Friday, 1 March 2013

Footage, Lost and Found

I recently watched the anthology horror film V/H/S, which uses the found footage approach that burst upon us thanks to The Blair Witch Project. Suffice to say I was not best pleased to see yet another film in which a. nobody in their right mind would continue filming given the circumstances the characters end up in and b. most of the stories on offer are poor stuff indeed.

But there's no denying the popularity among younger film-makers of found footage, at least in the West. (It's notable that Asian film makers are not following that route, so far as I can see.) So I've always thought it was rather ironic that Blair Witch was - essentially - a rather poor variation on a more interesting movie, and one that used a more interesting premise.

The Last Broadcast (1998) is a fake documentary in which a film-maker sets out to discover what happened to a group of 'monster hunters' who went into the Pine Barrens in search of the fabled Jersey Devil. Found footage - both audio and video - is used, and the film was cutting edge in its emphasis on the internet as a means whereby strange people could link up and talk about strange things. Other techie ingredients include image enhancement software, which is now standard fare of US cop shows etc, but was fairly new then.

But for all its nerdy ingredients The Last Broadcast is pretty traditional in terms of plot structure, and unlike Blair Witch it doesn't lead you on for ages, only to let you down with a feeble denouement. Instead the scrappy night-shot video is genuinely scary, precisely because we know a very nasty triple murder is going to occur, but don't know exactly when or how. Of course the footage also includes a lot of banal and silly stuff, but again - because we know the context - apparently trivial words and incidents seem ripe with grim portent.

Unfortunately, the makers of Blair Witch and the slew of similarly unimaginative movies that followed threw tension out of the window in favour of banality. A few good examples are bound to surface whenever a trend gets going. Spain's REC was fun, and at least the premise - a TV crew following firefighters into an apartnment - justified the use of fancy cameras right through to the end.

Anyway, back to V/H/S. The overall premise - a bunch of cocky, unappealing 'douchebags' are hired by a mysterious third party to steal a VHS tape from a mysterious old guy's house - is fairly lame. Then - just to insult the audience a little more - we get the bump-in-the-night stuff that represents the lowest common denominator of genre film making. As one reviewer noted: 'It's a good deal less fun than the multi-story horror movies produced by Milton Subotsky's Amicus company in the 1970s, though there's more blood, sex and mutilation.' Which is a great pity, because I love portmanteau horror films - they're as close as you can get to putting a good ghost story anthology on the big screen.

But the first and last tapes that the unpleasant intruders discover do at least offer interesting stories. They are not especially well-made or convincing, but I enjoyed them on their own terms. The first, 'Amateur Night', does at least justify the 'carry on filming' approach of its protagonist - he happens to be wearing a pair of glasses with a built-in camera. This spy camera is intended him and his loutish buddies having sex with some unsuspecting girl(s) the guys plan to bring back to a seedy motel. Predictably enough, one of the two young women they end up with is not all that she seems. I enjoyed the X-Files vibe of this one.

'I like you'. She says that a lot. 

It's a pity the next three tales are so disappointing. All show flashes of real creative skill, but all fizzle out. The last of the stories, '10/31/98', is a Halloween misadventure in which some young idiots (I know, but it's impossible not to characterise these people as very stupid) dress up and go to a party, the location of which is not entirely clear. It's obvious that they've got the wrong house quite early on, but then things take an exuberantly daft twist as they interrupt what they think is a Satanic ritual in the attic. It's cheesy and old fashioned, and maybe that's why it's a lot more fun than the middle two stories or the linking narrative.

Overall, V/H/S did not win rave reviews, and quite a few people I know feel it's a load of old tripe. I'd suggest renting it for the first and last segments, and perhaps skipping over the unexciting middle bits. And for a diametrically opposed opinion to mine, go here.


Anonymous said...

Dave, I totally agree with you regarding the recent proliferation of meagrely plotted bump-in-the-night sagas. Home Movie and The Last Exorcism are possible exceptions but the genre has, on the whole become exceedingly irksome. Maybe, one day, we'll see a return to the might of the portmanteau; an independent company producing something as spine-chilling as 'Dead of night' (1945) or the best of Amicus productions ...or approach the subtlety of BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas! Here's hoping...

Oscar Solis said...

I agree. I've had my fill of those bump-in-the-night's myself. However, I fear that we are in the minority.

I agree that The Last Broadcast was a pretty good movie, although the twist at the end was a bit irksome. However, it was definitely better than the many found tape film's that have followed. I haven't seen the Blair Witch Project since it came out. It was okay. Nothing to get wild about (I felt the same about The Exorcist, way back in the '70s).

I may see V/H/S. I love horror films, but lately I've been going to the past films to enjoy them (pre-John Carpenter's Halloween). They didn't depend too much on the false jump scares back then. An example would be Vampry by Carl Dreyer. It's slow, eerie, atmospheric and quite possibly the only film I have ever seen that made me feel as if I was experiencing the supernatural. Or watch The Wolfman with Lon Chaney, Jr. Count how many jump scares there are. I don't think there are any.