The Butchers (2006)

Guys, this movie is bad.

But is it the sort of bad movie that you can still have fun with? Because that’s sure what it’s aiming for.

The Butchers starts off with the standard slasher fare: a stranded group of victims, and a masked killer who picks them off one by one. In this case, a group of resurrected serial killers – and the young upstart who wants to be the best of the best. Then add a former marine to the mess of survivors, who happens to be the son of a murderer and disturbingly good at killing himself. It’s nothing special, but it’s a decent mix of elements.

Sadly, the film betrays its premise before the first act. If a story is going to use historical figures like Ed Gein, Jeffery Dahmer, and Jack the Ripper, then it needs to get the facts right. It’s entirely possible that Jack the Ripper could have been a woman, but certainly not one decked out in modern bondage gear. Furthermore, none of these people were martial arts experts, as The Butchers portrays them as. These characters are portrayed more as twisted caricatures of their public personas rather than anything resembling the historical truth. The same could be said for the rest of the cast, truthfully – none of the characters are unique. All of them fit neatly into racial and gender stereotypes we’ve seen a hundred times before, each a little bit more offensive than the last.

Lastly, I’m uneasy with the ethics of using real life tragedy to promote entertainment. No matter how clownish or bizarre the killers are in The Butchers, the people they were based on had a real impact on the world. This isn’t to say that basing a horror story around historical fact is necessarily a bad thing, but it does make me wonder exactly what message the film is trying to send.

All and all, The Butchers is your average B movie. It doesn’t do anything new, and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks. You can skip it.

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Dark Mountain (2013)

Hooo boy. An alternative title for Dark Mountain could Cultural Insensitivity and Bad Life Choices: The Movie. Or some variation of a Blair Witch Project homage/rip-off. I’m not sure where the line between reference and outright copying is drawn, but Dark Mountain comes dangerously close to replicating both the plot, structure, and style of The Blair Witch Project with only slight variation. The characters even reference The Blair Witch Project during the story, assuring themselves that their project won’t turn out anything like the movie.

Guess how Dark Mountain ends. Compare it nearly shot for shot to the ending of The Blair Witch Project.

 

Yeah.

I get the impulse to film tributes to the stories that have come before, even to recreate scenes from one film and move them into another. That, in itself, is not the problem. It becomes a problem when the tribute fails to do something new with the content.

At first, I thought Dark Mountain was going in a different direction – paying homage to The Blair Witch Project without following the same path. After all, there are some key differences in the story. For one thing, the Superstition Mountains – where the story takes place – aren’t home to just one supernatural local myth. There are tons of varied unexplained happenings, historical oddities, and local color all centered on that one spot.

Oh. And then of course the murders with very human perpetrators.

Our protagonists are in the process of filming a documentary on the legend of the lost mine of Superstition Mountains, Arizona, which was proven to exist at one point in time, but the exact location has been lost to history – along with a great deal of gold, and the story of a lifetime to propel the career of a young filmmaker. All anyone knows for sure is that a lot of weird things have happened in the area.

A place like that is the prime setting for a scary story. We have the combination of myth, a history of ethnic genocide between the white settlers and Native Americans, a source of great, untapped wealth, and a series of unsolved homicides and disappearances – the latest of which, our protagonists are told, was discovered less than six months ago. Furthermore, the murderers were clearly committed by a person and not a ghost – why would a ghost need to use a gun?

Sadly, Dark Mountain appears to have bitten off more than it can chew with its premise.

Opening on what is essentially a retooling of the infamous goodbye/apology video from The Blair Witch Project, Dark Mountains leads us through a remake of the former’s plot. Weirdness happens. Our intrepid heroes become lost in the desert, disoriented, and finally begin turning on each other. Something is following them. And then, of course, one of our idiot heroes steals a native artifact.

Things go rapidly downhill from that point, both for our protagonists and for the film itself. After establishing a premise with many possible story threads, Dark Mountain struggles to explore all of them without providing any clear answers. What caused all the weirdness? Who knows? The audience sure doesn’t.

