Sunday, January 4, 2015

The year found footage found me again

Just when you think an obnoxious trend might be dying, it roars back with renewed vigor.

And sometimes, you're surprised to find yourself kind of welcoming it.

I watched Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones on Friday night, on what happened to be the year anniversary of its U.S. release. I hadn't planned to make it one of the movies I'm cramming for my 2014 list, but it's funny how the availability of a particular movie on Netflix -- plus an 84-minute running time -- can really change your mind about that.

It was one of two found footage movies I watched that night, which gives you some idea how this detestable genre has found its way back on to my radar in 2014.

Into the Storm, which I watched after The Marked Ones, surprised me by also being a found footage movie, though in this case they stuck to the gimmick only when it suited them -- a major problem with films in this genre that I've complained about before.

But the interesting thing about the five found footage movies I've seen in 2014 is that I liked three of them, and liked parts of the other two. In fact, I liked three of them quite a bit, awarding them four stars out of five. Including the fifth entry into the Paranormal Activity series, which should have been no better than a cash grab.

Tops among my 2014 found footage movies is The Sacrament, Ti West's bold decision to stage the Jonestown Massacre -- or something very similar to it -- as a found footage movie. West has been big into rejuvenating and reinventing since he came on the scene, most notably with The House of the Devil (The Innkeepers disappointed me a bit), and The Sacrament is no different. Three guys from a TMZ-type show travel to a remote cult compound to extract one of their sisters, only to discover that the seemingly contented flock of a charlatan cult leader are on the verge of something potentially tragic. What makes the movie so striking, other than the events that eventually get depicted, is that it's the rare found footage horror that does not use nighttime scenes as a crutch to create fear. Most of the fucked up stuff that happens here happens in broad daylight, making for an unconventional horror film indeed.

Then there was the slightly more traditional The Taking of Deborah Logan, which details the possession of a human being by evil spirits. Again it's filmmakers setting out to make a documentary and capturing a lot more disturbing material than they ever expected to capture. The twist here, though, is that the possessed woman of the title is being filmed because the filmmakers are trying to chronicle the progression of her Alzheimer's disease, in exchange for a nice sum of money the family will truly need to cope with the disease. This shrewd decision means that Deborah Logan's erratic behavior, at least initially, can be mistaken for just for the side effects of her dementia. The film then becomes a metaphor for how someone suffering from that disease truly turns into someone else as they ride out its ravages.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is another clever twist on "your typical found footage horror." You wouldn't expect anything about the fifth movie in a series to be remotely original, but The Marked Ones makes an invigorating creative decision that just so happens also to be inspired by a possibly cynical focus on one particular demographic of the viewing public. Apparently, the Paranormal Activity movies are big with Latinos, so this movie shifts from upper middle class white suburbia to lower middle class Latino apartment buildings. You'd call that pandering to that audience if the characters weren't created with such loving care and resistance of stereotypes -- and when some stereotypes do rear their heads (some Latino gangbangers and their large weapons are recruited to get involved with the supernatural disturbance), they have the effect of being fun rather than cruel. Credit goes to the cast for breathing such distinct life into the characters, and some genuinely spooky moments along the way.

The two I didn't like so much must now share the same paragraph, in part because I already wrote a bunch about Willow Creek last week. Even though that was a fairly naked theft of an earlier property (I won't get into it here so I don't have to issue a spoiler alert), it did use some of the techniques of found footage to maximize the fear inherent in the setup. And then we come to Into the Storm, which basically just did not need to be a found footage movie at all. The effects, which are the main reason to see it, are not particularly enhanced by the fact that they are being viewed by someone's camera -- and in fact, the filmmakers just pull away to a completely omniscient camera angle whenever they feel like it, just so we won't miss anything. That's a big cheat, but I did enjoy the effects well enough to feel like I could recommend it as a rainy day movie. The mostly no-name cast also seems pretty committed.

Whether the fact that they were found footage contributed to me liking these movies is not certain. And that has helped me arrive at a fairly basic, but nonetheless kind of revelatory realization: Found footage is just a tool. It's just a means to an end. If a story is good and you want to follow the characters on their journey, that's more important than whether it's realistic that they are all holding cameras. Or that it's supposed to be God holding the camera in some shots.

So one New Year's resolution might be for me not to automatically hate on found footage. If it can give me the kind of creeps that The Sacrament, The Taking of Deborah Logan and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones gave me, then it is the proper tool to do the job.

1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

Oops, I forgot about Earth to Echo. Which is currently ranked consecutively with Into the Storm on my year-end list.