Directors: Clif Prowse, Derek Lee
Running time: 85 minutes
Consider this your first warning: In due time, once the film's new distributor, CBS Films, begins rolling it for a theatrical release, presumably sometime in 2014, you're going to hear a lot about the found-footage horror entry Afflicted. First premiering as part of the Toronto International Film Festival's esteemed genre showcase Midnight Madness earlier this month, the feature-length debut from Canadian co-writers/co-directors Derek Lee and Clif Prowse nearly the horror category's awards at Fantastic Fest, winning Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. A much-better-than-the-norm addition into the first-person POV horror sub-genre, Afflicted has scary-movie critics writing all kinds of hyperbole about it, everything from how its one of the best found-footage movies ever made to how it's a box office sleeper hit waiting to to happen.
And, believe it or not, the hype is mostly justified. Though it's far from the groundbreaking game-changer some claim it to be, Afflicted is a reassuring blast of ingenuity, cleverness, and verve for a style of horror film that's been misused and abused over the last couple of years. Even more than that, it's one hell of a calling card for newcomers Lee and Prowse, whose behind-the-camera talents elevate what could've been merely the horror version of last year's surprise success Chronicle into a technical marvel. Their budget and resources were minimal, yet the collaborators pulled off an action-thick adrenaline rush with the most impressive found-footage camerawork since Cloverfield.
Gifted in terms of craftsmanship, Lee and Prowse aren't nearly as accomplished when it comes to storytelling. The further Afflicted goes, the more vulnerable its makers leave themselves to the usual found-footage pitfalls. The central plot of Afflicted begins strongly, though. The directors play fictionalized versions of themselves, who, like they are in real life, are lifelong best friends. Clif's an aspiring filmmaker, thus, when it comes time for them to embark on a year-long trip across the world, he brings his camera equipment along to document it all and stream it online as a travelogue, called "Ends of the Earth." The "epic" vacation isn't just for kicks, though—Derek is suffering from a brain aneurysm and, according to his doctors, is living on borrowed time. This could be the last big thing he ever gets to do. Nothing is going to stop him.
Well, except for that beautiful brunette, Audrey (Baya Rehaz), he meets inside a Paris, France, bar and brings back to their hotel room. Only, when Clif and two of their buddies show up to playfully cockblock him, Derek's lying in bed alone, with a chunk of skin ripped out of his left arm and a huge welt on his forehead. And Audrey's gone, although her clothes and possessions remain crumpled on the floor.
From there, Afflicted heads directly into horror, with Derek's condition escalating from newfound superhuman abilities (he can suddenly punch through massive rocks and leap onto buildings) to an unquenchable need to drink human blood. You see where this is going yet? Indeed, Lee and Prowse have essentially made a vampire's answer to Chronicle, but, fortunately, they're not pussyfooting around with the sparkling undead or sex-crazed bloodsuckers that have dominated popular culture recently. Growling, supercharged, and unstoppable, Derek 2.0 is legitimately intimidating, and through the actors' naturalistic performances—aided by their real-life, off-camera chemistry—the emotional stakes resonate. Lee and Prowse make good use of one particular element of the vampire mythos—the inability to endure sunlight—with appropriately hideous and realistic makeup work, the payoff for a chase sequence in which Derek flees from the fuzz in broad daylight while desperately trying to tuck himself away in whatever shaded areas he can find.
It's in that scene and two other knockout action set-pieces where Lee and Prowse truly upgrade the found-footage conceit. With a camera rigged around his chest, Derek sticks to their travelogue's "capture everything" mission statement, even as if he's jumping through windows and hopping across rooftops, all of which Lee and Prowse stage with "How'd they do that?" wizardry. Sooner or later, a Paramount Pictures executive will gets his or her hands on a copy of Afflicted and begin seducing its filmmakers into directing one of the next Paranormal Activity sequels. Studio heads will definitely begin hounding Lee and Prowse once Afflicted circulates within the industry. On a nuts-and-bolts level, it's that damn good.
Their downfall, sadly, comes in the suspension of disbelief needed to accept that Derek's camera would emerge from every crash, bang, and zoom unscathed, the same issue that handicapped predecessors like the aforementioned Cloverfield and Chronicle. Afflicted's overuse of on-camera exposition is equally problematic—without the dripping snot or cascading tears, Derek grounds the film's momentum several times to give his best Heather-from-The-Blair-Witch-Project impersonation. Pumping the fast-paced film's brakes is one thing, but resorting to the obvious characterization trick used by every other found-footage movie? Disappointing when surrounded by so much hands-on filmmaking prowess.
Chances are, though, any horror die-hard who's subjected him or herself to the endless deluge of found-footage wackness in recent years won't hold those missteps against Lee and Prowse—they'll want to hug them and buy the Canucks an appreciate beer or two. Afflicted, its flaws withstanding, will fill the most skeptical of horror sticklers cause for hope: Yes, there still are fresh, innovative ways to do what's been done before. Now let's start the clocks to see how long it takes Lee and Prowse to sign up for whichever major studio's next found-footage project—Paranormal Activity 6, perhaps? Fingers crossed that, if such an upward move happens for the novice directors, the potential exhibited in Afflicted doesn't go the way of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman in Paranormal Activity 4.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)