With the new BLAIR WITCH chapter hitting screens later this month, and the likelihood that mass audiences won’t get a chance to see writer-director Steven DeGennaro’s mic-drop debut, FOUND FOOTAGE 3D (which premiered at the Chicago-area Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival last month and also just played London’s Fright Fest), until late this year or sometime next year, I think I can safely say that FOUND FOOTAGE is the last of this sub-category of horror that you’ll ever need to see. In essence, DeGennaro has turned the hand-held camera around on itself by creating a faux behind-the-scenes doc about a skeleton crew of filmmakers actually making a found-footage horror film, titled SPECTRE OF DEATH, in a cabin in the woods that might actually contain a supernatural presence, making the documentary itself the far scarier work. Got it? It’s actually not as complicated as it sounds.
Lest you think this is a SCREAM-like movie that pokes fun at the found-footage and 3D formats, or that it’s a full-on parody, think again. It’s clear that DeGennaro and his team’s primary mission is to scare the bejesus out of us, and on that front, he is absolutely successful. The more daring elements of FOUND FOOTAGE 3D involve the structure. The film actually opens in the exceedingly non-threatening environment of a suburban home where SPECTRE OF DEATH’s producer-writer-star Derek (Carter Roy) is unveiling his master plan for the film to director Andrew (Tom Saporito).
Embodied in these two characters is the constant dilemma of horror films today—art vs. commerce: Derek is thinking about maximum box office appeal. He springs his 3D idea on Andrew at the 11th hour, and Andrew immediately wonders why a pair of vacationers would shoot their home movies or have home-security cameras in 3D. Shockingly enough, Derek doesn’t have an answer, not does he care that he doesn’t have one. While Derek is pure capitalist, Andrew represents the purer vision that most directors embody, and every step away from SPECTRE feeling “real” is a failure in his eyes.
Those of us who are always asking questions of found-footage movies, such as “Who found and assembled this footage?” or “Why didn’t these terrified idiots drop their cameras so they could run faster?” will particularly enjoy Derek and Andrew’s squabbles. Aside from making money, Derek’s other motivator for making this film is the possibly of reconnecting with his ex-wife, Amy (Alena von Stroheim), who just happens to be the leading actress (opposite him) in a story whose premise involves a couple attempting to find the lost spark in their relationship by going to a secluded vacation cabin.
The last thing I expected from this film was to get emotionally involved in this bitter interpersonal drama, but it’s difficult not to when the venom begins flying early and never lets up. It’s downright uncomfortable at times watching them, which only serves to heighten the film’s overall tension levels in unexpected ways. As if that weren’t enough of the personal drama, the guy shooting the behind-the-scenes footage for the SPECTRE’s blog is Derek’s bother Mark (Chris O’Brien), who happens to have feelings for Amy and is especially protective of her.
Rounding out the filmmaking team are a very funny turn by Scott Allen Perry as bearded sound man Carl, who looks tough but is probably the biggest scaredy cat of the bunch, and Jessica Perrin as production assistant Lily, who is the film’s least-developed character and most likely to die early. Her main purpose in the film seem to be a pretty, young woman whom Derek can flirt with to make Amy angry.
The final member of the primary cast comes in late to the proceedings and is almost too bizarre and amusing to mention, but it also goes a long way toward establishing SPECTRE’s authenticity as a genuine filmmaking experience in a social media age. Real-life film critic and horror film expert Scott Weinberg (playing himself) pops in on the last couple days of the shoot as a visiting journalist, who has been deceived he was visiting a much bigger and more professional production. His reactions to the bare-bones crew and spare-every-expense production values are priceless, with just the right amount of understated condemnation of what he clearly believes is a half-stop above a student film.
Without revealing too much about the presence in the cabin, it becomes clear that the scares being delivered behind the camera are far more terrifying than the ones in front, and that they may be connected to someone involved in the production. As the days go on, the threat level becomes elevated, crew members abandon ship or are injured in mysterious ways. And even if no one believes the cabin is actually haunted, they can’t ignore the fact that the production seems jinxed. There are special effects involved in FOUND FOOTAGE 3D as well, and they look just low rent enough to confirm the film’s in-joke about the found-footage staple of crappy special effects, but just professional enough to make you cower.
FOUND FOOTAGE 3D never misses an opportunity to inject humor into every situation, but DeGennaro doesn’t simply lob jokes like hand grenades to destroy the flow of the story. He limits himself to having his characters make comments about filmmaking in general, the found-footage dynamic, and use of 3D specifically, as well as stinging indictments of film producers who look at found footage as an easy way to make a movie cheaply and rake in piles of cash on the backend. The movie manages to both condemn the format and be a beacon of hope that it can be done correctly (although as I mentioned at the top, this is probably the last found-footage movie that you ever need to see).
One of the best scenes in the film—and one that sets the tone for the rest of the journey perfectly—involves the filmmakers on the road to their location, stopping for supplies along the way in a creepily isolated Texas town. On a porch are two leathery old-timers watching these youngsters, and the team is so enamored with their look that they attempt to shoot a scene with them in which the lead characters ask for directions, and the locals warn them off going to their destination. Not being actors, the old-timers can’t get the lines right, and the filmmakers eventaully abandon the idea. With the movie cameras off, but the doc cameras rolling, the two old men ask where these outsiders are headed, and when they find out, they practically jump out of their seats with a more genuine fear. It’s a terrific moment because it underscores what so many found-footage flicks get wrong: the people don’t act like people; they act like filmmakers pretending to be people. What works so beautifully about FOUND FOOTAGE 3D is that it’s about filmmakers that actually act like people.
My only real criteria for whether a horror film succeeds or not is whether it scares me, and if that’s all you really care about, FOUND FOOTAGE 3D has got that covered. But it’s the movie’s insight, powers of observation, and dedication to creating actual characters (and not just cannon fodder) that pushes it into the realm of essential viewing. My minor quibble with the film might be that it spends a little too much time being self referential in terms of the use of the found-footage device and 3D technology. Every time it does so, it pulled me out of the filmgoing experience; I want to get lost in a move and stay lost, so there’s no reason to keep yanking us out.
I should also make mention—and this is key— that the version of this film that I saw was not in 3D. From all reports, the 3D is used masterfully and is quite good, but I can’t testify to that and promise to see it again with glasses firmly affixed closer to its actual release. FOUND FOOTAGE 3D isn’t just a solid, promising first feature; it’s easily right up there with some of the best horror works I’ve seen in 2016. If you’re lucky, you can catch it at a festival near you; if not, hopefully you can see it not long after that during its inevitable theatrical run.