Tag Archives: found footage

Movie Review: The Houses October Built

by Dan Fields

The Houses October Built is a Halloween haunted house meta-journey in found footage style
© 2014 Image Entertainment

Found footage horror is played out, to the extent that an exhausting number of reviews begin with the complaint that “found footage horror is played out.”

See what I mean?

With that requisite disclaimer covered, Bobby Roe’s The Houses October Built is pretty excellent entertainment for this Halloween season. The notion of a POV camera going all meta-fictional on the phenomenon of live haunted house attractions, now simply termed “haunts” owing to the diversity of venues, turns out much better than it may sound.

Five friends – Zack (co-writer), Bobby (co-writer and director), Mikey, Brandy and Jeff – set out in an RV to tour and document the most extreme haunts out there. Most of them seem to be in Texas and Louisiana, by the way. While most are fairly traditional walkthrough attractions, other memorable outings include a hayride modeled on a zombie apocalypse, complete with paintball guns to pelt the legions of shambling ghouls. However, some of the “haunters” appear more aggressive and personally invasive than the rest. It even seems that certain characters are following the RV from one location to the next, across dozens and eventually hundreds of miles. Continue reading

Movie Review: Frankenstein’s Army

by Dan Fields

Russian soldiers face horrifying Nazi experiments in Frankenstein's Army
© 2013 MPI Media Group

Mary Wolfenstein Shelley. Yes, That.

The “untold” war story is a fertile soil for any number of enterprising screenwriters, from the visionary to the hack… and everyone else in between, it seems. From the sublime heights of the The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare to the laughable dregs of Red Zone Cuba, fictional yarns about soldiers working behind the lines have always been easy to sell.

Near the end of the Second World War, a motley task force of Soviet infantry pushes into the scorched German countryside, drawn by an alleged distress signal from captured brethren. Wading through various scenes of battle carnage, they come at last upon a seemingly abandoned factory. Venturing inside, they soon encounter a series of walking, murderous abominations that bear faint human traces, but seem to straddle a line between mechanized warfare and the living dead. Somewhere in these dank, blood-caked corridors is a mad doctor (Karel Roden) sewing Nazi insignia on these horrors, who must be found and exposed.

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Movie Review: Europa Report

by Dan Fields

Sebastián Cordero directs an international cast in the sci-fi drama Europa Report
© 2013 Magnet Releasing

Half A Billion Miles From Benson, Arizona

Some day in the future, scientists will conclude that the signs of aquatic life recorded on Jupiter’s sixth moon, Europa, are sufficiently promising to risk a manned mission of something like two years (one way) to take environmental samples. This is the plain and simple premise of Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report.

Europa One is a high-tech exploration vessel funded by nebulous sponsors presumably more benign than the Weyland-Yutani Corporation of the Alien franchise. Framed as a declassified account of the mission, the movie begins with strong hints that while the astronauts outdid themselves in a high-risk situation, things did not turn out as planned. In fragments of onboard footage and explanatory asides from mission control experts, a harrowing account of tribulation among the stars unfolds. Continue reading

Movie Revew: V/H/S/2

by Dan Fields

The horror continues in the horror anthology sequel VHS2
© 2013 Magnet Releasing

We Can’t Rewind, We’ve Gone Too Far

In record time, the subspecies of horror film known as “found footage” was done seemingly to death. In contrast to a staged “mockumentary” like This Is Spinal Tap or Woody Allen’s Zelig, this term most commonly refers to a movie purporting to have caught supernatural or other scary events on camera, and the footage assembled by unknown parties after some grim fate befell the characters depicted. Think of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity. Although features like The Last Exorcism, Grave Encounters, Project X, Chronicle and Evidence have proven that the found footage format has better creative uses than staging cheap haunted house tricks and generally inducing headaches, the gimmick invariably becomes tiresome by the end of a feature length film. It requires too many broken rules of perspective and visual storytelling to last out the running time. All in all, found footage seems best suited to shorter films.

