Reason for filming: Carl, a wanna-be paranormal investigator, arrives at a Devonshire farm to try and help its owners figure out what can explain the supernatural occurrences on their property
What’s the horror: poltergeists, ghosts, cults
Does the dog die? Lots of animals in this one, but the only ones that die are already dead and being used for bait for other animals (squirrels, rabbits). They barely even look like animals anymore, and are not related to the story in any way. But they are there.
Gore factor: None
Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. I love to watch these films!
SPOILERS ABOUND! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
The Paranormal Farm trilogy starts with this entry, released in 2017. It’s not clear if the writer, director, and star (Carl Medland) intended to construct a trilogy around the concept, but my guess is that he didn’t, and continued on with the story in parts 2 and 3 due to the reception of this first one.
Shot entirely on Carl’s cellphone, Paranormal Farm starts with the protagonist explaining to his audience what the film is going to be about. It seems Carl recently filmed some mysterious orbs in a French chateau, and as a result of uploading this video to YouTube he was contacted by Darren and Lucy, a couple who own a large farm in Devonshire. Darren and Lucy have had strange occurrences on the farm, and they’ve asked Carl to investigate.
Now, I’ve read an interview or two with Carl about the making of this first film, so I want to share what I know here since I think it plays directly into the enjoyable aspects of this movie. Obviously it had no budget, and the decision to film it on a cellphone was to create an “immersive” experience, according to Medland (he uses his real name in the movie). There was no script, and Medland claims the producer (who goes by Taz and is introduced in later films) was the one setting up the scares – it seems to me this would be impossible to pull off unless the owners of the farm were given more details, even if Carl didn’t know them – but the interview I read doesn’t get into that. I will say that the film feels very reactionary, much more than most found footage films, in the sense that it genuinely seems to be reacting to the farm setting and the oddness of the two characters, as if the script is being constructed as the director familiarizes himself with the setting, and begins incorporating elements of the farm into the experience. I credit this at least partly to the fact that Carl Medland was already a filmmaker and screenwriter before this endeavor, and it is far from his first time making a movie. He definitely brings to this a skill that transcends the format’s limitations.
Some of these farm-quirks are downright inexplicable, like the presence of MANY mannequins placed around the property, fully dressed in farming attire. Why are they there? It’s never explained, and since Carl never asks the couple about them, it remains a mystery, both to him and to us. This is one choice Medland repeatedly makes throughout the film that works well to keep us rooted in Carl’s experience: there are a lot of weird things going on here that he documents, but never asks for clarification about, and while that does come across as a bit strange, the more immediate effect is to make us feel as nervous and edgy as Carl does as he wanders about trying to solve the mystery of the supernatural goings-on. Sure, it would have made sense to ask Darren and Lucy what the deal was with the mannequins, but it works so much better if we (and Carl), don’t know. Likewise, Carl often experiences pretty scary things on his own that he fails to clarify with the couple (such as the figure in the clown mask that follows him around at one point), opting instead just to tell them that some force around the farm feels malevolent.
To Medland’s credit, that lack of questioning never comes off as merely a way to service the plot. In fact, this movie throws a lot of weirdness at you that goes by too quickly to make sense of, and in this manner Carl’s failures to ask for details or report them as they occur seems normal. The scares here feel really organic, and it all goes back to the idea that Medland (or Taz) is fully utilizing elements of the farm that already existed to create scares and reasoning for those scares as he goes, which should feel sloppy but doesn’t. Credit for this organic feel must also be given to the other two characters in the movie, Lucy and Darren.
Medland says Lucy and Darren went into this project with no idea of what they were supposed to do beyond a very thin framework, and that he peppered them with questions on the spot that they had to make up answers to. While that seems hard to believe at times, I can say that their behavior in relation to Carl’s questioning is certainly odd, especially in the beginning when they have no idea what Medland and Taz are going to throw at them. But they are clearly game for the whole thing, and knowing they were totally making up information in response to what they were being fed goes a long way to explain how odd they come across in the first film. Their answers are often vague and non-committal, and at times they both squirm and shuffle oddly in their responses. (It may be a bit of a downer to know going in how this was filmed, but hey, I warned you.) Given how the movie ends, this weirdness really works and manages to come together quite nicely – although there’s no way they weren’t coached on what to do in those last ten minutes. At least I certainly hope that’s the case (and future installments will confirm that it is).
And just what exactly is going on down on the farm? Well, there’s strange sounds and knocks in the walls. Stuff gets knocked off of shelves or moved around. There’s a huge gong that sometimes bongs for no reason. And there’s strange lights that they both see in the distance sometimes at night – right around the spot where they think their daughter Jessica disappeared five years prior. The couple show Carl around the farm, both inside and out, then take their box of wine out to a camper parked on their property and leave him alone to do his thing for the rest of the night.
Soon Carl is experiencing paranormal events of his own. The lights flicker every time he whispers Jessica’s name. Just as Lucy described, the gong rings out on its own. And a strange dude in a clown mask is wandering the premises, along with the creepy mannequins who suddenly don masks themselves – one has even grown a Freddy Krueger claw. At one point, Carl gets the bright idea to use a plasma ball he finds in Jessica’s room to try and communicate with her (another example of Medland using what he finds in the moment to move the story) and channels her just long enough to get a weird clue that is never totally explained. Plasma balls, dummies, clowns, weird sounds – it all culminates in the moment when Carl visits Lucy and Darren in the camper (where Lucy has clearly taken advantage of the majority, if not all, of the boxed wine) and tells them he does feel Jessica in the house, and that she is at peace, but there is also something evil lurking about, which leads Darren to inexplicably get upset and run off.
And that’s when the movie ties things all together. As Carl searches for Darren, the clown-masked mannequins start to move and lay chase. After much running about and away, Carl stumbles upon a campfire out in the woods, surrounded by more clown maskers chanting “tseab, tseab, tseab!” Um, okay? Of course, he steps on a twig that alerts the cult to his appearance, and more chasing ensues in the form what appears to be an ever-increasing population of clown-mask-clad characters, culminating in Carl hiding out alone in the barn, only to be discovered by a maniacal clown with a chainsaw who hacks off his arm (we don’t see it). Carl’s phone is still recording, of course, and so the audience sees the maniac remove his mask to reveal that he’s actually Darren.
