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Entries in found footage (2)

Tuesday
Nov082016

OCCUPANTS

Stars: Briana White, Michael Pugliese and Robert Picardo.
Writer: Julia Camara
Director: Russell Emanuel

Rating: 4/5

Two engaging central performances and a director determined to maximise the potential of his premise ensures Occupants emerges as one of the most effective and satisfying low-budget genre works of 2016.

A low-key alt-universe/time-portal two-hander, director Russell Emmanuel’s crowd-pleaser exhibits all the character-driven drama and high-concept smarts of the best Twilight Zone episodes. He’s probably scratching his head at the protagonist’s home-tech set-up, but somewhere Rod Serling is also smiling warmly that his legacy is embraced with such skill and affection.

Annie Curtis (Briana White) is a LA-based documentary maker who makes herself and good-guy husband Neil (Michael Pugliese) the focus of her latest project, in which she subjects the household to a diet cleansing regime and captures its impact upon their dynamic. Scripter Julia Camara’s narrative kicker is not especially sturdy (what exactly does Annie expect to capture via her multi-camera set-up apart from inevitable mood swings and weight loss?), but there is some sly social satire in the notion that only Californian millennials would assume there is an audience interested in watching them turn vegan.

Showing a sure touch with a series of slow-burn reveals, Emmanuel (a journeyman talent credited with solid home-vid titles like P.J., with John Heard, and Chasing the Green, with William Devane) amps up the tension when Annie’s footage reveals a window into a parallel plane of existence in which two far less happy versions of her and Neil struggle with a miserable life. Presented with undeniable evidence this extraordinary event is in fact real, Annie and Neil take on the roles of voyeurs, peering intently at and slowly identifying with their darker selves living another life.

Annie can’t help but get involved with the ethereal doppelgangers when her cameras reveal hot-button topics like pregnancy and potential homicide; what neither Annie or Neil count on are the consequences when their other selves take a vengeful ‘Mind your own business!’ stance. Events become worrisome, then menacing, the stresses of a life without beer and pizza amplified by nocturnal visitations from beyond this world.

Kudos to Emmanuel and his casting team for pairing White and Pugliese, who have a endearing, convincing chemistry, whether as the buoyant, sweet-natured ‘Annie and Neil’ or as the sad, increasingly tormented ‘Others’. In a bit part played directly to camera, veteran character actor Robert Picardo (The Howling; Star Trek Voyager; Inner Space) plays Annie’s mentor Dr Alan Peterson, a role that adds much-needed weight to some of the plot’s loopier developments.

A ‘found footage’ film by defintion, DOP/editor Emile Harris eschews the familiar shaky-cam, instead applying split-screen technique and believable graphics to convincing affect. The usual illogical elements continue to undermine the genre; why would Annie’s hours of footage be edited into this thriller-like construct? why not go public with such sensational evidence of supernatural phenomenon? But Occupants so convincingly plays to its strengths, such griping seems petty; Emmanuel and his leads provide a giddy sense of thrilling discovery and palpable tension that proves entirely winning.

 

Wednesday
May142014

SXTAPE

Stars: Caitlin Folley, Ian Duncan, Diana Garcia, Daniel Farado, Julie Marcus and Eric Neil Guiterrez.
Writer: Eric Reese.
Director: Bernard Rose.

Rating: 3/5

Although the ‘shakie-cam’ found-footage horror genre prides itself on a style-less aesthetic, the craftsmanship of a director with highly-regarded credentials is plainly evident in Bernard Rose’s LA-set haunted-hospital shocker, sxtape. This latest addition to the Brit’s eclectic career is as far from his period dramas (Immortal Beloved; Anna Karenina; The Kreutzer Sonata) as any film could be, but is steeped in the gritty, grimy minutiae of urban decay and chillingly well-defined supernatural components that made his breakout hit Candyman an enduring cult favourite.

Like the 1992 film that introduced horror fans to Tony Todd’s iconic ‘Man in the Mirror’ boogeyman, Rose finds old-school scares in the heart of the modern metropolis. Back then, it was the Chicago projects; this time around, it is in an abandoned sanitarium in the wilds of inner-city Los Angeles. A vibrant blonde artist named Jill (Caitlin Folley) is being followed about town by her horny new beau, Adam (the barely-glimpsed Ian Duncan), who is recording her as she prepares to launch her first exhibit. Sweet time together fills most of the film’s first act, which bounces from boho-loft bonking to playful public giggles and back again; Rose’s film takes a broadminded approach to energetic and frank lovemaking that will attract tough censor attention in some territories.

Adam surprises Jill by taking her to a dingy old mansion to get her thoughts on the place as a gallery space. He surprises her further when, as some kind of bad joke, he straps her to a guerney and briefly leaves her briefly; this allows for the film’s first big scare and the beginning of Jill and Adam’s descent into the vengeful spiritual memory of the building. The plotting comparisons to The Shining grow increasingly apparent (Rose references the ‘naked hottie/old hag’ mirror moment from Kubrick’s film at one point), though it is hardly the first to do so and ultimately carves out its own satisfying narrative path.

Just as fellow veteran Barry Levinson showed on his criminally-underseen handheld horror work The Bay, the format can reinvigorate a director who has spent a career grinding through the traditionally cumbersome production process. Rose held his own camera and cut his own footage on sxtape and the confidence of an old-pro given free reign comes through in every well-timed scare. He has major assets in leading lady Folley, whose all-or-nothing performance goes from darling free-spirit to bloody, shrieking banshee, and production designer Bradd Fillmann, whose vision of a hellish hospital landscape is clearly influenced by those first-person horror games that I refuse to play because they terrify me.

sxtape never fully overcomes the inherent problems that dog the found-footage film - why don’t they just leave? why would they keep filming? why doesn’t the camera battery run out? who adds the post-production elements? The film has its own unanswered conundrums, such as who would still  be running power to the clearly derelict building, although the biggest logical misstep in Eric Reese’s script comes in the form of a prologue in which a cop questions a bloody and distressed Jill; if she is seen to have survived and the fate of her companions is in no doubt, who finds and watches the footage?

Fortunately, Rose and his team generate enough goodwill with some solid scares and a truly icky final frame to overcome any shortcomings. sxtape breathes some fresh air into the handheld-horror genre via the skill of a deft, proven journeyman filmmaker who is clearly enjoying himself.