As much grief as I’ve given this movie, I don’t think the trope of the Doomed Camera Crew is inherently a bad one. Dark Mountain has its moments of subtle brilliance, with the characters fussing around with the various filters on the camera, as young film students would. It does interesting things with the characters too, especially with the character of Kate – who talks openly about instigating drama to make her film more interesting, but balks about talking about anything that might make her uncomfortable. Sadly, Dark Mountain’s creative streak seems to end there. The possibility that other people are committing the murders and staging all the happenings is never really explored – despite a scene where the protagonists can clearly see another person, as opposed to a monster or shadowy mass – following them. Furthermore, the issue of having a bunch of white people traipsing around what has been clearly been defined as sacred to the Native Americans is vaguely brought up once and then promptly dropped. The characters seem more worried about disturbing potential ghosts than the real damage they may be doing to the actual, living people to whom the mountains have spiritual meaning.

In conclusion, Dark Mountain really loves The Blair Witch Project, but fails to rise above its inspiration. See it if you like found footage films, but don’t expect it to add anything to the genre. The first act is the most interesting by far. The premise is much better than the actual story.

Pretty Dead (2013)

 

Zombies and found footage aren’t anything new to horror, but Pretty Dead is an interesting combination nonetheless. The pseudo-documentary tells the unfortunate story of medical student Regina Stevens, who contacts a strange fungal infection after surviving a drug overdose. The infection leaves her unable to sleep, consume food, and with a strange craving for human flesh. She begins researching her condition with aid from her EMT fiancee, but refuses to submit herself to official medical treatment.

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As you can imagine, things go rapidly downhill from there.

After killing and cannibalizing four people, Regina is committed to a mental institution. The film then depicts conversations between Regina and her psychiatrist, intercut with scenes of how they got to that point and all the gory details in between. Regina is convinced that she is infected with a strange and potentially contagious disease, and must be killed for the safety of the people around her. The psychiatrist is convinced that she is schizophrenic.

The film gets great emotional mileage contrasting the home-footage of Regina’s self-administered treatment, video of her increasingly fractured and disturbed social interactions, and finally the official police interviews and surveillance videos. There are times when the found footage format falls incredibly short of the mark and times where it delivers an emotional gut-punch. Pretty Dead hits the latter mark.

Another zombie film with a similar premise that came out in 2013, Contracted* did a much more convincing job of describing why someone who was clearly very sick would avoid getting treatment until it was too late. Pretty Dead does not do the same. Clearly there is a reason that Regina doesn’t confide in her other medical colleagues or submit any of her blood work to a lab, but the film doesn’t tell us why. The film suggests a history of paranoia and mental illness, but never delves into the messy details.

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The acting and the cinematography hit the mark spot on, but the soundtrack does more harm than good, assaulting the audience with ringing noise that distracts from the story. The ending sound, which meshes the droning beep of a heart monitor with a guitar solo, was the one part I enjoyed.

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Overall, Pretty Dead is an interesting little zombie story that could have used a bit more character development and a better soundtrack. I’d recommend it.

*Contracted had a metric fuck-ton of other issues, which will be discussed in a separate post.

Creep (2014)

Creep does a whole lot with very little, few locations, and a two-man cast. Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass have interesting on screen chemistry and bounce off each other well. It’s a credit to Mark Duplass’ acting skills that a line like “Did I freak you out with my rape story?” didn’t break the momentum of the scene. The story itself might be lacking in complexity, but the dialog is not. Crisp, strangely funny, and quietly moving – Creep would have made an excellent stage play.

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That might be the problem.

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Sure, Creep cast two great actors for the story. But it doesn’t give the audience anything interesting to look at. The screen image doesn’t get anymore dynamic than two people talking to each other in various places, giving the impression of a “talking heads” documentary rather than a horror film. A sparse design isn’t the issue. It’s that the camera doesn’t show us anything really worth looking at. The visuals don’t add to the story. The dialog carries the entire film – and to be fair, does an excellent job of that. But a good film can’t be made entirely on dialog. This is where Creep falls short.

