This week, Complex Pop Culture staffers will write about the one pop culture event of 2014 that let them down the most, because we're all Grinches. Today, senior staff writer and scary movie lover Matt Barone explains why haters of found-footage horror need to stop complaining and recognize its still-there potential for excellence.
Bet you didn’t know that 2014’s worst horror movie opened in theaters nationwide this past weekend. Consider yourself lucky. It's shit.
Sometimes, the allure of sure-to-be bad films is too strong to ignore. Last Friday, I found myself dropping $14 (NYC ticket prices = wallet molestation) to see The Pyramid, a laughably inept assortment of Atari-grade CGI, amateurish acting, and zero frights. My cash factored into the film's dismal $1.3 million gross over the weekend. That's not a surprising figure—I was one of only three people there on its opening night in midtown Manhattan; one of the other two fell asleep and snored loudly. Afterward, I read a few of The Pyramid’s (obviously negative) reviews and, unexpectedly, got even angrier at them than I’d been at the actual movie. A common diss found within those critiques: the repeated, slanderous use of "found-footage," the term used to describe first-person POV movies akin to Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and Cloverfield.
Why so perturbed? Because calling The Pyramid a "found-footage" movie is lazily dismissive. The film's creative team doesn’t know what the hell it's supposed to be—at times, yes, it’s seen through a cameraman's lens, but the amount of traditionally shot moments outweighs the POV ones. It volleys back-and-forth in search of a perspective and, well, a goddamn point. But that lack of a uniform style means it isn’t one particular thing; meaning, it’s not found-footage. It's a clusterfuck.
In the minds of critics and short-sighted horror fans, "found-footage" now equals "bad horror movie." It's easier for people who don't care about something like The Pyramid in the first place to simply label it as such and keep it moving. Which, in turn, frustrates those who aren't prone to half-assed pigeonholing. Those folks, like Nerdist writer Scott Weinberg, know that some of 2014’s best horror flicks were, in fact, found-footage. Everyone else either ignored these movies for that reason or watched them with enormous I-hate-POV-cinema chips on their shoulders; they weren’t able to appreciate how strongly and creatively these specific films navigated through the sub-genre.
The one that's most worthy of a reevaluation is As Above/So Below, which, struggled to crack $20 million in late August after opening on 2,650 screens. Unfortunately, it does look and feel a lot like The Pyramid, but only superficially. The former, and better, film follows a group of twentysomethings who illegally enter the Catacombs of Paris in search of alchemist Nicolas Flamel's mythical Philosopher's Stone, only to inadvertently detour straight into Hell; the latter watches an obnoxious crew of archaeologists and amateur filmmakers as they're hunted and stomped out by the Egyptian half-man/half-jackal god Anubis and other mythological creatures within a three-sided pyramid. (If you want a laugh, here's a blurry version of The Pyramid's Anubis.)
The comparison's an insult to As Above/So Below. It's the Jaws to The Pyramid’s Orca. Led by one of the year’s strongest female leads, Perdita Weeks (playing the Indiana Jones-inspired, and awesomely named, Scarlett Marlowe), director John Erick Dowdle’s claustrophobic film takes the coolest aspects of The Goonies and The Da Vinci Code and infuses them with a killer sound design and disorienting imagery that nods back to old-school Italian master Lucio Fulci. As Above/So Below also makes excellent use of its one-of-a-kind setting. Dowdle and his actors literally filmed the movie in the Parisian Catacombs, getting unprecedented access in one of the world’s scariest real-life locales.
Years in the future, genre sites will praise it retroactively: "You know what? It's actually better than we thought." Right now, it's the antidote anyone who's suffered through The Pyramid needs. (It's currently available on DVD and Blu-ray).
It just sucks that latecomers' hindsight will be 20/20.
I hate that As Above/So Below bricked in theaters. I’m still dumbfounded by its dismal Rotten Tomatoes score: 27%. Which, if RT is to be trusted, means it’s only marginally better than Adam Sandler’s Blended (14%), the clear frontrunner for 2014’s worst movie. That’s bullshit. Though, I can't help but wonder if the critical temperature would be warmer had John Erick Dowdle and his co-writer/producer/brother Drew Dowdle gone full-on adult Goonies and shot As Above/So Below traditionally, rather than first-person. Nearly every negative review has a variation of the “yes, it’s another found-footage movie” groan, implying that the respective critic sat down for his or her screening already hating the movie.
A big reason why so many cinephiles loathe found-footage is its oversaturation. Because it’s cost-effective, wannabe horror directors have employed the technique to make their first movies; at the same time, veterans like Rain Man director Barry Levinson (The Bay) have gravitated towards it for the same penny-saving purposes. And with that, the independent horror scene has been inundated with unsubtle Blair Witch knockoffs (Hollow), found-footage haunted house misfires (The Amityville Haunting, Paranormal Activity 4), and POV "possession movie" duds (The Devil Inside, Inner Demons). It’s hard to defend found-footage when high-profile embarrassments like Into the Storm exist.
There’s no denying that, when done by hacks who lack even a shred of ingenuity, found-footage can be abysmal. Yet that’s true of anything. Prestigious biopics can suck (see: Nelson: Long Walk to Freedom, J. Edgar), summer blockbusters are often atrocious (Transformers: Age of Extinction), and comedies can be painfully unfunny (Dumb and Dumber To, Let’s Be Cops). Even superhero movies have the likelihood of failure. (Green Lantern, anyone?) But will you avoid next summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron just because The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is garbage? Of course not.