Cut to some security footage the next day, showing the now-dead Carl being strapped to a ladder as bait for a mysterious “beast” who lives in the forest. Then cut to a scene of the family singing happy birthday to someone who is clearly their son, while Lucy scoops out heaping helpings of lasagna onto paper plates. “This tastes different this time,” someone says, to which Lucy quips something to the effect that there’s a secret ingredient in it, which we’re led to assume is Carl. The end.
The way this seemingly muddled mess of a movie manages to tie it all together quite nicely at the end really sold it to me, as well as the personality of Medland himself, who is funny and charming throughout. He wants to be a paranormal investigator, but he’s so scared of every single supernatural thing that happens that it appears he’s chosen the wrong profession, even though he really can channel spirits such as Jessica’s. Likewise, we can attribute the weirdness of Lucy and Darren to their evil-cult plans, which appears to also explain the mannequins and clown masks and other bizarre goings-on – Medland manages to fit it all in to this cult he reveals in the final moments. Even though the necessity of clown masks and mannequins is still unclear, it’s satisfying enough in its own right, and leaves Medland with some terrific meta-material that he will mine in the next film – which I’ll discuss next time.
I’m pretty sure this was made with almost no budget, as it is simply several people communicating via computer during confinement due to a pandemic. That’s one of several things I think this movie does cleverly; it doesn’t date itself by using any particular technology when communicating with each other, and it never names the pandemic as COVID. This gives it a little bit of a broader scope, and makes it applicable to any time period.
The concept is pretty simple. A woman and her boyfriend are separated due to his job when he tests positive for whatever the plague is that has everyone in lockdown mode (we can assume it’s COVID, but again, since the movie doesn’t say, I don’t want to make assumptions) and is forced to stay out of town until he is cleared to go home. The two are communicating via computer when the man, whose name is Austin (and who I have to mention looks WAY too old for his girlfriend, not to be ageist but it’s pretty jarring) hears a knock at his door. He goes to answer the door, but no one is there. The next day, while Lisa, the girlfriend, is doing that THING that found footage movies simply MUST throw into the mix where the dude asks the girl to make some sort of naughty video for them (ugh), she hears a knock at her door. She goes to answer, and yep – no one’s there. It’s late at night, and she’s a little freaked out, but she gets back into the tub (no, we don’t see anything) to make her video, and there’s a loud knock again, but this time it’s at her bathroom door. But once again – no one’s there.
And that’s pretty much how it goes – although they’re miles and miles apart, both of them are hearing knocks at the door, that escalate into knocks inside the walls of the house, then they also hear scratching, and doors start to open on their own. Rooms they just left get trashed, and stuff is moving from where they put it down to some other random place. Meanwhile, they both start feeling sicker and sicker, as if this weird, supernatural haunting is somehow connected to the virus.
There’s also some pretty good drama between Lisa and Austin, and I like the way they did this. Usually in found footage films I find the obligatory “people must fight with each other” trope to be completely overdone, but the way this film goes about it makes more sense than it usually does; instead of the usual fighting over what to do about the ghostly happenings (one person wants to leave, one wants to stay, blah blah blah) they actually fight about what the happenings are. Austin thinks it is an ex-boyfriend of Lisa’s playing tricks on them, while Lisa knows that isn’t the case; Austin thinks Lisa’s complete rejection of the idea that it’s her ex means she still has feelings for him, and he pushes and pushes her in every conversation – to the point that I found myself wanting to strangle Austin as much as Lisa does. It’s super annoying, but really effective, and a much more engaging way for tension to build than usually occurs in found footage movies, because it’s something you could really see a couple getting into conflict over, and instead of being fighting for the sake of fighting, it actually adds some depth to their relationship.
There’s also a friend named Avery who’s involved on the periphery, a police detective who gets drawn in at one point, and the moderator of an online group dedicated to people who are having the same supernatural occurrences as Austin and Lisa and who is trying desperately to find out what’s going on before more people die. The dude does make a connection that I won’t get into here, in case you don’t want to be spoiled – but it’s an effective explanation that works within the confines of the story. There are also occasional YouTube videos of other people experiencing the same thing scattered into the mix.
I do think the acting is very effective in this movie. I was particularly impressed with Lisa, who is played by actress Sumayyah Ameerah; she just has a few other credits and there’s not much about her online, but she really has to carry this film, and she does a great job. She’s very likeable, and her increasing panic as the illness and the hauntings escalate is more than one-note. She gets a bit of backstory as well, and her therapist makes a few appearances to help flesh out some of her issues that are definitely getting triggered by her isolation and panic as well as her conflicts with Austin. Kipp Tribble, who plays Austin, is also quite good here. He has kind of a shitty role to play in being such an ass to Lisa about her ex, but he commits to it enough that you want to punch him, but you don’t want him to die or anything.
One thing that makes this movie stick with me even upon repeated viewings is that it works well within the confines of the (completely absent?) budget and the found-footage constraints. It doesn’t try to do or show too much, and as a result, it comes across as pretty realistic. We’ve all seen the videos that claim to show actual hauntings, and they’re never anything more than a shadow or a random sound or something falling over; while that’s never convincing when looking for ABSOLUTE PROOF of the supernatural, there’s a reason such videos still get so much play – it’s easy to convince yourself that pencil that rolled off the table could have been a poltergeist, and it’s similarly easy in this movie to believe that loud knocking on a door in the middle of the night just might be the boogeyman out to get you. This movie does not underestimate the power of those creepy ‘house sounds’ we all experience when we’re home alone and awake late at night, and it doesn’t try to fill in any visual blanks about what might be causing them. In short, this movie does just what it needs to do to creep you out, and nothing more, and that’s a good thing in my opinion.
I also like how the movie ties this current pandemic to similar plagues throughout history, reminding us all that humanity has been here before, many times. COVID, the Black Plague, you name it – there’s always something lurking out there that’s waiting to wipe us all out. And when your luck runs out, it might just start knocking on your door.
What’s the Horror: Badass pissed-off witches and family curses
Does the Dog Die? Heidi owns a sweet golden retriever named Troy, but there’s no need to worry. He suffers no cruelty in this movie.
Gore Factor: Not much – on a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a four. Everything is very stylized here, and what blood there is still manages to be kind of twisted and beautiful.
Character Quality: It’s lacking. Sheri Moon Zombie does her best, but her range is limited, and there’s a lot that isn’t fleshed out among the others. A few character actors give powerful performances, though, and while Sheri Moon is a little one-note, she is quite likeable and sympathetic, and you can’t help but root for her.