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Creep would have worked wonderfully as a one or two act stage play, where the story could have been brought to life solely on the merits of its actors. When telling a story, it’s important that the medium be chosen thoughtfully and used to further the themes and action, not just spit out a story and hope for the best at the end. The story is interesting, but it just doesn’t work as a feature film.

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It’s also important to note that while women are mentioned in the story and one speaks over the phone, there are none on screen. Creep also talks extensively about mental illness without going into details of what, exactly, the antagonist is suffering from. I’m disappointed to see another horror film that falls into the mental illness = violence trope, but Creep at least attempts to have a conversation about it first.

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Turistas (2006)

I picked up Turistas second hand while I was out trying to replace some movies I lost while moving. I’d heard of it before, but hadn’t seen it. The DVD cover claimed that Turistas was “a better and scarier film than Hostel” and that just cinched the deal.

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So, is Turistas better than Hostel?

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Ahahah. No.

On the surface, the two films have their share of similarities. Both follow the “idiot Americans in peril” storyline, while casting the poor natives firmly in the villainous role. Both of them feature some impressive gore effects, ill-considered medical treatment, and uneasy interpretations of capitalism (Hostel focused on the trade of bodies and Turistas more on the exploitation of third world countries in general).

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The scenery was beautiful, shot with an obvious appreciation for Brazil’s beaches and jungle. Unfortunately it lacked the sense of foreboding or quiet unease of Hostel, the film’s obvious inspiration. The gore simply did not match up to the precedent set by Hostel, despite what the DVD cover claimed.

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I found the tourist characters uninteresting, as is to be expected with this sort of film. The rest of the cast puts forth a good effort, but simply cannot rise above a script that leaves them completely uninteresting – and sometimes with contradictory motivations one scene to the next. Miguel Lunardi does his best to breath some life into the main villain, Zamora, but the script simply doesn’t give him enough to work with. Many of the unnamed extras struck me as having wonderful a camera presence, such as the father and his young daughter at the bus crash, but they sadly disappear after their introduction.

Turistas has some interesting ideas hidden within the story, but lacks a script powerful enough to match them. It would have been far more interesting to explore a world of extreme poverty and racial inequality from the perspective of the villains rather than telling the story of white tourists who lean….what, exactly, from their ordeals?

I don’t know. The movie doesn’t seem to, either. Turistas ends with the survivors staring pensively out a plane window, having survived a terrible ordeal and intending to do exactly nothing about the situation that created it. And what did we learn from this?

Don’t buy cheap bus tickets, folks. You’ll regret it.

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What it really boils down to is the same message that most of these films have, a distorted version of the white slavery anxiety. Don’t trust the locals, intrepid tourists. The poor brown people are out to get you. Because that’s a message we really need.

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Hostel, which Turistas is so clearly inspired by, had interesting things to say about capitalism and the commodification of human bodies – both for sex work and for the darker industry that Elite Hunting caters to. Turistas brings up some interesting subtext for a moment, and then promptly abandons it. Furthermore, the organ-stealing scheme makes absolutely no sense. Organs are only viable if you have a compatible recipient to stick them in – and our villains do a grand total of zero tests to determine any of this. What are they going to do with the organs? Stare at them?

Probably. Because they sure as hell are not going to be doing viable transplants.

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Hostel provided the story with a business model that worked, no matter how macabre. Turistas provides us with a halfway interesting motive, and a scheme that has absolutely zero chance of actually working. And the film expects us to believe that a competent surgeon – which Zamora is shown to be – would actually mastermind something so half-assed.

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In short, the fact that Turistas had decent concepts buried underneath the overwhelming mediocrity of its story just pisses me off. Horror can and should go to scary and uncomfortable places, and really look at the world. Turistas is a retelling of every pointless tourist in peril story we’ve seen before. The grains of an interesting subtext aren’t enough to make it worth watching.

Try harder next time.

Evidence (2013)

Evidence (2013)

 

This is one of those rare films that actually gets better on the second viewing. Olatunde Osunsan’s Evidence is among the many entries into the found footage horror genre (2013).

Seriously, there are so many.

