The Last Exorcism (2010): A New “Old” Trend of Film Making

1999’s The Blair Witch Project started a trend of “found footage” films. As a trend making film, Blair Witch not only opened the door for a new type of film, but it also showed how use of the internet could be used to publicize your film and how to build an audience before the film’s release.

There is an old saying that goes like this, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” In the film world the saying could be changed to, “Imitation is the sincerest form of a successful film.” That Blair Witch was successful is beyond question. Shot on a shoestring budget of 500 to 750 thousand dollars, the film raked in an astounding 248 million box office dollars. Is it any wonder that this new “genre” of films has become a norm at the box office?

The only other film to show that much return on investment was the 2007 film Paranormal Activity with its budget of 15 thousand dollars and an unbelievable box office return of over 193 million dollars. P A was another film to utilize the internet as a valid and lucrative marketing forum. There are other film makers out there that have taken the Blair Witch formula as their template and done well in the box office department.

The Last Exorcism takes a leaf from Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity with its found footage scenario and tossed in a “mockumentary” theme. The film is a “documentary” of an exorcist who lives and works in the American south (Baton Rouge, Louisiana). Father Cotton Marcus (played by actor Patrick Fabian) uses a combination of psychiatry and “smoke and mirrors” via electronic means to “cure” the possessed person.

He has a pretty high success rate. But this man of the cloth is a cynic. He does not really believe in demonic possession, he does believe that the victims do and he treats them in a manner that reflects their belief. Father Marcus is retiring from the world of exorcism and a camera crew is documenting his last exorcism.

The film follows Father Marcus on his last case and we meet the victim, a young girl named Nell (which immediately brought up visions of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop), her father and her brother, who is not pleased to see this group of film makers and the good Father descend upon his home. The brother, Caleb is downright hostile to the entire “congregation” and derides the Father at every opportunity.

By the power of my electronics leave this girl.

Father Marcus performs two exorcisms on Nell and finds out that his opponent is all too real and won’t react to his psychological exorcism.

It terms of style, the film conveys it documentary “feel” very well. It looks and sounds like the real deal. Directed by the German independent film maker Daniel Stamm and filmed with “shaky cam” (a technique where camera stabilization is dispensed with giving the film a “guerrilla” and more realistic look) Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) is one of the producers of the film. Marketing for the film was done via a chat room website (Chatroulette) using a viral campaign approach. It was to a degree quite successful, with a budget of 1.8 million dollars and a return of over 67 million dollars the profit is not as impressive as either Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity but with enough of a profit margin to elicit a sequel.

I will say that the film did look like a documentary to me. Stamm did a very good job of letting the run up to the action of the film feel quite mundane and not a little disappointing. The reveal at the beginning of the film that Cotton Marcus (Did you get the play on the name here? Cotton Mather Salem witch trials anyone?) is a man who does not believe in demons nor the idea of demon possession is disturbing; especially as he works as an exorcist who uses the “power of Christ” to cure the afflicted.

The cast do a brilliant job in their roles helping to sell the “reality” of the people and the story. I enjoyed the film very much and can say that I was genuinely surprised at the ending. I do not do a star rating on films, but if I did, The Last Exorcism would get 5 out of 5 stars for originality.

As the sequel is coming out in March 2013 it wouldn’t hurt to see the film before seeing the sequel. I think you will enjoy it.

Are we having fun yet?

Atrocious (2010): A Horror Film by any Other Name…

Written and directed by Fernando Barreda Luna, Atrocious opened to mixed reviews most notably from Rotten Tomatoes. I will admit to having passed over this particular film several times on LOVEFILM. The thumbnail combined with the films short description did nothing to peak my interest. The film’s title also did nothing to help sell the film. I am still at a bit of a loss to understand why it was titled Atrocious.

Finally curiosity forced me to give the film a try and I’m not sorry I did. The film was edited very well and the guerilla style of film-making helped to bring the events to life. I was afraid that the film was going to be another ‘Blair Witch‘ or ‘Paranormal’ or even ‘Cloverfield‘ and that it just would not be worth the time it took to watch the film.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The film may have borrowed a little from each of the three mentioned titles, but they borrowed so little that it wasn’t readily noticeable.

The film’s plot is quite straight forward. The Quintanilla are going to their summer home for a holiday. Once there the two older children, Cristian and his sister July, continue to work on a video they started making before they arrived at the summer home.