This is the idea behind V/H/S an experimental project with now two installments to its name, and the potential for many more. A program of short films in anthology form (hearkening to the memory of films like Creepshow), V/H/S/2 boasts more energy, more cleverness, and a higher grade of grim entertainment than its passable parent. Opting for economy of form and maximum punch, the movie focuses all its energy on twisting a tired, easily dismissed moviemaking trick in new, exciting, thoroughly unsettling directions. Continue reading

Halloween Home Video #9: Howie Askins’s Evidence

by Dan Fields
First published October 26, 2012 by the California Literary Review

DVD cover for Evidence directed by Howie Askins
© 2012 RynoRyder Productions

For A Weekend In The Country

If you feel you must milk yet another horror movie out of the bloated found footage craze, please do everyone a favor and follow three basic guidelines: make it short, make it as scary as possible, and bring it to an unexpected conclusion.

Although Paranormal Activity 4 stumbled on its own disappointing sameness, there have been several recent entries in the genre to play by these rules. V/H/S kept itself exceedingly brief and to the point, and the two-part Grave Encounters saga defied all reasonable expectations with a series of truly jarring, if not entirely cohesive, moments of horror.

Of all these contemporary cousins, Evidence fits the proper criteria to top the list. Despite its vague initial motivation, it wastes no time in casting its blithe, carefree protagonists into a supremely weird and terrifying ordeal.

Evidence initially poses as a documentary project of questionable value at best, but soon becomes a record of severe importance. Cameraman Ryan wishes to tape a camping trip led by his friend Brett and co-starring their girlfriends Abi and Ashley. Why Ryan wants to do this is lost in that swampy mire of why most found footage protagonists leave the camera running at all inappropriate times. The implied reasons are that he wants to test out his awesome new camera, and also happens to be just a bit emotionally unstable. This fascination with self-documenting would probably work better with a younger cast of kids. In fact, this might have been a bolder choice all around, although it may have also required the sacrifice of some of the film’s sexual overtones. In any case, on this flimsy but acceptable narrative pretext, the unwitting youths set off in a borrowed camper for the great outdoors.

Everyone seems to be having a good time until the party picks up signs that they are not alone in the wilderness. Sightings of distant, unidentifiable critters in the vicinty put everybody except Ryan on edge. Despite their repeated pleas to pack up and return to civilization, he insists that they stay and let him have his fun with the camera. All concerned come to regret this decision in time.

This is a setup we have all seen a hundred times. What makes Evidence so much fun is where things proceed from such a conventional jumping-off point. To deal out further plot details would be a disservice. The most glib and reductive way to describe Evidence is as a hybrid of Chronicle, Chernobyl Diaries and The Cabin In The Woods. However, an eager minority are bound to consider that a stellar pedigree. And to give fair credit, this movie was in production, and probably completed, before any of the others ever saw the light of a projector. It may lack polish, but it looks good and manages to spin a fascinating yarn with refreshing economy and nerve-shattering atmosphere. The payoff of Evidence is well worth your attention during a first act as familiar as the safety briefing on a commercial airline. When dread explodes into sheer madness, you may well find yourself caught with white knuckles and your hair on end. And what more, really, could you ask?

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 4

by Dan Fields
First published October 19, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Keep A-Knockin’ But You Can’t Commit

It is almost Halloween, which means time for one more Paranormal Activity at least. This year the ghost train (or demonorail) has broken out of Carlsbad and turned up in lovely suburban Nevada. Apart from that, little has changed. In most respects, this franchise has even gone back a few paces. So much for the train metaphor.

For those who came in late: Paranormal Activity is the continuing saga of a family whose long history with the occult has led to a spate of possessions, polter-violence, and vigilant home surveillance. Series creator and producer Oren Peli constructed the concept around handily placed cameras capturing “true life” hauntings with a seemingly bottomless barrel of visual tricks. Now, however, one can hear distinct scraping sounds as the bottom comes into view. Continue reading

Halloween Home Video #5: John Poliquin’s Grave Encounters 2

by Dan Fields
First published October 17, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Grave Encounters 2 promotional poster

© 2012 Arclight Films

For Your Indie Wrap Party

This pick came as a big surprise, and while it may not measure up to the strongest entries in this list, it deserves more credit and attention that a dismissive first glance at its trailer might suggest.

Grave Encounters is the brainchild of the the Vicious Brothers, also known as Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who reached into the “found footage” horror genre – a market teeming with derivative second-rate junk – and pulled out a genuinely scary and satirical work. The film frames its footage as the final, never-completed episode of a popular “ghost hunter” television show entitled Grave Encounters. Host Lance Prescott (Sean Rogerson) brings his crew to an abandoned Canadian mental hospital with a history of… you guessed it… ritual abuse and horrific secret experiments. We find out the following things in rapid sequence: The show is a total sham, the hospital is really haunted, and these showbiz folk are completely doomed.