Why Do I Like It? Zombie creates tension and dread beautifully in this movie, and the visuals are stunning. It’s more of a mood than a movie with a plot, but it’s a hell of mesmerizing mood in my opinion. It’s lovely to watch, and just feel.
Rob Zombie movies – I either love ’em or hate ’em. It always feels to me like he aims much higher than his relatively independent budgets allow him to go, and he ends up having to modify his original vision down to something that often just looks confusing and half-baked. But when he is able to bring his visions to the screen clearly and entirely, I think he rocks – and not just because he’s also a musician.
The Lords of Salem, which released in 2012, is probably an example of a Zombie film that got lost a bit in translation, possibly because his vision exceeded his budget again. It’s a common theme I’ve heard in the movie commentaries I’ve listened to on other films; Zombie constantly mentions scenes that had to either be cut or reconstructed because he didn’t have the money to pull off what he’d conceived in the script. In 2013, Zombie released a Lords of Salem book that actually fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie, and since I loved the film so much I actually bought and read it, something I’ve never done to compliment a filmv- aside from Pan’s Labyrinth (which, holy shit, if you haven’t seen that movie, please do). Personally, this movie pleased me on such an emotional and aesthetic level that I didn’t care if the plot didn’t pan out, but reading the book was an enjoyable way to get the entire backstory that explained some of the random bits and bobs that popped up in the film without real explanation.
One reason I love Lords of Salem is because it’s about witches. And like one of my other favorite films, the 2018 version of Suspiria, these are not pleasant witches to deal with, which is fine by me – while I dislike the idea that witches represent a means to denigrate powerful women, I also don’t mind them showing up on screen as badass bitches who take revenge over those who’ve wronged them. So, there’s that.
We have two types of witches here – wild, wooly hags of the past dancing around fires and casting spells (as well as getting burned at the stake when their enemy, John Hawthorne, finally captures and condemns them), and seemingly benign, cheerful women in midlife who take a particular liking to the film’s protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne (that last name turns out to be significant).
Now let’s talk about Heidi. Rob Zombie has a stable of actors he uses in his movies, and his wife Sheri Moon Zombie always plays a part onscreen. Her acting range isn’t great, and her character takes center stage here; while another actress may have provided more depth to the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part as it seems apparent Zombie wrote this script to showcase her. In fact, I read somewhere that Lords of Salem is “a love letter to his wife,” and I have to agree – the role of Heidi plays to Sheri Moon’s strengths, which are an uncanny ability to radiate California-sunshine sweetness in even the most sadistic of roles (such as Baby Firefly), and to project a disarming sense of innocence in a woman over 40 (she was 42 or 43 when this was made) that always makes the audience root for her no matter how psychotic her character may be. Plus, I must admit that I have a massive crush on the woman, and even though the “ugh, another Rob Zombie movie with his wife in it” attitude out there is strong, I for one am always down to see her onscreen. She is gorgeous and also close to my age – she just turned fifty – and she’s all natural, which is obviously rare. In fact, her Instagram reveals her to be pretty much the sweet-natured, animal-loving, healthy-living California girl that she looks like in most of Zombie’s movies – even though they try hard to disguise that quality here.
Heidi Hawthorne is massively tattooed, dreadlocked, and bespectacled – all adornments Sheri Moon Zombie lacks in real life. She is still model-tall and rail-thin, with a great ass – don’t judge me, Rob makes sure we get a good glimpse of her derriere at least once in every film. In fact, the first shot we get of Heidi is when she’s asleep face down naked on her bed, as the camera slowly pans up from foot to fingers. It’s a lovely shot, and my guess is that even now, at age fifty, Sheri can still pull it off.
She’s also fairly normal here, in spite of her alternative looks, which Heidi gets away with because she’s one of three hosts of one of those kooky morning radio shows where they play very little music and create a lot of annoying banter between them. She wakes up like the rest of us, most likely – jarred by the sound of the alarm, shuffling to the bathroom and heaving a weary sigh as she looks at her tired face in the mirror. What we soon learn is that she’s also recently gotten clean, although the movie gives little insight into what extent her addiction had over her, and only provides a tiny glimpse at what her drug of choice had been (there’s one scene of her smoking crack towards the end of the film, after everything’s gone of the rails and she’s essentially given up all hope). This is one area where the book does a better job than the film at describing the extent to which Heidi’s addiction affected her co-workers and the pretty big risk both guys took by fighting to keep her on; her crack addiction almost tanked their morning show entirely at some point in the recent past, so when it appears she’s fallen off the wagon, the level of anger her co-workers show makes a lot more sense with that context. In the movie, one of the DJs in particular comes off like an unsympathetic dick, but once you realize he basically promised the powers-that-be that she’d stay clean, it makes more sense.
The problem is, Heidi does stay clean, for most of the film, and only turns to crack once her life has fallen apart, and she has no idea why. Things start to go off the rails fairly quickly, when Heidi receives a weird record from a band called “The Lords” that is sent directly to her with no return address. Soon, she’s putting the record on the old turntable and giving it a spin, and immediately falls into a trance where she’s transported back to those crusty witches of yore we already saw in the movie’s opening.
Meg Foster plays Margaret Morgan, the badass head of the coven that gets roasted by what turns out to be Heidi’s great-great something or other grandfather – the connection isn’t made until later because Heidi doesn’t use her real name on the air, she goes by the perfectly cheesy Heidi LeRoq. But I digress. Meg Foster is as badass as her character, and she is hella wild in this role. Her voice is gravelly, she still has those ice-blue eyes that made her famous, and she hams it up at every opportunity. So as I said, Heidi hears the music of The Lords and immediately trances into a scene of Margaret Morgan spitting on a newborn baby and screeching about how the coven has failed to birth what I can only assume would be the son of Satan.
The music, by the way, is singularly freaky, and could not better represent what might be some ancient music played by witches using human bones and organs as instruments. The real clip of it is only 35 seconds long, but some twisted person on YouTube actually looped it out to 11 minutes, which would make anyone insane. It’s worth a quick listen though, because it’s oddly effective.
So the skinny is this: when John Hawthorne burned Margaret and her coven members at the stake (in a scene that is horrifying in its accuracy), ol’ Meg put a curse on his entire family line, culminating in eventually using some distant relative of his to be the bearer of the devil-baby they were never able to produce. Enter Heidi Hawthorne.