Intrigued by an urban myth about the forest surrounding their summer home, they decide to focus their video on the woods and the myth itself. The myth says that if you are lost in the woods the spirit of a girl called Melinda will guide you or show you the right way out of the woods.

Cristian and July decided to explore the forest and see if they can get to the heart of the myth. In the meantime their younger brother Jose must keep himself entertained and mother keeps busy doing things around the house. Their father has been called away on business.

When mother finds out that they have been filming in the woods, she freaks out and forbids them from entering the forest. They pretty much ignore this new rule and when the family dog goes missing, the first place the kids go to look is the forest.

Despite the fact that this is Luna’s first feature length film, he proves that he is more than capable of using suspense in the best way possible to make some of the scenes excruciating to watch. As the suspense mounts up, it takes very little for your imagination to take over and send you into a child-like state of fear.

Luna has also opted to use the absolute minimum of music in the soundtrack. The absence of ‘mood’ music helps to build the unease that we feel watching and puts the audience into an almost ‘fly-on-the-wall’ position.  When the final twist is exposed to the kids and us, we are shocked, confused and left slightly breathless. I certainly did not see the twist and it took me completely by surprise.

The film opens stating that what we are watching has been compiled from a police evidence tape. The entire family was found murdered and this the only footage of what happened. So even though you fully expect the family to die, when it happens, you are still surprised.

I  kept expecting the victims to get killed off much earlier. So that there was a ‘building’ body count. Luna decided not to take that route and chose instead to shock us all at once.

The scenes in the forest at night were extremely well done and even had the odd bit of comedy thrown in which helped to make the footage seem more real. The young actors playing Cristian and July (Cristian ValenciaClara Moraleda) really felt like a brother and sister with the way they interacted with one another.

Overall this film was a lovely little surprise that, despite the somewhat confusing title, really delivered as a horror film. I can say that Atrocious is one of the better horror films I’ve seen this year.

If you go into the woods today…

Trollhunter (2010): Trolls aren’t Just on the Internet

Written and directed by André Øvredal,  Troll Hunter is a cracking good film and it is André Øvredal’s second feature length film. Made on a budget of 3.5 million dollars, it made just over that on it’s theatrical release. The film is a brilliant blend of Norwegian fairy tales and social satire. Considering the small budget the computer generated effects are very good and since they are based on classical paintings of Norwegian trolls the trolls appear both slightly comic and threatening.

The cast of the film is made up of ‘unknown’ actors and well known Norwegian comedians. Troll Hunter did very well when it opened in Norway and has generated enough interest and publicity that on the day it opened in the US it was announced that director Chris Columbus‘s company, 1492, and CJ Entertainment & Media had obtained rights to do an American re-make of the film.

The film opens with a black screen and the following words: On October 13, 2008 Filmdameratene AS received an anonymous package with two hard disks containing 283 minutes of filmed material. This film is a rough-cut version of that material. Everything is shown in chronological order and no images have been manipulated.

This written message goes on to say the despite investigative attempts, the film cannot be verified as being authentic or a practical joke.

We are then introduced to a three person team of college students who are filming a documentary about bear hunting in Norway. While interviewing a group of licensed bear hunters they hear about a man that the licensed hunters believe is a poacher. With their interest piqued the students track down and attempt to interview the suspected poacher.

The ‘poacher’ rebuffs their interview offer and leaves. Undaunted the team follow him until they finally catch up to him and his intended prey. Surprisingly he is not hunting bears at all. He is hunting trolls. His name is Hans (Otto Jespersen) and he works for the TSS (Troll Security Service).

The students, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) decide to stick with Hans and film him killing a real live troll. The first night that they find Hans a troll demolishes their car and they have to ride out of the wilderness with him. They do this and decide to make their entire documentary about troll hunting.

Hans explains about trolls and their territories and what his job entails. He is the only troll hunter in Norway and it is a crappy job according to him. He doesn’t get a bonus for working at night or for unsocial hours and he doesn’t like how the government runs the job.  

After Hans has killed the first troll, his government contact tells him that something must be wrong with the trolls and that Hans needs to get a blood sample for analysis. This turns out to be a bit difficult as trolls either turn to stone or explode when they die.  Following a trail and reading the newspapers, Hans locates another troll.

He leaves some goats on a bridge as bait and dons his troll suit, a metal helmet and armour that protect the rest of his body. When he kills this troll it explodes and  Hans gets his blood sample.