On the surface, it appears to be a relatively straightforward entry into the subgenre. In the beginning, it appears to subscribe to the basic premise of the found-footage philosophy. Footage has been shot by the characters in real time, while the events of the film happen to them. Found footage horror relies on the assumption that the film being shown is a collection of images depicting an event, or series of events, as they happened. This deviates from other movies, since the footage depicted is meant to have been shot in the diegetic world.

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What this means is, the audience accepts that the characters did indeed shoot the footage. More importantly, the audience accepts that the characters did not edit the footage in any way.

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The style is purposefully “raw” and amateurish, with extensive use of a handheld camera and natural sound. Evidence blends the found footage aesthetic with the more traditional horror style, as it includes both footage shot by one group of characters, and the attempt by another to interpret said footage.

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The film chronicles two interconnected stories: a series of murders committed in the Nevada desert, and the attempts of two detectives to piece together what happened from the “evidence” that remains. The story cuts between the two timelines, using footage shot by the various characters on video cameras and cell phones. However, this is not as straightforward as expected. For one thing, parts of the footage are damaged, and the lone survivor’s recollection of the events are colored by Post Traumatic Stress; what she remembers is not always what the camera portrays. The detectives must sift through the recorded images and surviving evidence in order to piece together what happened, and determine both the timeline of events and the identity of the perpetrator – which remains unclear for the majority of the film.

 

The events are your standard slasher fare. We have the masked killer.

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The group of victims

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The creepy abandoned setting

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And the final girl.

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Evidence is far from the first found footage horror film to deal with a similar plot, but it has some key details that depart from the tropes usually deployed in this particular subgenre. Found footage horror relies on a single premise: that while the characters might lie and deceive each other, the camera apparatus will remain impartial throughout everything. The camera does not have an agenda, and thus the events that the camera records can be taken as absolute truth. Because there is no agenda, there can be no deception. This is the basic principle that found footage horror is based upon. The camera records the events in these films, where the viewer is left to come to their own conclusions. In general, an unseen third party is assumed to have edited the various shots together into a cohesive whole before the audience gets ahold of the film. It is also assumed that this unknown third party has not tampered with the footage in any way. In other words, the footage has not been “edited” in a way that would shift the perspective of the depicted events. The shakiness of the camera footage adds an element of rawness, which in this genre is assumed to be another level of reality instead of just an aesthetic choice.

The characters in Evidence begin operating on this perspective, turning to the camera footage when the testimony of the survivor becomes fragmented or confusing. After all, a camera is incapable of deception. Or is it?

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It becomes clear over the course of the film that certain events in Evidence that are originally taken to be truth – after all, they were captured on film! – are not as they appear. The invisible third party that has stitched the various bits of film together is not as neutral as first assumed. Someone has orchestrated the events that have been recorded and has manipulated things so that the images develop in a specific way. The unnamed editor who puts these films together is put on full display and interrogated in Evidence. In this film, the camera is explicitly shown to be a tool of the person holding the apparatus. While the machine itself might be neutral, the operator explicitly is not. Evidence is one of the first found footage horror films to interrogate the expectations of the genre, and question the validity of the assumption that what is shown on film must be the truth. In Evidence, the truth is hidden behind layers of technology and human lies. The film already assumes that people lie – however, it later comes to the conclusion that technology can be pushed into that role as well.

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In other words, the camera is not the sole bearer of truth in the cinematic world. Everything in the film has been constructed and displayed in a specific way, for a specific purpose. Evidence demands that the audience look at their assumption about cinematic truth, and consider the human element in both the editing and reception of film. Though Evidence was not perfectly executed and has several structural flaws within the plot, its ideas about spectatorship, the camera apparatus, and cinematic truth should be considered when looking both at the tropes of genre film, and the expectations of cinema itself. The film’s interrogation of what, exactly constitutes “truth” in terms of the cinematic is fascinating.

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A lot of the films seeming dialog and structural problems actually make sense upon a second viewing – if something looks like it might be staged, it was probably intended to look that way.

This film is one of my favorites. 10/10 would watch again.