an event too big to even be called biblical. Unfortunately, the filmmaking brothers derail the effort almost immediately with a found footage gimmick.

Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) receives Google Glass from her father as a gift. The entire balance of the film is basically a first person shooter video game with precious little in the way of shooting or action and far less in terms of character development.

It is so hard to do a decent job with found footage, a stunt that has far outlived its novelty. By virtue of some early-film contrivances, the Paz brothers manage to eliminate some of the obvious pitfalls of found footage, but the fact that we spend the film’s entire 87 minutes with that unnatural seeing-eyed view is Jeruzalem’s greatest drawback.

Sarah and her bestie Rachel (Yael Grobglas) are going to Tel Aviv and then onto Jerusalem. Sarah’s been unhappy since her brother’s recent death and Rach things this will perk her up. Running into that hot archeologist on board the plane (because archeologists are always gorgeous twentysomethings) did seem to boost Sarah’s mood, and now the girls have decided to hit Jerusalem first so they can spend more time with their own personal Indiana Jones (Yon Tumarkin).

Too bad they show up just in time for the end of days.

The Pazes unearth similarities in the judgement day tales of the three faiths, weaving them together into a kind of zombie myth, which, again, should have felt much more ingenious than it does. Their clever concept is utterly hamstrung by the film technique.

Watching as Sarah falls behind every time anyone runs, listening to her unrelenting and unrealistic breathing, sighing, crying, and screaming – it all becomes too tedious to bear. More than that, though, the fact that you are basically watching a zombie shooter video game in which zombies are almost never shot is incredibly frustrating on the most basic level.

It’s just a waste of a great idea.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

Pretty One Dimensional

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

by Hope Madden

“That doesn’t conclude anything!”

This – the disappointed outcry from an audience member as the closing credits rolled on Paranormal Acvitity: The Ghost Dimension – only scratches the surface of the problems with this film.

The sixth feature in the series begun in 2007 with Oren Peli’s ultra-low-budget indie seeks to tie together all the various strands of storyline spun from the previous efforts and put the final bow on the franchise.

Ryan (Chris J. Murray) invites his heavily mustachioed brother Mike (Dan Gill) to spend some post-breakup time with him and his family over the holidays. Also visiting – Toby. You may remember Toby from such hauntings as Paranormal Activity 3.

Mike will wish he’d visited his mom instead.

The entire cast does a perfectly serviceable job, and Ivy George is devastatingly adorable as young Leila, the object of Toby’s interest. But Jesus, her parents are stupid!

Mike and Ryan come across a giant, old, eighties-style camcorder when digging out Christmas decorations. It’s so nutty! With it you can see things like giant black tar monsters lurking over your baby daughter’s bed – too crazy. Wonder whether you should do something about that immediately, or debate with your wife about whether the camera’s just broken. Because, you know, it’s not like your daughter’s in jeopardy.

Once a priest is attacked in the house, you might expect the houseguests to politely exit – particularly the friend of the family who’s visiting for no important reason. But no! There is apparently nothing that will make her spring for a hotel while she’s in town for her yoga retreat – not even the malevolent presence of a demon.

Speaking of – and I know I’m picking nits here – but why go to the bother of explaining to us film after film after film that we are dealing with a demon, not a ghost, and then call the final movie in your franchise The Ghost Dimension?

For what it is – a low rent found footage spookfest – this franchise has actually managed to break the law of diminishing returns for a long time, but their luck began to slip a couple episodes ago. Let’s hope this really is their final effort.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

Anyone Seen My Rope?

The Gallows

by Hope Madden

Ever have that dream where you’re trapped inside your old high school? I think maybe Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing have. They work through their issues with the theatrical horror show The Gallows.

The writing/directing duo resort to found footage to tell their tale. What you’re watching is Nebraska police evidence – so kind of the cops to edit together multiple different camera sources for us! The footage captures the horrific events surrounding the high school production of The Gallows.

First, the good news: You don’t have to actually watch a high school play. Whew!

Twenty years ago a boy died during a performance. To honor that anniversary, the school puts on the same damn play. Now that’s just in poor taste. As retribution, someone or something terrorizes the kids who break in to the school the night before the performance to bust up the sets. Scamps!

Like the surprise fun of this summer’s Unfriended, The Gallows taps some insightful ideas concerning modern teens – like that they are, on average, stupid enough to film themselves committing felonies. This film also has some fun at the expense of drama kids, as well as those kids who believe they are way too cool for high school theater.

The original trailer for this film was a scream, and the scene it depicts remains the film’s high water mark in terms of terrifying fun. Set decoration is spooky and the brisk 81 minutes offers a goodly number of jump scares.

Performances are generally solid, too. Pfeifer Ross, in particular, strikes the perfect note as the perky, earnest drama kid, while Ryan Shoos is equally on-mark as the insecure, douchey jock. A couple of supporting turns are fun as well in a movie that hopes to quickly create a believable high school microcosm before it turns into a predictable if entertaining riff on some familiar horror ideas.

It’s better than going back to high school, that’s for damn sure.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Bobcat Bigfoot

Willow Creek

by Hope Madden

Remember Bobcat Goldthwait – that screechy, overweight, sweaty comic from the Eighties? Well, in case you missed it, he’s now a film director, and a pretty good one. He’s been flexing that muscle and pushing boundaries since the early Nineties, but in 2011 he proved his mettle with the pitch-black observational comedy God Bless America.

He makes an unusual choice as the follow-up to his artistic high water mark with Willow Creek, a found footage horror that treads incredibly familiar territory.

Though his newest effort certainly boasts occasional humor, it’s no comedy. In fact, it’s basically a streamlined Blair Witch reboot with better actors.

Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) and Jim (Bryce Johnson) are celebrating his birthday with an excursion into the woods to follow the same path as those hearty souls who once tracked Bigfoot. Jim wants to make a little film of their expedition; Kelly wants to humor her boyfriend for his birthday.

The only mildly unique element about this premise is the word Bigfoot, which is so unusual that it suggests a comedy, but the standup veteran is not mining for laughs. Instead, he shows real flair for stoking tensions, expertly building anxieties about isolation while slyly unveiling that slow realization of helplessness.

But it is impossible to shake the feeling that this is just another Blair Witch. Though he improves upon many familiar scenes, they’re still lifted directly from the 1999 granddaddy of found footage horror.

Shouldering a film whose entire storyline depends upon candid, usually in-car footage of just two people tends to be too much for most actors. Indeed, the already very tired found footage style usually crumbles under the lacking improve ability of a handful of adequate actors stuck inside a car trying to make their road trip seem interesting.

But Gilmore and Johnson are surprisingly suited to the task. Their chemistry is quite natural, and therefore their dialog never seems forced. Goldthwait also knows how to make the most of the gorgeous forest scenery as well, showcasing not just the potential smothering terror of the surroundings, but also its true, natural beauty.

The combined effort is effective. Goldwhait has somehow thrown just enough wild cards into the mix that, while every scene feels eerily familiar, you still can’t ever quite predict what’s to come. It’s unnerving, insightful, and strangely fresh considering it’s just the latest in an unending series of films warning us away from the woods.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars