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.