Whenever I get my hands on an engaging piece of critical non-fiction, I litter the margins with impressions and notes. While reading Kevin J. Wetmore’s Post-9/11 Horror In American Cinema’s chapter on found footage horror, one of the first things I scribbled was “seeing an event on video changes the nature of fear”. Horror, at its core is a visceral experience. Whether you witness something with your own senses or a horrific happening on a screen purported to be real, the idea is that it haunts your memories much more intimately than knowing the Leatherface we see in 1974 is simply creative ingenuity, only fueled by the documented extent of human depravity. Taylor Ri’chard, a film director, writer, and producer from Louisiana was so inspired by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and unfettered by laments of the found footage genre being two-week old sushi, created a dark story with its full body immersed in the American antebellum south titled The Final Project.
Six students at a Louisiana college are working together on a video project that needs successful completion in order for each of them to graduate. This leads to the idea that a paranormal investigation of the Lafitte Plantation, a property known for its detrimental hauntings by past inhabitants, war soldiers, and intruders who’ve died on the grounds, would make for the perfect topic. But when night falls, some of them disappear while others face the bleak reality that they may not make it through the night.
Likely suffering from senior fatigue, Misty (Amber Erwin), Anna (Teal Haddock), Genevieve (Arin Jones), Ky (Evan McLean), Jonah (Leonardo Santaiti), and Gavin (Sergio Suave) seem more pre-occupied with a machismo-driven love triangle and possibly getting laid than putting a coherent video project together. No spark of genuine interest is put into the Plantation’s past, which makes the entire excursion feel like ultimate tournament Truth or Dare. A few scant interviews from locals here, a really shitty introduction there - the sales pitch for this being a project they all actually wanted a passing grade on I just wasn’t buying. There’s too much time focused on secondary character conflicts that are neither interesting nor tie in to the overarching story. The “slow burn” is a treasured technique that in The Final Project only leaves one frustrated and bored by the punchline climax that feels more akin to a love tap.
Our would-be protagonist Genevieve’s arc lays the Easter eggs to unravel the deeper secrets hidden in the walls of Lafitte, but they’re too few and not intriguing enough to consider once the credits roll. I make no excuses for my biased optics when a Black woman is at the fore of a horror film. It’s so astoundingly rare, that it’s hard not to notice and gain my full attention. But even with this particular care to ensure people of color are represented through the entire eighty minutes, Genevieve isn’t given enough room to prosper as the complicated character I feel Ri’chard and company attempted to conjure. While Jones’ performance is not terrible but certainly not on the ballad for a SAG nomination, it’s a twinkle in a rather dull execution of a premise overflowing with unrequited potential.
The American south’s history, drowning in the blood of war, colonialism and a significant hotspot for the West’s institution of slavery, are not intertwined topics tackled too much in the horror genre. This is groundbreaking for found footage and only seen in pockets of the Southern gothic, the supernatural sub-genre, which always seems like the underdog of contemporary genre work. A territory just a touch removed from uncharted, bringing something original to this foundation is not impossible. It’s fertile ground for numerous stories ripe for genre cinema. Unfortunately, if there isn’t much of a trace of clever exposition or tension building, the overall product will have very little, if any impact. The Final Project, while ambitious in concept, leaves so much behind that it’s sadly not worth much consideration. I really wanted to like this film, but it suffered from too many characters and too many meaningless fragile masculinity scraps. The ending does stray a bit from predictable and reeks of sequel. However, it’s a sequel you wouldn’t care for let alone want.
Ri’chard’s hustle and passion for horror is clear. He’s a businessman with many great ideas and has built an online presence for The Final Project that will definitely continue to garner him and the film considerable attention. Due to my relentless optimism for independent filmmaking, enthusiastic filmmakers, and the upswing of the African American presence in the horror carnival, The Final Project isn’t for the found footage fatigued, but it is an effort and may find its audience. It probably won’t have that Blair Witch legacy, but it has the linger of a blueprint for other original films to be birthed from its roots.