Later the little group find out that the troll has rabies, which is bad news for Thomas as he was injured by the first troll they came in contact with. Things get worse for the troll hunters when their camera man gets eaten by a ‘mountain king troll.’ Thomas sends for a replacement camera operator and they continue their hunt.

The film is brilliantly made. Comparisons have been made with The Blair Witch Project and in my opinion the film works better than Blair Witch by a mile. It really looks like a documentary. The camera work is superb, the times when the camera operator would move the camera or put it down looks real and more importantly feels real.

The subject matter is of course meant to be a mixture of comical and frightening and it is. In fact the only problem I had with the film was that the actor who played Thomas looked the spitting image of Declan Donnelly of Ant and Dec two English television presenters. It really did put me ‘out of the moment’ several times during the film.

The amount of beautiful scenery that the film takes in while the troll hunters are tracking their prey is breath taking. If nothing else the film could be used to increase tourist traffic to Norway. The travel scenes themselves are admittedly a little too long, but they serve to show how isolated the little group of hunters are.

Hans Troll Hunter

The acting is just the right amount of stern and ultra serious from Hans. And the students act like, well, students. Disbelieving at first, amused, then frightened and at the end determined to finish their documentary.

Troll Hunter is a cracking film that entertains. It is escapism in the best possible way. Watch it and get ready to be impressed with this little Norwegian film. Oh and keep an eye out for the ‘big budget’ remake by Chris Columbus and crew.

Grave Encounters (2011): Great Start…Grave Finish

Grave Encounters

Written and directed by  The Vicious BrothersGrave Encounters  is their maiden voyage as it were into the film world. Using the obligatory horror genre as their entrance, I am sure that the idea worked really well in script and storyboard form.

I really wanted to like this film. The beginning of the film looked great. Hell, the “trailer” for the ‘ghost hunter’ team played beautifully. I wanted to make that program.

The film opens as a mock-u-mentary, we hear from a television executive how Lance Preston sent in a demo reel for consideration as a new ‘reality’ program. The excec states that he was before his time and that this type of tv program hadn’t taken off yet.

Everything looked great until episode six. We are going to see episode six. He stresses that this is not a movie. It is seventy-six hours of un-edited footage from Lance’s last ever show.

We then meet the crew of Lance’s “professionals” and we see them setting up the shots for episode six. We meet cameraman TC (Merwin Mondesir), Techno Geek Matt (Juan Riedinger), pouty assistant Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), Psychic Houston (Mackenzie Gray) and presenter/expert Lance (Sean Rogerson).

They are all there to investigate the creepy abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. This place, according to local legend, has had scary stuff happen ever since it closed down. And shades of The House on Haunted Hill; the reason it was closed was a mad doctor was murdered by six of his patients.

The first thing we learn upon meeting these guys and gal are that they are new to this whole ‘ghost busting’ gig and that, so far at least, they haven’t seen any ghostly goings on. We also find out that Houston is about as psychic as my left big-toe. He is in fact just an actor.

*He also, through no fault of his own, provides for some of the ‘unintended” laughs. Every time someone said his name and the word problem together, I felt like I was watching an astronaut film –

Right up until everything goes completely Pete Tong I was with them. I liked how the film was progressing and was ready for the action to pick up.

Unfortunately when it did pick up, the players all lost their cool too quickly. It was like watching a high school theatre group do improv. Everyone wanted to panic and scream.

Incidentally, I wanted Sasha to die immediately. Nothing personal, but her scream was so irritating that the threat the ghosts posed seemed minimal compared to the ear damage her shrieking must have caused.

But before everything goes completely crazy (Did you see what I did there?) The group have had very little happen to them and they decide to call it a night. They are bored, tired and hungry. All this was good. I mean they had me right there and ready to ride the roller coaster of fear.

Like the celestial virgin, there I was all juiced up and ready to go, but my partner was suffering from a terminal case of brewer’s droop.

It is quite possible that this film was much scarier in the cinema where sound and darkness could play a big part in setting you up for the jump. It just felt like a lukewarm version of The Blair Witch Project.

To say I was disappointed, would be an understatement. Somebody must have liked the film, because on IMDb there is a Grave Encounters 2 set for release this year.

It was inevitable that the success of the Paranormal series, which owes it own beginnings to Blair Witch, would spawn imitations. The guerilla style of film-making seems to be on the rise and to be fair it has resulted in some great little films. Cloverfield to name but one.

But for the love of all that’s scary, get off the Blair Witch train. Okay?