With its lo-fi effects and melodramatic performances, this film achieves nothing new but manages to be truly scary and fun. The pace meanders, as will happen without fail within the genre, but the Vicious Brothers pull it off with much more grace and subtlety than you might expect. This is not a garden variety Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch ripoff. It has something of its own to contribute to the Halloween feast.

Deftly exploiting the polarized reactions to the first film, the Vicious Brothers wasted no time in penning a sequel. Be warned: if self-referential isn’t your thing, Grave Encounters 2 will irritate you. The film leads off with a number of amateur fan reviews both praising and lambasting the various aspects of Grave Encounters until we zero in on Alex (Richard Harmon), a lone fan who has begun to wonder if the events of the movie might have happened for real. This is a sequel in which the first film exists within the world of the second film. But don’t worry, nobody is going to get centipeded to anyone else. (Spoiler/Promise)

Alex is an aspiring director of horror films, and bears all the hallmarks of a film student in his most insufferable phase. He writes scenes that ape the most popular conventions of the genre, then curses them for their artlessness in the middle of shooting. He proclaims himself a spiritual heir to the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. He even goes so far as to tell his ingenue/prospective girlfriend that he’s going to make her the next big scream queen. I mean, we were all like that once, right?

In his pursuit of the truth behind Grave Encounters, Alex sees an opportunity to achieve overnight importance in the horror genre. He scraps his slasher and assembles the same cast and crew for a guerrilla documentary based on the expedition in the first Grave Encounters. Considering what may have befallen a trained television crew of adults in the halls of the mysterious hospital, imagine what a bunch of teens without shooting permits or clearly defined goals have in store for them.

Viewing and enjoying the original Grave Encounters is not absolutely essential to appreciating the sequel, but it makes the experience a good deal richer. And frankly if you don’t care for 1, you probably won’t like 2. It is definitely not the stronger of the two films, but it achieves several blood-chilling moments that are more than sufficient payoff for the investment of time and energy. The third act of Grave Encounters 2 spirals into improbable silliness, even compared to the rest of the movie, but along the way you will find your hungry nerve endings rewarded. That nasty Apex Twin monster from the poster is not just a promotional tease. He will be along eventually, as well as an ECT scene that will put you right off radical brain treatments.

The best way to see the Grave Encounters films, if you can manage it, is as a three-hour double feature. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but they complement one another nicely. There may be more promise in these movies than substance, but even in the dangerously clogged drain of B-horror, clever ideas continue to lurk.

Halloween Home Video #3: V/H/S

by Dan Fields
First published October 12, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Promotional picture for horror anthology V/H/S

© 2012 Bloody Disgusting

For The Boozy Bash In Your Dorm Basement

V/H/S is the anthology you should have seen coming but probably did not. A team of hip, twisted young directors offer up a medley of shorts celebrating that troublesome new superfad, the “found footage” horror film. This is the shaky-camera, forced perspective, “faked to look real” style made popular by movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, which amateur directors are working to death in the low-budget horror market.

When Blair Witch hit the scene, the novelty of the idea (and very clever marketing) convinced some people that maybe what we were seeing could have happened. This ambiguity did not last long, and once gone the feeling was impossible to recapture. By the time Paranormal Activity ushered in a new found footage trend, audiences were in on the hoax but still eager to see what frightening tricks directors like Oren Peli could conjure. People are still paying good money to see these movies. And although there have been attempts to push the genre further, as in The Last Exorcism or the ambitious sci-fi tale Chronicle, the limitations of the genre make it hard for any but the most creative directors to serve up something new. Fortunately, the parties responsible for V/H/S approached their task with plenty of imagination. In record time, we have been sufficiently inundated with found footage style that subversion to the point of parody seems appropriate. V/H/S, in all its raw savage chaos, exemplifies both the best and the worst traits of found footage.

The shorts are woven together with a narrative about some ne’er-do-well pranksters sent to commit a bizarre burglary centered around a mysterious videotape. Searching stacks of tapes scattered around an eerily quiet house, they discover tale after tale of ghastly misadventures. Please note that despite the central conceit of a neglected tape stash, little if any of this movie originated in actual VHS form. The only reason malevolent forces might have dubbed these videos to the antiquated format is because it’s cooler and scarier than digital video. Like in The Ring. From a practical standpoint, it looks doubtful that any of these films has a perspective that could reasonably have been captured with a VHS camera. For those of you too young to have used one of those, it was some hefty chore. In order to focus on the best parts of V/H/S, first put from your mind any notion of real VHS tapes. It may be a half-baked style choice, but they made it and stuck to it. Just let it go.