And that’s basically it. Since Heidi’s on the radio, her team decides to play The Lords’ trippy tune on air, and it sends out a sort of clarion call to all the women of Salem who are direct descendants of witch-burners from times past. It’s clear that not only Heidi is being affected every time the music plays, as we get scenes of other women all over town who are frozen in place whenever it sounds, but clearly Heidi is getting the worst of it. This is another area where the book goes into much more detail than the film, making it far clearer just what’s going on. The music was originally made by Margaret’s coven, and it’s been lying in wait for Heidi Hawthorne herself to get prepped and ready for the miraculous birth. The other women are being called to join in the ritual and ultimately sacrifice themselves as punishment for the forefathers’ sins.
So the rest of the movie is just Heidi slowly being driven into a state of submission and weakness, having terrible dreams and horrific experiences, and becoming more and more despondent as her life falls apart due to forces she doesn’t understand. Throughout the movie there are some stunning visual sequences that represent this descent, and the way Zombie cuts between the slow, sad decline of Heidi and the manic, fiery rage of the ancient witches as they gradually come together is effectively dreadful. It is all manipulated, of course, by the sweet-on-the-surface landlord named Lacey who dotes on Heidi alongside her kooky “sisters” who are actually modern-day members of the same coven, come to escort Heidi to her devilish demise. As Heidi spirals downward, they tighten their grip, feeding her powerful tea and guiding her into mysterious rooms in the boardinghouse Lacey owns, where fantastical scenes play out rather incomprehensively but beautifully. I’m still not clear what actually happens to Heidi in some of these scenes, but what they lack in explication they make up for in mood.
Things get a bit murky as Heidi hurtles towards her inevitable end; there’s a scene that may be the impregnation, by a group of bizarre faceless “doctors,” or it could be another scene where she appears to be connected by umbilical cords to a squatty, grisly demon. There’s a scene where she’s strapped down and attacked by Margaret Morgan and her coven which may be the birth that kills her, and then some sort of resurrection, maybe?, that ends the film. None of it is clear, but it is compelling and fascinating to watch, so when the credits roll and a news radio reports that all the female descendants of the original Salem founders were found dead in an apparent suicide pact while Heidi Hawthorne has gone missing, I’m willing to accept it for the wild trip it all is. And then I watch it again.
Recently Nigel Bach came out with the ninth movie in his insanely low-budget, cult-favorite series, and since I’m in a reviewing mood I thought I’d give it a go.
Reason for filming: It’s Tom Riley, that’s why. Honestly if you’ve made it to film 9 you don’t even question these things anymore.
What’s the horror: More ghosts.
Does the dog die? No way. Bad Ben steers clear of animal cruelty, even when the occasional dog or cat makes an appearance on screen.
Gore factor: Another no.
Re-watch scale: Regular rotation, as are all Bad Ben movies. Letting them play in the background by now is like having a family member chatting away while I do dishes or something.
SPOILERS BELOW -DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW
Tom Riley is back after meeting what appeared to be his demise in movie #8, titled Pandemic. Tom’s appeared to meet his demise many times throughout this series, so this was never a reason to be concerned. We knew he’d be back.
And he is back, and his bullet wound has magically disappeared. And there are all these random items in his house that don’t belong to him, along with a strange cat and a lot of phone calls asking for someone who doesn’t live there. There are some fun tricks Bach pulls as Tom Riley wanders around the house trying to re-orient himself to his surroundings; the old trope of the ball that bounces down the stairs is enhanced by having about 18 of them bounce down all at once, mysterious brownies appear on the kitchen cabinet (that Riley, of course, eats), and a great gag where he takes his ghost meter all over the house and determines it is clear since it never went off, only to realize it didn’t have batteries in it (of course it goes off as soon as he replaces them).
There’s also some really fun Tom abuse – another Bad Ben staple – such as a ghost chucking a full-sized pumpkin at him, getting smacked yet again by the attic door (you’d think by now Tom would have figured out a way to get around having to walk under that thing), and getting yanked off the floor and smashed against the ceiling. None of these effects are done with a Hollywood-level of quality, and some of them are fake looking as hell, but at this point that’s not just part of the charm of these movies, it’s a selling point. Tom getting smashed against the ceiling wouldn’t be half as funny if it was done realistically. With each movie, though, Nigel Bach expands his repertoire and tries to add new things to the mix; in this one we see a demon with more clarity than we ever have, and even though it still appears to be just a dude in a black cloak Bach works some magic to make it more effective than previous attempts have been. He’s got a few good jump scares up his sleeve, and a new clown in a jester cap, and he takes a stab at more physicality than he ever has before – fighting off invisible demons and getting knocked down by them repeatedly.
We also get Tom at his wise-cracking best, with cranky comment after comment that’s really the cohesive glue holding every Bad Bad film together. Where the visuals are weak, Tom’s self-dialogue is strong; where the story lags, Riley’s there with a wisecrack to fill in the gaps. And Bach is never above making fun of himself – he rags on his weight (“did I never think of eating a fuckin’ carrot?” he chastises himself as he tries to squeeze through a window), walks around naked (with proper -albeit probably exaggerated-pixilation), and falls down stairs. He also adds a lengthy Tom Riley butt-shot and some twerking this time around, but more about that later.
Some of Bach’s new effects are fun, like the severed hand that casually strolls around the house, soon to be joined by the floating head of a dead priest who engages in mostly casual conversation with Tom about the ghostly goings-on (“my body was chopped to pieces and distributed across the land,” the head tells Tom. “Well the good news is, I think I found your hand,” Tom quips back). And if there’s one thing Nigel Bach knows how to do by now, it’s provide a movie with a bang-up ending. He sticks another landing here, with Tom Riley getting his dance on to cheer up and clear up the negative vibes in his house, which he’s been told will cast the evil demon away. And it’s no slouch of a dance either – he runs from room to room, spinning and skipping and yes, occasionally twerking, for basically an entire song before throwing a load of roses at the demon to send him away. Bach knows what his fans want, and what they want is a full-length Tom Riley dance number.
There’s also some explaining to do about why there are so many unfamiliar items and animals around his house, and just what happened with that gunshot that should have killed him at the end of Bad Ben 8. But that’s all I’m going to say about that, because you get the idea by now. This is another solid Bad Ben installment that fans will love and others may or may not like at all; such is the nature of low-budget found footage horror – but by this time, it’s clear Nigel Bach is a master of this subgenre, and he’s doing it better and more prolifically than just about anyone else.
