Only the first two of these are really new reviews, but I thought a post covering the subjective-camera horror flick genre might be handy. Not that this is everything by a long shot... just the ones I've got reviews typed up for.
Atrocious (C, 2010) A Spanish entry into the Blair Witch found-footage subgenre has a couple of teens on vacation trying to document an urban legend of a ghost at their holiday villa. Supposedly a little ghost girl haunts an old hedge maze on the property. They wander around the poorly-maintained labyrinth and don't find much of anything. Then their dog is killed and thrown down a well, and their little brother goes missing, and then things get worse. It's well-intentioned and it tries, and the actors are likeable and game, but the director doesn't have a good instinct for suspense or fear, so far too much of this is just night-vision shots of weeds that go on and on. The movie also can't make up its mind about the nature of the menace; there's a non-supernatural solution that doesn't explain the girl's eyes suddenly turning blue. Overall it's lightweight and amateurish, but if you're a fan of found-footage horror it's good enough to bear with through the slow stretches.
Home Movie (C, 2008) Subjective-camera take on the evil-child movie is quite effective and creepy. Jack and Emily, a brother and sister who have a strange rapport that alienates them from the rest of society, live with their mother (a child psychologist) and father (a silly pastor who doesn't let his calling stop him from drinking and farting and making sex jokes). Jack and Emily rarely speak or even acknowledge anyone but each other, and they alarm their parents with increasingly aberrant behavior. First they’re hard on their pets, making sandwiches of the goldfish, putting frogs in a vice, and crucifying the cat. Then they turn on a classmate, cornering him and repeatedly biting him. And finally their little game involves their parents.... The acting is great and believable, and as more and more bits of Jack and Emily’s game are revealed, tension builds. This is a standout in the killer-kid genre, both due to the subjective-camera approach and to the almost-documentary realism that makes it all more unsettling.
Grave Encounters (C, 2011) Faux-reality show in the Blair Witch mode. This kind of thing has become very familiar but can still pack in some tension and scares if it's handled well... and this one's handled very well. It never quite manages to come across as real -- it always looks like acting -- but it does manage plenty of creepiness and some highly effective shocks, and it builds to some heavyweight darkness. A TV crew locks itself inside an abandoned mental hospital for the night to film an episode of one of those ghost-hunter reality shows. At first they're disappointed that the place is quiet and boring, but then little things start happening... and then they get a whole lot more than they bargained for. Doors that used to lead to exits now just open on to more labyrinthine corridors, and they're populated by some very spooky and disturbed spirits. And morning never comes; it remains dark outside no matter what time it is. They're left in the dark with limited light and something seems determined to keep them as patients in the hospital. It's a bit derivative but it works well and ranks high on the disturb-o-meter, and builds in creepiness as it goes, ending up intense and packing lots of dread. Recommended.
Blair Witch Project (C, 1999) Hey, you really can make a good movie in your backyard! The Most Profitable Movie of All Time (cost like $30 grand to make and grossed hundreds ‘n’ hundreds o’ millions... that’s a return-on-investment of... let’s see... a real whole bunch!), and you probably already know as much about it as me and I’ve seen it a dozen times. Bascially, it’s one of the most original horror movies in years (although the “found footage” concept has been used – anybody remember Cannibal Holocaust? And did anybody watch the even cheaper $900 feature, The Last Broadcast?) and it may save the sagging horror genre ‘cuz (A) it’s actually scary, not funny, and (B) there are no special effects at all. Unless stick figures and piles of rocks are special to you. Plot is simple: three college kids go out into the woods to research the legend of a witch, and they get lost and stalked by something unseen, and end up... well, let’s just say they’re never seen again and all they find is the footage they shot, which makes up the entire movie. But, on this one ya can’t really stop with just the movie. There’s a cool website for info on the legend, a comic book recounting the history of the Blair Witch, a book detailing the search for the missing students, and even a “soundtrack” CD with the goth songs that were on the tape left in Josh’s car. (The CD has some extra footage you can watch on a computer – just in case you don’t have one, it’s just Josh wanting to try to signal planes, and Heather and Mike telling him he’s nuts). There was also an “In Search Of”-style mockumentary that aired on the Sci-Fi channel and another short film called Burkitsville 7 that aired on a cable service (that one’s mostly about Rustin Parr). This doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but the hype was so heavy that nothing could. And, even though the movie does get a little tiresome with all the “oh damn we’re lost in the woods” stuff and only really gets tense in the last ten minutes, this one is a definite must-see. The unsteady camera work caused some sensitive members of the audience to puke, and the intensity of the film caused one girl in the theater I was in to start crying... that’s so cool!
