So in short, it’s kind of a battered genre, and when you have movies as successful as Paranormal or Quarantine (and let’s not forget Blair Witch Project), you’re bound to have a lot of terrible wannabes. I wouldn’t wish a viewing of Penance or Splatter Movie on my worst enemy, and I don’t think anyone has truly recovered from the horror of The Fourth Kind. But there are a few real gems to be found, and it’s sad how often I mention the following films (none of which were given a wide theatrical release, if any at all) and get a blank stare in response. Load up your Netflix account (or Amazon, wink nudge) and add these under-appreciated entries!
Ordinarily I’d prefer these sort of movies to avoid using familiar actors, because buying into the reality of what they are showing is so crucial to whether or not they work, which is even harder when you recognize, say, Dexter’s sister in the lead role. But in this case it actually kind of works, because Adrian Pasdar usually plays evil or shady characters, and thus it initially sort of distracts you from noticing who the real threat is in this movie – his two young children. The hook is that Pasdar is a Clark Griswold-y dad who likes to film his attempts at bonding with his kids, and his wife is a psychiatrist who is filming her sessions with them, so there’s not too much of the “why is he still filming this?” element that often plagues these things. And it’s got a genuinely chilling final act, making this not only one of the better found footage flicks, but a good killer kid one as well.
The movie that inspired this column, as it finally hits DVD today from Sony after a brief theatrical (and VOD) release from Magnet a year ago. Not sure why it took so long, but it’s worth the wait, as it’s an above average (some say superior) followup to one of the best titles in the genre, which was unfortunately shelved for a couple years while Sony did their remake Quarantine. But in a hilarious move, [Rec] 2’s creators used the religious angle that Quarantine dropped as the backbone for their sequel, making it “remake-proof” (indeed, the upcoming Quarantine 2 is on a plane and not even a found footage movie). Picking up right when the first one left off, [Rec] 2 follows a SWAT team (equipped with shoulder cams, like the grunts in Aliens) and a doctor who are sent to get the survivors of the events in the original. The specifics of how it ties into the previous film’s events is best kept a surprise, but suffice to say it’s a surprisingly well thought out and creative sequel, very much carving its own identity despite taking place in the same building and being written/directed by the same team. The DVD also has some great behind the scenes that shows how difficult it can be to direct one of these movies, something I don’t think gets enough appreciation.
I can’t really blame folks for not knowing about this one – even though it’s from 2007 it still doesn’t even have an IMDb page! It’s also the toughest sell on this list; if there was ever a movie that was fair to label “Torture porn” this is it, as the plot is literally about guys making snuff films to sell to foreign markets that get off on this sort of thing. Thus the violence, while presented in (thankfully) limited doses, can be a bit extreme, though the sound design actually does most of the work of making you uncomfortable (as does the production design – the dungeons here make the locations in the Saw films look like luxury hotels). Plus, the “director” of the film is very matter of fact and clinical about the killings he is committing for his film, which just makes it even more disturbing. But it’s a unique take on this genre, and also, for what it’s worth, one of the least headache inducing; there’s very little shaki-cam nonsense. You’ll see a guy getting sodomized by a dude in a pig mask, but you’ll see it clearly!
Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon
This one’s like 2/3 of a documentary before switching gears, and folks are divided on whether or not the switch kills the movie. But few can argue that the documentary section is a pretty brilliant deconstruction on slasher films, as our documentary crew focuses on a budding serial killer as he selects his virginal final girl and creates a mythology about himself leading up toward a night that he plans to carry out his big killing spree. His mask is actually pretty awesome and the kids fit the archetypes well – take away the doc stuff and it’s still a pretty good slasher flick (complete with Robert Englund as a very Sam Loomis-like “Ahab”). But it’s the documentary aspect that elevates it into true modern classic, as Leslie explains how slashers need to do cardio (so they can walk behind a running heroine but still keep up), and goes about priming the house for the slasher antics later (cutting through most of a tree branch so it will snap when the heroine tries to climb out of a window on the 2nd story, etc). And Nathan Baesel should have won some sort of award for his performance as Leslie, but maybe that can be rectified with the sequel – which is now finally gaining some momentum thanks to the Facebook campaign that Devin told you about here.
OK, cheating here – you probably haven’t seen this one because it’s not out yet. I got a chance to see the film back in 2009, and I walked away pretty impressed. It’s got some pacing issues, but unlike Behind the Mask, this is a true full blown slasher film, but one that’s from the POV of a guy who just likes to film everything him and his friends do (in this case, drive upstate to spend a weekend in one of their relative’s houses). Not an easy thing to pull off in this style, but first time director Dominic Perez largely succeeded, and the killer’s onslaught is worth the wait, with plenty of truly chilling moments and an admirable lack of answers to who (what?) the killer is. Indeed, part of the fun was how the movie was sent out, with the film on a plain DVD, along with a letter from the FBI (from “Agent Perez”) asking you to review the “evidence file” (the movie) and see if you could provide any information that could help the case, as the kids were still missing and they had no leads as to who may have taken/killed them. So it not only added to the modern William Castle-esque gimmick that all of these films sort of rely on, but it also justified what might be a problem for some viewers (the lack of explanations). Thus, the upcoming release from Inception is a double-edged sword – on one hand I’m thrilled that it finally found distribution after a couple years of festival screenings, but on the other you guys won’t get to watch it with that extra bit of interactivity built in (I assume, anyway – maybe the DVD can be packaged appropriately along with a copy of the FBI letter).
Another thing about all five of these is that they each literally put a new perspective on a different sub-genre (killer kid, zombie, survival/torture, and both types of slashers: post-modern and traditional), breathing new life into the same sort of things we’ve seen before. But they also force their filmmakers to be a bit more creative with their stories, as they have to justify the use of the camera even when any normal person would drop it and run (not always successful, but nothing as ridiculous as Cloverfield in that respect), figure out ways to sell their scares without the usual editing tricks (or score in many cases), and also block the hell out of scenes that are depicted in long takes. Maybe I am more sympathetic because I made one myself back in the day (a 55 minute Blair Witch parody), but it takes a lot of effort to make a movie in which the characters are “running around with cameras”, and even more to make them worth watching. I think these folks have done that, and hope you agree if/when you check them out.