My one and only complaint about Bad Ben: Benign is that as packed as it is with sight gags and sarcastic quips, it still drags in the center. There’s a bit too much walking around and wondering aloud about what may or may not be going on, and a book-reading sequence that goes on way too long. For that reason, this may not be the best movie to use to introduce someone to the Bad Ben-iverse. That’s best done with the original, in my opinion. And while the last two Bad Ben installments have taken Tom out of the familiar format and into some different situations – Bad Ben 7 takes place entirely in Tom’s car, and in 8 he’s in his basement for the whole movie, reacting to what takes place on Zoom – Benign puts Riley back where he’s been many times before, all by himself in the house on Steelmanville Road, settling scores with spirits on his own.
Some may see this as a step back due to his recent experiments with different settings, but for me this is Tom Riley at his best (even though I enjoyed both 7 and 8 immensely) and is a well to which he’s likely to continue to return. And why not? Nigel Bach’s instincts have been dead-on so far (for the most part), and his formula, which he tweaks and twiddles with each time out, is one that works. I personally hope he never runs out of ideas for this series, even when Tom Riley has to ride around his house in a wheelchair to scare the ghosts away. For however long these movies are being made, I’m going to show up for them.
I have been wanting to write about this movie since it was released back in November of 2020, but it’s a tough one to suss out. This is a movie that’s all about mood, and a lot of backstory and explanation gets sacrificed to that, but overall I think this works in its favor. It’s not a perfect film, but it is perfectly intentional, and I get the sense that not one sentence or shot is wasted here; that every single thing is weighted with meaning. Now that I’ve chewed it over for a year – which is a lot of chewing – I feel like I can finally summarize my thoughts. In the past when I tried, I found myself over-analyzing every scene and utterance, because the film does lend itself to this, but at this point I think I’ve finally synthesized everything enough to give more cohesive and conclusive thoughts without getting too bogged down in details.
SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Reason for Filming: It’s a movie, that’s why. (In other words, this is not found footage)
What’s the Horror: Family breakdowns, and also demons
Does the Dog Die? No dogs, but many sheep. So many, many sheep.
Gore Factor: Scale of one to ten? I’d give it a four. There’s not much, but there’s some. Including the aforementioned sheep.
Character Quality: Excellent, albeit completely reserved to the point of being withdrawn. Which is the point, so it works. The acting is stellar.
Re-Watch Scale: Oh man. This is such a good film, but it’s too bleak to be re-watched often. I enjoy a lot of horror movies and find them to be so much fun. This movie is NOT fun. It’s one of the bleakest I’ve ever seen. There’s not one moment of levity in the whole thing. It’s brilliantly and intentionally done, but this is one rough watch. In fact, although I am rarely actually scared by a horror movie anymore, the sense of despair is so dense here that the horror elements pack a pretty terrifying punch, and this one really did scare me a little. So that’s something.
SPOILERS AHEAD – LAST WARNING
The Dark and the Wicked is about just that. It’s about the role darkness and wickedness plays in all of our lives – how we can be consumed by our own darkness and give in to it to the extent our wickedness ekes out of us and latches on to the ones we love. When we descend into darkness, it turns out we don’t necessarily go down alone. We may be taking others with us without intending to do so. And how much of that is our fault?
There’s a home care nurse in this story who tells one of the main characters that she believes in God, and therefore she must believe in the Devil, too. And she believes the Devil, and the evil he generates, can come for anyone, at any time, at random. Without meaning or warning. But love – love can protect a soul from the Devil’s darkness. The flaw in her explanation, however, is that she makes love sound so simple. If you’re family, you love each other. And if you love each other, that love is always pure, and reciprocated, and is never selfish, or flat-out inadequate. But we all know love isn’t always pure and perfect and kind, and we don’t – or can’t – always access it to the capacity we need to when the times require. Sometimes we just don’t love others the way we should. Sometimes we fail; we just don’t always get love right. And the consequences of that here are tragic.
The film’s setting is somewhere in Texas, on a bleak sheep farm out in the middle of honest-to-God nowhere. Interestingly, the director grew up on this very farm, so I’m going to hope the way he portrays this farm in his film isn’t the way he experienced it growing up because damn – it’s bleak as fuck in every single shot. Wide angles stretching out the brown, flat, winter nothingness. Miles of brown grass and grey skies and lots of wind, and wolves that howl at night, and shadows. Dark, heavy silhouettes dominate as a motif in the movie, as we repeatedly see characters in full shadow, lit only from behind, everything but the shape of the body unknowable. People as empty shells, or dense as heavy voids.
But I’m already getting bogged down in details. The premise is this – Mama and Papa run the family farm alone, their two grown children having left long ago. But Papa is dying – has been for some time, it seems – and it’s getting to the point that Mama can no longer cope on her own. Enter Michael and Louise, their two children, who arrive on the farm on the same day after being called there by the home care nurse who tends to Papa during the day. She thought having family around him would help. She’s – not right about that.
In fact, according to Mama, the opposite is true: she repeatedly says the kids should not have come, which overall isn’t an unusual thing for someone to say after tending to a dying partner for some time. There’s a tendency to get used to going it alone, and even preferring it that way, and not wanting to burden other people, which is unavoidable since you and you alone know how burdensome the situation is. The guilt just makes things harder. But. That does not seem to be the motivation of Mama here. She never looks her children in the eye, and keeps her back to them as much as possible. She says other things that are more ominous and menacing. “You shouldn’t be here,” she says repeatedly, which – is a different thing to say, entirely.
It’s easy enough though, to write this off as stress and grief and strain, which is what Michael and Louise do. We see these two try to make small talk with each other, and it’s painful. It’s clear they have nothing to say, that they’ve been estranged, and that Louise is perhaps a bit more estranged from her parents than her brother. “When’s the last time you called them?” Michael asks. “She called me on my birthday,” Louise responds, which – ouch. I know that one. Louise never calls.
We don’t know why this is; the estrangement between everyone involved is never explained. There’s no backstory, no reason for their distance, either emotional or physical. Were they ever close to each other, or to their parents? It’s never clear. There’s no family history, other than little hints here and there – Michael says one time that his father was a good man, and we hear him tell his wife that without his mother he’s lost. Louise tells her father she loves him and can’t live without him, but not until he’s literally breathing his last breath. There are images occasionally that hint at past disappointments – Mama has an unfinished wedding dress in her sewing room with the name “Louise” pinned to it, for example – but that’s about it. I’m still unclear as to whether or not more history would have enhanced the story. I’m not sure it would, but more importantly I think it works quite well without it, so I definitely can’t call it a flaw. We are in it as deep as they are, in the moment, with no way out – and perhaps too many happy family memories would have provided points of exit or salvation the filmmaker didn’t want to provide. So it leaves me wondering, but it works.