Last Exorcism, The (C, 2010) Combination of Marjoe, Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist, and just a tad bit of Rosemary's Baby tossed in for flavor. An evangelist who's been performing exorcisms decides to perform one more and film it, because he doesn't actually believe in God or demonic possession and wants to expose it all as a fraud. He's a nice person and cares about the people he's been preaching to; he's just decided that exploiting their ignorance for money is harmful and wants to do his part to stop it. He chooses a random letter requesting exorcism and heads to Louisiana with a two-person film crew and meets a 16-year-old girl named Nell who's been exhibiting some strange behavior, such as mutilating her father's cattle during sleepwalking episodes. Her father is an evangelical lunatic who's kept the family separated from society and firmly believes in demons and exorcism, and Nell is a fragile, nice girl but very creepy. Her hostile brother seems protective of Nell but his animosity toward the exorcism crew is chilling. They do an exorcism and it seems to have taken care of the family's psychological needs... but then it becomes evident that more than psychology is at work in this case. I'd heard that this movie sucked, but it worked well for me, even though the filmmakers blow the whole Blair Witch "found footage" concept -- it's like they forgot they were even trying to do that sometimes and shot scenes from several different angles when only one camera's supposed to be present. The casting and acting are very good, especially Ashley Bell as the possessed girl, who can snap from being a nervously-friendly sweet girl to a screaming malevolent fury in seconds; she really goes balls-out in the possession scenes, which include a few twists we haven't seen before. It's creepy on a lot of levels. Evangelicals are creepy to begin with and they're portrayed convincingly -- I know a ton of people who project that same eerie, almost-mental-illness cultishness. The possession antics are disturbing, but it's also scary on an even-if-she's-not-possessed level because the girl is dangerous even if she's just crazy, and the father may also be on the verge of doing something violent in the name of acting on his beliefs. I had my doubts about this one due to some bad reviews (I've got to quit buying into that; modern audiences just seem to have no attention spans anymore) and the fact that Eli Roth was connected to it; I've not been impressed with his work at all, but he produced, not directed. The ending is pretty weak and is hampered by lame special effect bullshit, but overall this one's worth watching.
Collingswood Story, The (C, 2002) This movie is so low budget that you can figure if they already owned the camera and got volunteer work from the actors, they probably literally made money on the first DVD sold... but (and this is unusual for these cheapies, which honestly usually aren't so hot) this one deserves to make a lot of bucks and sell a lot of DVDs, because it's very creepy, true to its concept, and the acting is great. When his girlfriend moves away to Collingswood, New Jersey to go to college, a guy named John buys her a phone cam for her computer so they can stay in touch. The movie consists of their calls to each other and various other phone cam weirdoes. At first the movie's mostly concerned with the strained, awkward distance relationship, but then they get involved with a creepy cam psychic who tells them that people were killed in cult rituals in the house where Rebecca is living, up in the attic. Unluckily for all involved, Rebecca is a brave young lady, has a laptop, and a hundred foot phone cord... It's an obvious variant on The Blair Witch Project but manages to hold its own and build some serious intensity, leading to a legitimately scary climax that is both slightly disappointing (it doesn't make complete sense) and perfect for the story (are things as creepy when they do make complete sense?) You'll have to seek this unique format little movie out through its website (www.collingswoodstory.com) and deal with Paypal to order it (I'm not fond of the Paypal experience, sorry) but it's worth the hassle, unless you're one of those people who absolutely hated Blair Witch Project... and maybe even then, since these actors are a little more likeable and some have found this to be scarier (I wouldn't go that far, but Blair Witch really worked for me; this worked too, though). It also does a great job tapping into your voyeuristic instincts, so even though the movie is mostly all talk (My Scary Ass Dinner With Andre, sorta), it keeps your interest.
Expedition, The (C, 2006) Blair Witch Project worship meets Session 9 cultism in a film probably financed by somebody’s tax return. Five documentarians who say “fuckin’” before every noun and most of their adjectives and verbs too enter the long-abandoned Saratoga Homestead Hospital to videotape it all. It’s not really supposed to be haunted even though it’s an extremely creepy place, but they soon notice strange things happening, such as cold rooms and presences that make their cameras go staticky. While they’re wandering around the ruins one of their friends, fuckin’ Tom, goes missing and they have to search the building looking for him. Every once in a while they cut to footage of the police interrogating one of the filmmakers, and occasional “reenactment” footage. The strong point of this is definitely location; the huge, crumbling old tuberculosis clinic is atmospheric in the extreme, and would be highly creepy even if they weren’t trying to make a horror movie out of it. The main weakness of the movie is length; there is no reason whatsoever that such a scant story (premise, really) with almost no narrative drive needs to be an hour and 48 minutes long. At around half that length you might generate some spookiness (even if it’s extremely derivative of Blair Witch) but as it stands only an obsessive interest in urban exploration kept me watching. A music score of constant eerie music does manage to create some false tension, even while it spoils the cinema verite. Worth checking out for patient fans of Blair Witch-like films, and still better than many homemade horror films just because of location. Available ultra-cheap on the Mortuary of Madness 50 movie set.
