Archive for March 11, 2017

One flick that’s been spoken of with, it seems, nothing but respect — if not something very much akin to awe — over the years is writer/director Amanda Gusack’s 2005 “found footage” indie horror In Memorium, a true no-budgeter that’s said to share a number of stylistic similarities with its better-known semi- contemporary, Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity, but while that 2007 film  ended up serving as the spingboard to perhaps the genre’s most unlikely franchise and made Peli a genuine “big-wig” in the cinematic world, this one just sort of continued to be recommended by word of mouth (whether those mouths be literal or digital) but seen by very few, and Gusack herself made one more film, 2008’s relatively-larger-budgeted The Betrayed, before apparently throwing in the towel on this whole dream of making movies altogether. There really is no justice in this world.

Still, maybe the tide is turning — albeit slowly and too late. In Memorium, goofy title spelling and all, has for some reason recently become available on any number of “home viewing platforms” (including Amazon Prime, which is how I caught it), and so we can now legitimately ask whether this or Paranormal Activity has stood the test of time better. Even though most of us are seeing this for the first time.

I’m probably being a little bit hard on Peli’s “game-changer,” especially given that I actually liked it quite a bit on first viewing (and have enjoyed a couple of its sequels even more), but really, it doesn’t necessarily withstand the scrutiny of repeat viewings very well before it starts to grate, although in fairness that may simply be down to the fact that Micah Sloat is one of the most annoying characters (and actors) in horror history. But hey, if it aped its entire premise — as it now seems it did — from a prior film, well shoot, that just ain’t fair, is it?

Maybe a quick plot summary of In Memorium will help you decide if you think Paranormal Activity was, indeed a “copycat” effort or not : an aspiring filmmaker named Dennis (played by Erik McDowell) recently found out some very bad news — he’s got terminal cancer and will be lucky to survive the next two months. He’s gonna do his best to turn his suffering into art, though, by moving himself and his girlfriend, Lily (Johanna Watts) into a new house with a high-tech security set-up, and his hope is that after his passing she and his brother/frequent visitor, Frank (Levi Powell) can assemble some sort of documentary of his final days from the raw footage captured by the various security cameras set up all over the residence. What are you supposed to do, though, when said security cameras seem to be capturing something else altogether — something that suggests, weird as it may sound, that cancer might actually be the least of your worries since you’re in more pressing and immediate danger from another threat altogether? One that appears to involve the supernatural possession of someone very close to you?

Stark and austere blacks, whites, and grays are the primary visual language that Gusack communicates her lean, 73-minute story in, and not only are they stylish and effective, they fit the somber tone of the story to a proverbial “T,” and the actors, while clearly not professional, still seem to come off fairly natural in front of the camera(s). It certainly looks and feels like every bit the homemade production it is, to be sure, but that’s more than merely “okay” under these circumstances, it’s down essential in order to lend the project the credibility it needs in order to be well and truly effective — and is there’s one thing In Memorium is, it’s wildly, dare I even say admirably, effective. When you have no money, the best kind of film you can make is one that not only requires no money, but that can literally only be made with no money, and to her eternal credit, Gusack has crafted a production here that wouldn’t work with anything like “normal” or even “cheap” production values. Money — even a little bit of money — would compromise the faux-authenticity (goddamn, but there’s an oxymoron) that oozes (quietly but menacingly) from every frame of this film, and if you’ve been looking for iron-clad proof that “less is more,” then congratulations! Your search is over.

I could go on and on, I suppose, praising the strong atmospherics, genuinely surprising scares, artistically-composed scenes, smart dialogue, etc. on offer here, but honestly, I’m a critic with a conscience, and every additional minute you spend doing something other than watching In Memorium is time that could be better spent by checking it out for yourself. Amanda Gusack, if you ever happen to read this, please! Get back behind the camera as soon as you can.

There’s no excuse for it at this point beyond a pathetic combination of sadism and addiction : when new(-ish) “found footage” horror flicks show up in the Amazon Prime streaming queue, I’m in. Particularly if they’re of the “micro-budget” variety. 90-plus percent of these things are absolute turkeys, and of the less-than- ten percent that aren’t, only a small handful rise above the level of “merely competent,” but in my admittedly very tepid defense, there are still a few gems to be found while sifting through all the wretched, nigh-unwatchable dross. Unfortunately, the one I chose to subject myself to last night, 2016’s The Final Project, isn’t one of them.

The brainchild of director/co-writer (along with one Zachary Davis) Taylor Ri’chard, this rancid and rankly amateur effort follows the exploits of six university students who are collaborating on a — you guessed it — final project for their filmmaking class that sees them make the trek to Vacherie, Louisiana to explore the infamous Lafitte Plantation, a purported hotbed of supernatural activity ever since a slave who was a (probably less-than-willing) mistress of the joynt’s owner, along with four union soldiers, lost their lives there during a Civil War battle. Their restless spirits are said, wouldn’t ya know, to still be shuffling around the property, and lots of other poor saps have met mysterious ends there in the ensuing years, but while you or I would probably figure that was as good an excuse as any to stay the fuck away, that’s just not how things work in the world of “mockumentary” horror, and so nominal group “leader” Genevieve (played by Arin Jones), her boyfriend Gavin (Sergio Suave — who I genuinely feel sorry for if that’s the name on his birth certificate), her ex, Jonah (Leonardo Santaiti), the level-headed and responsible Anna (Teal Haddock), whiny spoiled brat Missy (Amber Erwin), and the generally useless Ky (Evan McLean) decide to roll the dice against fate and hope that they have better luck than, it would seem, anyone else who’s ever set foot on the grounds. Good luck with that.

You needn’t worry about whether or not they survive, of course — their demise is telegraphed from the outset when a silhouetted narrator/presenter says flat-out that he “will never understand why they would go to a place that was known to be haunted. The Lafitte Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana is a place you don’t play with. They knew that.” So, the first thing we know about these kids is that they’re stupid. The second thing we know is that they’re dead. And soon enough you will be, as well — dead bored, that is.

GoPro head-cams are the filming apparatus of choice here, but curiously enough, only some of the scenes appear to have been shot with them, with a number of others resorting to standard-issue (for this sort of thing, at any rate) “shaky cam” stuff, so don’t ask me how that works. Maybe Ri’chard hopes you’ll be so distracted by the bog-standard bumps, crashes, shrieks, and one-by-one disappearances of characters that are peppered throughout at the absolute most predictable times to notice the logical inconsistency inherent in his basic premise, but that would require said by-the-numbers “scares” to be interesting, and trust me when I say they’re anything but. When you pair up this wretched dullness with the film’s substandard acting — which ranges from simply incompetent on the high end to cringe-worthy and dreadful on the low end — the final result is a finished product that has absolutely nothing going for it. And since when does “raw footage” feature incidental music, anyway? Chalk that up to being one more head-scratcher in a flick that’s packed to the gills with them.

Look, I’m trying my best not to be a complete asshole here, but it’s really tough. This film has lame dialogue, poorly-staged “jump scares,” a generic “mow ’em down until we get to the final girl” plot structure, ineffective scene staging, up-and-down (mostly down) sound quality, subplots that are as uninvolving as the main one — look, it’s just no damn good. I give Ri’chard points for assembling a diverse cast that flies in the face of this subgenre’s depressing history (and present) of all-white ensembles, but if none of ’em can actually act, well — what’s the point?

And that’s really the big question all the way across the board here. If The Final Project turns out to be exactly that for Ri’chard, Davis, and their actors, I don’t think any tears will be shed.