And there’s more at work here than family isolation, impending death, and familial discomfort. Because Mama has been hearing things. And whispering to someone who isn’t there. And there are wolves that howl at night. And chairs that scrape across the floor on their own. And apparently, there’s a literal demon in the opening scene that I have never, ever seen, so I was surprised to find a screen shot of it:
I re-watched this scene after seeing this image, and nope. Still didn’t catch it. So this shit goes by fast, y’all. It did enlighten me to the idea that the director wants us to know from the opening moments that there’s a literal devil here, which I was willing to believe without ever seeing this moment, because quicker than you can say “Mama’s had a bad, bad day” she intentionally chops off all her fingers while cutting carrots over the sink and then hangs herself in the garage, which is where the siblings find her the next morning. They’ve only been there 24 hours. Shouldn’t have come, indeed.
This sends Michael and Louise into a spiral of silent, isolating grief. In this moment of great pain, they aren’t capable of providing much solace to each other. Louise finds some comfort with a long-time family friend and ranch hand named Charlie, with whom she seems to have a father-daughter type of friendship. It’s been suggested there’s something sexual here, which is possible, but I don’t really sense that myself – I see Charlie as a replacement for the affection Louise should be able to share with her father, but can’t for whatever reason. Her level of comfort with him – she breaks down and cries while hugging him, which we never see her do with her brother – implies they have been this way for a long, long time, probably since Louise was a child, which indicates to me that there’s always been distance between Mama, Papa, and the children. For Michael’s part, his love and loyalty lies with his wife and children, to whom he constantly calls and unburdens himself over the course of the week he is there, expressing his intense desire to leave all of this behind and just get back home to the family he loves and clearly adores – indeed, he seems to cling tightly to his own family as a form of escape or relief from the desolation his childhood home has come to represent. All of the love that should be in that house, it seems, is projecting itself outward and elsewhere, and none of that is doing Papa any favors, just like it couldn’t save Mama.
And let’s talk about Papa for a second. He lies in bed with a tube in his nose, unconscious, and he coughs on occasion. That’s about it. There’s one scary moment where Louise hallucinates his coming into the bathroom while she showers, with his eyes whited over and his head convulsing, but in a flash he is gone. We never see anyone speak to him, touch him tenderly, or otherwise even acknowledge his presence, and yet, it is his impending death that looms over all of them; his death, and – something else. There is something off about the setup here, the way Papa is, as a figure of mortality, ever-present, but as a person, completely unknown and unacknowledged. It works a subtle, uncomfortable spell on the audience and gets under our skin. Who is this man? Who loved him, and why? What did he do with his life, and what influence did he have on his children? Even for the brief time in which Mama was alive, we never see her do anything more than tug on his covers and mutter at her children, and when Michael finds her diary, which she was writing in up until the night she died, it has almost no mention of Papa at all. It talks mostly about the Devil, who wants to steal her husband’s soul and sits on his chest at night, who laughs at her and tells her to die. “Devil, Devil, Devil,” are her last written words before she commits suicide. So more than anything, it’s the Devil that defines Papa – as its target, yes, but also, as the thing that gives the Devil its power, a power it uses to cut down anyone else it encounters as it watches vigil over Papa’s last breaths. In her diary, Mama says she tried to lock the Devil out, but it gained access anyway. But it could have been Papa who let him in just as easily, with or without intention.
Enter the nurse, who by the way, does an excellent job in this role. She’s a peaceful, simple, stabilizing character here, sitting in her corner knitting while watching over the old man, and offering up her own deeply-held religious sincerity. She is open, and honest, and not at all overbearing in her strong and steady belief in God and the power of love – she offers nothing but what she hopes can be comfort for everyone involved, and her eventual disintegration under the pressure of the family’s deep misery is heartbreaking in its subversion of what should be her pure and innocent belief in the power of God and prayer to heal all wounds. But she does provide the best explanation for what’s happening inside the home: Evil exists, and it comes for whoever it wants, and it does whatever it wants, in the end. She’s right about that part. But she is painfully, tragically wrong about the power of love to overcome that evil.
So far, I haven’t actually talked about that evil all that much, so let’s get into that. Mama’s presence is still seen and heard throughout the house, and in disturbingly creepy ways. Michael sees her in the fields at night, with an evil smile on her face and her nightgown blowing in the breeze. She levitates off the ground right in front of his eyes before his bedroom lights go out only for her to be right behind him when he flicks them on again. She approaches him again in the barn at night, her naked body decomposed, and tries to convince him to use his pocketknife to slash his own throat. Louise hears her voice when the phone rings, telling her again “I told you not to come.” It’s unsettling to see Mama, who seemed to be disturbed but also a fairly gentle, maternal character before her demise menacing her own children in this manner. It feels not just evil and scary, but also cruel, and not at all motivated by Mama herself – it feels like a manipulation from someone, or somewhere, else.
Enter the priest. I think he has a name, but I can’t recall it, and the cast list just calls him The Priest so I’m gonna follow suit. Up to this point I haven’t mentioned how deliberate and poetic much of the language is in the movie, because there’s so much going on visually and through the storyline, but it’s magnificent. And the priest has some of the. best. lines. He shows up in their driveway in the middle of some thundering rain, and forces an invitation inside. Michael and Louise are not pleased. It seems the family was never religious, and they feel Mama’s rantings about the devil may be this man’s doing. She’s never been to church much less visited with a priest, but it seems in her hour of need this man was there to “help,” as he says. The siblings think he’s the one who filled her head with ideas about devils and demons and souls, and quite possibly made her go mad. But the priest has a different perspective. Our mom thought the devil was here, Louise says to him, but she didn’t believe in such things. “What does it matter whether you believe?” the priest responds. “Do you think the wolf cares if you believe he’s a wolf? Not if he finds you alone in the woods.” The sheep can confirm this maxim.
“She needed someone. I think you both know that now, hmm?” the priest growls, his voice and cadence darkly demonic. He’s creepy as hell. But he’s not wrong. “She was alone. They both were. I didn’t do that.” Ouch. That one’s gotta hurt.