Off The Beaten Path (C, 2004) Blair Witch-inspired shot-on-video horror about four amateur filmmakers investigating a story of a Satan-worshiping hermit named Jasper Hagen who did evil things in the backwoods. It deviates from the Blair Witch style by alternating regular filmmaking (establishing shots of their truck going down the road, etc.) with the point-of-view footage shot by the actors. They go out in the woods looking for cabins and spots were dead bodies were found. Deep in the woods they find inverted crosses and carvings on trees (it's typical stuff any metal kid would carve, but it freaks them out) and only the main guy wants to keep going; the others are all easily terrified. They press on and find some creepy abandoned cabins, a pentagrammed altar, and a book with crazy things written in it. Then it variates into an Evil Dead rip-off, but with much, much milder gore. It’s very amateurish and highly derivative, and screws up its “found footage” atmosphere with too many non-P.O.V. shots, and it’s obvious when the actors aren’t ad-libbing (when they do they sometimes come up with hilarious lines like “inverted crosses in the shape of a pentagram!”), but despite the limitations, it does still manage to generate a few moments of tension and spookiness, and is a whole lot better than most of the no-budget shot-on-video dreck that’s saturating the market. But, that’s faint praise indeed. If you loved Blair Witch and aren’t picky, you’ll probably welcome this one. Only an hour long. Found on the Decrepit Crypt of Nightmares 50 DVD pack.
[REC] 2 (C, 2009) Picking up where the first left off, but weaving together a more complicated timeline involving multiple sets of protagonists (who all happen to be carrying cameras), this is another grade-A Spanish scarefest. To make any sense of it you will have to watch the original first, because it's not very merciful about catching you up. A SWAT team is sent into the building to try to contain the outbreak, and they find a priest who's seeking the blood of the original possessed girl, which is the only thing that can stop the demonic-possession-virus from spreading. They have a bunch of hard luck and are whittled down pretty quickly by the frantic zombie-like horrors infesting the building, who are now sometimes manifesting more demonic powers, such as crawling on ceilings. Also a group of teens, bored after their bottle-rockets-and-love-doll experiment doesn't work, sneak into the building and soon wish they hadn't. The attacks are frequent and scary but they also get numbingly repetitive after a while because they're so chaotic; there's only so many times a bloody screeching person can run at a camera and attack it before you start thinking "this again?" And the movie relies on jump-scares so much that it could work as a kegel exercise video. The subjective camera thing starts wearing out its welcome in this one because between the darkness and the camera being thrashed around and broken up you end up not seeing much. But the situation is so creepy and the visuals so hellish that none of that matters too much, and this sequel is a very worthy follow-up, as horrific as the first chapter.
Paranormal Activity (C, 2009) It was about time for the next Blair Witch Project, and this is it; another simple concept with a “less is more” approach that effectively exploit’s the audience’s imagination for maximum impact. Filmed on a budget lower than Blair Witch and proving that all those “Pendulum Pictures” 50-pack movies have no excuse for sucking so bad, the whole film takes place in an apartment, with a brief early-morning foray into the back yard. An apartment is being plagued by poltergeist-like activity, the source of which appears to be a demonic presence that’s followed a girl since she was a child. Her boyfriend is overenthusiastic about getting as much of the activity on tape as he can, so he provokes the presence to increase its activity. It obliges him and they soon regret it. The film’s all shot from one camera, often stationary, and often while the actors are sleeping. Most of what happens is simple and subtle (doors moving, lights going on, sounds from other rooms) but intensity builds nicely and then stays constant. There is a slight over reliance on “jump scares,” but they work, and they movie also focuses on creepiness. It has a very good sense of what works and hits it pretty consistently. This movie made it to national theatres through word of mouth and people demanding it, so we’re lucky it got released. It makes me wish similar films like Ghostwatch, The Collingswood Story, and The St. Francisville Experiment (a lot of people hated that one but I liked it, so sue me) had also gotten that chance, even though Paranormal Activity is better than those. Audiences reported problems sleeping because the film scared them so badly. It didn’t affect me that strongly, but I still think it lived up to the hype, and definitely wasn’t a disappointment. There are two alternate endings; I like one of those a little better than the one they ended up using for the theatrical release (under Steven Spielberg’s recommendation).
Paranormal Activity 3 (C, 2011) The tricks are getting a little familiar and losing their ability to terrify -- it's kinda becoming a chain of "oh, that again" -- but the series is still solid and hasn't had a bad one yet. This is a prequel, consisting of video tapes shot when Katie was having her first supernatural troubles as a little girl. Her sister starts a weird friendship with an imaginary friend named Toby... who turns out to be neither imaginary nor friend, as he terrorizes her family. Like the others this starts out with little creaks and movements that get her stepfather obsessed with filming them all on his videocameras, but he conveniently captures more than he counted on. A little less is left to the imagination than in previous installments, and it still unfolds pretty slowly, but it pays off with some freaky special effects and an ending that explains maybe too much. They should probably end it here, but it's not a disappointment.
Nothing in this trailer appears in the film, by the way...
Others I didn't have reviews typed up for:
St. Francisville Experiment