According to the tradition of anthologies, from Black Sabbath to Creepshow to Trick ‘r Treat, not all the shorts in V/H/S are created equal. The most notable name in this mix is Ti West, director of the superb House Of The Devil (just to name his best). While West’s segment “Second Honeymoon” is not the most interesting or innovative in this collection, it demonstrates his proven knack for mining dread from quiet, mundane moments. Like a goodly portion of West’s work, it takes just a little too much of its own sweet time.

There are, in each segment, moments of true inspiration to balance the uneven pace and the over-reliance on “video interference” as a narrative gimmick. Despite the overall laxity of the storytelling, V/H/S repeatedly goes for the gut and pummels the nerve endings raw. Be warned: this is one violent, naked, gruesome movie. From the raunchy frat fable “Amateur Night” to the momentous events of “10/31/98,” via “Tuesday the 17th” and, yes, “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger,” be prepared for some uncomfortable brushes with the lower orders of humanity. The hideous, the harmful, and the downright monstrous are on constant parade in V/H/S. Don’t split hairs; just have fun with it. The Exorcist and The Innocents and Kwaidan will still be there when you’re finished with V/H/S. Open your mind to a reasonable level of vulnerability, don’t think too hard about it, and against your better judgment you will probably enjoy yourself a whole hell of a lot.

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 3

by Dan Fields
First published October 22, 2011 by the California Literary Review

The Devil and Me and Teddy Makes Threee

Paranormal Activity 3 was inevitable. This is the horror franchise that people love to hate, but still keep paying to see. Rather than introduce another parallel timeline to the first two chapters, this movie serves as a full-blown prequel. We will now witness the harrowing events of 1988, when protagonists Kristi and Katie were little girls together. As it turns out, they have already been through the familiar regimen of being taped while they sleep. When troublesome things stir in the night, the girls’ video-geek stepfather Dennis decides to capture and track the phenomena with nightly surveillance footage. In other words, he assumes the same role as Micah Sloat in the first film, only working in analog, and for the record is far less irritating a character.

em>Paranormal Activity 2 was an interlocking piece of the original Paranormal Activity. Part 3 is more of a tangential riff. All this footage apparently made up a box of home videos stolen from Kristi’s house, which burglary prompted the setup of their home security system in Part 2. How or why we are seeing these old tapes is a total mystery, and it makes everything just a little bit weirder and more interesting. This new entry has a lot of problems, but it is easily the best of the films so far. If this had stood alone and been released by itself as Paranormal Activity, a lot of us would not be so down on the franchise as we are.
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Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 2

by Dan Fields
First published October 23, 2010 by the California Literary Review

Demons: “They’re just, like… evil.”

If you are investigating Paranormal Activity 2, either as an audience member or simply a reader of reviews, you probably exposed yourself to the original Paranormal Activity, a monumental disappointment made in 2007 and unleashed on most of America during the summer and fall of 2009. There are two ways to look at a franchise like this. The first is to wonder why audiences keep falling for the “scariest movie ever made” marketing campaign. The less cynical (and probably more correct) attitude is to consider the appeal of getting a bunch of friends together to act rowdy and ridicule a film like this. The audience seems to be in on the joke, but I don’t think the makers of the movie are. I think they sincerely intended this film to be taut, edgy, and full of terror.

The director establishes the familiar false documentary format with home videos of a family moving into their new home. Meet Kristi, the sister of poor Katie from the first Paranormal Activity. She has a lovely house, a clean-cut teenage stepdaughter, a generally inoffensive dork of a husband, a faithful German Shepherd, and a sweet new baby boy named Hunter. It’s the modern, upper middle class ideal family, perhaps like the ones in your own neighborhood. We know these are real, ordinary people because they talk and act just like real, ordinary people, not like carefully written movie characters. Because that’s interesting, right? Wrong. People trying hard to act like regular people is boring and stupid. There, I’ve said it. It was the biggest failing of the first Paranormal Activity, and it doesn’t help here.
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