Admittedly, I initially sidestepped one of this year's best found-footage entries. Yes, I was part of the problem. But I did eventually give the movie a fair shake; then, I was able to both eat crow and appreciate how far from basic it is.
Titled The Den, it's a progressive POV exercise whose premise is, at first glance, dicey. Presented mostly via computer screens, writer-director Zach Donohue’s cyber-minded knockout centers on Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia), a social media studies grad student who’s received a special grant to study the habits of people using a webcam site called The Den.
The film's first act is a succession of Internet stereotypes (horny guys, horny guys, and more horny guys), but there's one distinct moment where The Den takes a hard left-turn and never looks back. It's a vicious jolt. Gradually, Elizabeth realizes she's the target of an enigmatic crew of masked killers, and the ways in which Donohue slowly unravels her grim fate are so intensely rattling that you forget you’ve been looking at a mixture of laptop and camera phone footage the whole time. The Den's gimmicky "horror by way of Apple products" veneer becomes secondary. Twelve of the whopping 15 critics (*cough* sarcasm *cough*) who bothered to review it agree.
The fact that I was so hesitant about The Den shows you how contagious found-footage fatigue has been—even the most open-minded horror fans aren’t immune. But I love horror too much to turn 100% cynical towards any aspect of it.
After all, no idea’s original. Whatever your favorite movie of 2014 may be, there are several other ones out there just like it, whether in tone, story, look, or all of the above. Sticking to genre here, the two most critically adored horror films of the last two years themselves aren’t exactly groundbreaking. Last year’s The Conjuring, directed magnificently by James Wan, is an A+ version of the same kinds of classically minded haunted house movies that we’ve seen on endless loop dating back to The Haunting (1963); this year’s The Babadook, although it’s home to a new and sophisticated movie monster, is of the same mind as The Shining—it just switches the disturbed protagonist from a father to a mother.
The Conjuring and The Babadook elevate familiar themes and tropes; As Above/So Below and The Den do the same for found-footage. In a world where The Pyramid plays at AMC theaters, movies that advance the genre like that should be rewarded.
As should bold risks by proven filmmakers. Industry politics kept this next movie from reaching its rightful audience. Produced by low-budget movie king Jason Blum (Insidious, Sinister, The Purge), Mockingbird had everything going for it—in addition to Blum’s involvement, it’s written and directed by Bryan Bertino, whose 2008 debut, The Strangers, made serious bank and immediately turned him into a must-watch filmmaker. Yet, for reasons nobody’s discussing publicly, Mockingbird spent two years in Blumhouse Productions’ vaults before getting unceremoniously dumped onto VOD and, sigh, Walmart-exclusive DVD in early October. (It is, however, now streaming on Netflix.)
Delaying its release was an understandable move from Blum’s financial standpoint. Mockingbird is decidedly anti-commercial. There's no Scott Speedman or Liv Tyler. Set in the '90s, the voyeuristic Mockingbird opens with a no-time-wasted jolt, a brutal murder that puts it in horror's 'great first scenes' pantheon with Halloween, Suspiria, Jaws, and Scream. It then segues to three random characters who randomly find handheld cameras on their front doorsteps, along with strict instructions to keep filming everything they do from that point forward. Their disobedience will result in death.
Bertino’s odd little film is an experimental convergence of interlocked vignettes, cheapie title cards that look like Windows 1.0 graphics, a chubby comic relief guy in clown makeup, and numerous mannequins. Evoking the '90s, the graininess of its camerawork has none of As Above/So Below's polish—it looks like VHS home video footage. There’s a low-rent weirdness to Mockingbird that begs two questions: One, how could Universal Pictures' brass ever actually think it'd play well in wide release? And, two, what size balls must Bryan Bertino be packing to have taken his post-Strangers mainstream clout and made a scaled-back, inaccessible chamber piece like this?
Mockingbird feels like the sort of daring indie debut that’d lead to a bigger project like The Strangers, not the other way around. Yet in many ways, it’s superior to The Strangers, particularly in how it expands upon Bertino’s previous film’s greatest attributes, like how its use of looped audio clips lulls you into paralytic submission, and how its malevolence is deceptively mundane. Mockingbird's only roadblock against greatness is its ending, a so-so twist that happens in a room full of balloons and has the jerkiness of a camera bouncing around inside an active washing machine. Once the credits roll, you want to scream at Bertino: "No! Why, B? You were so close!" If not for that incoherent finale, Mockingbird would be a top-five 2014 horror film. (For the record, those are: The Babadook, The Canal, Starry Eyes, Honeymoon, and The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears.)
Still, the shitty ending aside, Mockingbird deserved the 500-plus theater release afforded to The Pyramid. Furthermore, it warrants serious consideration from anyone who’s ranking his or her own "Best Horror Movies of 2014" countdown. I don't expect that to happen. Sadly, it’s hardly a footnote on the year’s calendar. Mockingbird, As Above/So Below and The Den could end up buried in genre cinema’s own catacombs, where multiple gravestones are marked “R.I.P. Anonymous Found-Footage Movie."
For someone like me, the potential for these films to slide into obscurity is more infuriating than disrespectful junk like The Pyramid.
Writer's note: These other 2014 found-footage movies are also worth your time, though less so than the movies discussed above: Delivery: The Beast Within, Afflicted, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, and Willow Creek.