Now, before you begin to believe too completely that this priest is obvs the Devil himself, make note that a few scenes later, Louise will call him on the cell phone number he left on the card he gave her – and he will have no idea who she is. Or who her mother is. In fact, he’s never been to Texas, much less visited their sheep farm. He is in a hotel in Chicago, and he has no idea how Louise got his number. But there is a connection here, because the priest, or whoever he is, chastises Louise for the cruel joke she’s playing on him, calling him up, using his dead daughter’s name, and imitating her voice so precisely. Louise throws the phone away from her in shock, as if she’s just been burned, and – just exactly what the hell is happening here?
I’ve spent way too much time over-analyzing scenes like these, where reality gets blurred and tiny plot points arise that I know mean something but I’ve no idea what or how important it is to figure them out – such as when Louise wakes up after spending the night sleeping next to her father (which strikes me as weird, by the way) and her face is covered with red lipstick, or just why it is that it’s only Michael who ever sees visions of his mother, while Louise is the one who hallucinates her father having that seizure, and while I have theories about all of these, in the end it’s best to conclude, as the movie does, that this is just how evil is. It fucks with you because it can. And this weirdness with the priest, in particular, I think comes down to exactly that. In the absence of love, in the presence of evil – nothing and no one can be trusted.
The poor nurse has to find this out the hard way. I mean, the hard, hard way – as do those sheep – but I’m skipping over that part as I’m sure you can imagine that damage. They’re adorable animals and this is a horror movie, after all. But let’s just say those aren’t marshmallows they’re roasting in the fire photo up above. Anyway, the nurse has been present throughout the movie, but mostly in the background, watching over Papa and offering solace where she can. She’s the polar opposite of the creepy priest, who was loaded with agendas and guilt and blame and bad intentions; she’s fulfilling what appears to be a pretty Christian calling, in the traditional sense, caring for the sick and the elderly, and on the final day in the house she lights a prayer candle for healing and protection for the family. But we’re way past that – compare her teeny little flame to the raging sheep-fire and you get the idea. Because after the creepy priest shows up in the dead of night on the front lawn with dead eyes, Michael has had enough. In fact, by the time Louise rises the next morning, Michael is gone.
He’s heading back home, he tells her when she calls. It’s too late for Papa. Get out of there and save yourself, he says. His wife and his daughters are all he cares about in this world, and he’s getting back to what matters, to what he can actually affect and protect in this world. Louise is, understandably, distraught. “I can’t believe you left me alone,” she wails inconsolably, and her fear, her pain, her anguish, is palpable. I mean, it is a dick move, Michael. But it isn’t going to work out the way he wants anyway. He’ll go home, walk through his front door, and find his wife and children dead at the breakfast table. Their throats all cut. It’s an eerily effective scene, with loud, plaintive country music on the stereo as Michael slow-motions it around his house, trying to make sense of the carnage. He can’t take it. He takes out that knife his mother tried to convince him to use the previous night, and slits his own throat wide open. And as the blood flows, we see the scene through his eyes – there’s no one home. No children with their heads slumped over their cereal. No wife with lifeless eyes. It was all a lie. And there is nothing Michael can do before he dies except realize too late his terrible, terrible mistake. He cannot, in fact, protect his family. He can’t simply go back to what he had before whatever darkness he encountered on the farm seeped into his life. He’s leaving everything he loves behind, in the most damaging, tragic way possible. Dang.
Back on the farm, Louise continues to grieve over her brother’s betrayal, and the chaos unfolding in the other room is having an odd effect on the nurse. We’re in the kitchen with Louise when we hear her scream. Louise runs into Papa’s room where we see her bloodied by her knitting needle, which she has plunged into her own stomach. It’s pretty horrifying. She continues to vacillate between religious fervor – whispering to Jesus that she hears him, she praises him, she loves him – and abject horror at the violence she’s inflicting on herself uncontrollably. There are moments where her face reveals her terror over what is happening, and the next that is wiped away by an expression of pure rapture, as if her work is somehow the will of God. Louise watches, horrified. Stab the needle into an eye and scream. Raise a hand up to heaven and praise Jesus. Yank the needle out and stab the other one. Raise both hands up to the heavens and smile widely. Eventually she knocks Louise out by banging her head against the wall while screaming at her to get out of the house. It makes no sense; all is madness. She talks to Jesus some more, holds up her hands as her eyeless sockets leak red rivers, falls to her knees, flops face-down dead. Because she, too, refused to see the wolf for what it was in the end.
We’re down to just Louise now, and she tries, in her father’s final moments, to give him the love he needs, but she only does that after trying to bolt from the house and stumbling down the front steps in her desperation to escape. She’s called back inside by his ragged breathing – but no one in this family has managed to save themselves so far, much less anybody around them, so Louise’s final attempts to rescue her father are futile. She tells him she loves him and he gasps for air; she tries to protect him, to tell him she’ll stay by his side. But it’s too late. He dies. And before we have time to even think about what that means, or what has happened to his soul, we hear Mama singing somewhere in the distance, and then the monster from the first scene pops into frame and snatches Louise away as she screams – which pretty much tells us all we need to know. No souls were saved during the making of this movie.
There’s a lot I didn’t even mention in this long-winded review. Charlie commits suicide after witnessing a bloody vision of Louise and his granddaughter shows up to creepily torment her. There’s a lot of reading from Mama’s journal, many stilted conversations between the siblings, Mama’s singing of religious tunes, her collection of tiny, cheap crosses, a weird makeshift graveyard of Mama’s favorite sheep, doctors who refuse to move Papa to a safer place, and much more I am sure I’ve forgotten. It’s pretty astounding how much misery and detail this movie packs in to its 1 hour and 35 minute runtime, which is part of what contributes to the feeling of despair and utter exhaustion you feel after watching. This movie is relentless in its depiction of grief and desolation. It’s powerful and compelling, but it will wear you out – much as this long-winded review/analysis/whatever you want to call it may have done, and if it did so, I apologize. But I’ve finally spit out my thoughts about this movie a year after watching it for the first time, so I’m going to pat myself on the back regardless.
Watch it, but prepare yourself for a beautiful, miserable ride.
The Bad Ben series of found footage horror films are written, produced, directed, acted, and everything else you can think of by Nigel Bach. Most of them use his house in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, as his setting, and the star of most of the films is Bach himself, as his alter-ego Tom Riley. An interview with Bach can be found here that breaks down the humble beginnings and the sustainability of what has become a legitimate franchise; suffice it to say that Bach made his first movie for $300 with his cellphone and the rest is history.
SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Reason for Filming: Tom Riley just bought a house at auction that he intends to flip and sell for a tidy profit. He starts out filming the house to show it off, but ends up installing security cameras to capture the paranormal events as they unfold.
What’s the Horror: Demons, Paranormal, Monster Lore
Does the Dog Die? No dead animals here!
Gore Factor: None
Character Quality: Great – although these movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. If Tom’s antics amuse you from the start, you’ll know you’re in the right place. If you find yourself either falling asleep or wanting to punch him, you should probably just move on. Personally I find the character of Tom Riley amusing and endearing, as do many others, and my favorite films of his are the ones where he is the star. Nigel Bach occasionally takes a break of acting and just directs his films, but I don’t care much for those. Bach is the reason Bad Ben works, and he’s at his best when he’s focused on Tom Riley doing his thing.
Re-Watch Scale: Regular rotation. These movies make me happy.
Bad Ben movies can be bought or rented on Amazon (you used to be able to stream them for free until recently). I came across them when they were still free, but enjoyed them enough to purchase them once they started charging to watch. The first Bad Ben movie was made after Nigel Bach wrote a script, hired some actors, and prepared to get to work – only to have the actors back out on the first day of filming. So, Bach simply used his iPhone and some of the structures he’d put in place for the other movie to make one by himself. And thus Bad Ben was born.
It is literally just one man using an iPhone and being filmed on a security camera system in a house that is experiencing paranormal activity, and yet it is ridiculously entertaining to a certain segment of the movie-watching population and has spawned 7 or 8 films total, all of which this certain segment of the movie-watching population gobble up delightedly. I am one of that segment – although I have my favorites, and others I don’t watch on repeat. Now, I love horror films, and I love found footage horror films (and trust me there is no dearth of low-budget found footage horror on Amazon that is absolute trash). I also love weird, low-budget, art horror films and home horror movies where creative people turn their limitations into strengths by finding a way to work within them – the Marble Hornets YouTube series is another example of this, but it’s super-long and actually really freaky, so I wouldn’t watch that one unless you enjoy being wigged out for weeks. The super low-budget horror movies the Mansfield Dark channel has on YouTube, like The House on Mansfield Street, are also very well done but again, they are more true horror, whereas the Bad Ben series has some nice scares and tension, but is ultimately more about the unique, quirky, and naturally funny character at the center of it – Tom Riley. As a found footage film reviewer said about the inexplicable success of this franchise, “There simply is no Bad Ben without Tom Riley,” who is more or less Nigel Bach himself.
The plot doesn’t need to be explained beyond what I’ve already revealed – a man buys a house, moves in, and experiences strange occurrences that lead him to set up security cameras in every room where the audience gets to watch him do things like threaten ghosts who are bothering him with exactly the same tone and attitude as he might shout at kids who won’t get off his lawn, or yell at furniture as it moves across the room. He does most of this clad in boxer shorts, house slippers, and a Hanes T-Shirt, all while refusing to do what the spirits want him to do at every turn, which is evacuate the house. That’s one of the things that makes Bad Ben so much fun; Tom Riley simply does not react to these demons the way we’ve ever seen anyone react before. He yells and curses at them (and he curses A LOT), he gets in their invisible faces and dares them to fight back; but he does it all without really ever getting his blood pressure up too high over the whole thing.
Nigel Bach made the first Bad Ben for $300, and 7 or 8 more films have been made after that. Some of them involve a cast of characters, but my favorites are the ones where it’s just Tom Riley doing his thing, talking to himself and the camera, and occasionally cracking me up when he calls a possessed doll a “little plastic bitch” or tells a demon “you know, you don’t have to make that noise; I can smell you.” I don’t quite know why they comfort me so much, but I think it’s partly how his movies manage to feel authentic and completely cheesy at the same time in a combination that works. Are the visual effects horrible? Yes, but because we know Bach made them himself, we allow it. Are the sound effects equally bad? Yes, but again – it’s just Bach making a movie with an iPhone and whatever noises he or his dog can make that he can manipulate into some sort of demonic growl, so we appreciate the effort instead of judging the quality.
In the end, I guess Nigel Bach is like a crazy uncle who lives in New Jersey and is constantly making movies on his iPhone that I appreciate because he’s “one of us” – a creative person doing the best he can with what he has, completely independent of any interference or outside obligations, and even in the midst of something as awful as a global pandemic he can keep doing his thing for as long as he has a cell phone and a salty tongue. This makes me happy in a world where so many of us have had our lives put on hold, our plans completely thrown out the window, and everything thrust into flux in the midst of so much struggle and uncertainty. When the news overwhelms me, or the crazies in my deep-Red neighborhood get me so pissed off I can’t see straight, I stream one of my favorites from his series to clear my sight and my mind. It’s gonna be okay, because Uncle Nigel is still out there making his crazy movies and being hilarious with his iPhone and his security camera, and his (and our) creative spirit will simply not be restricted or restrained. If Uncle Nigel can do it, well, I guess we can too.
But I can’t stop my Bad Ben rambling here without telling you my favorites! As much as I love Nigel Bach and the Bad Ben series, I can’t recommend all of his films. There are some that work for me, and some that really, really don’t. I am not going to name them because I feel that would be rude to everyone involved, but I will share the ones I love here :
The original Bad Ben, about a man who buys a home that turns out to be haunted
Badder Ben – This is the only movie of his with other actors onscreen that I care for, but the cast of this film works really well together and plays off the strengths of the Tom Riley character effectively. In this movie, that cast plays a team of paranormal investigators who decide to revisit the Tom Riley tragedy from movie #1, and soon enough get Tom himself involved. Chaos ensues.
Bad Ben: The Mandela Effect – This movie plays smartly on the fact that his fans obsessively watch his movies over and over, mainly by having Tom Riley visit the home over and over in parallel universes, with different hauntings occurring each time until a deliciously funny conclusion ends the pattern. This is my favorite ending sequence of all the films (although Badder Ben also has a real corker of an ending), and any weaknesses in the plot that come before it is forgiven by the satisfaction of how perfectly it wraps up. In fact, I get the sense Bach thought up the ending first then constructed a plot that would build up to it – that’s how much of a total rimshot it is – but I have no confirmation of this; it’s just my guess.
Bad Ben: The Way In – Tom Riley is hired as a paranormal investigator to clear the house of demons before a new owner moves in, and encounters a truly ridiculous number of spirits that have taken possession of the strangest assortment of artifacts ever seen in a horror film about possessed artifacts. This movie includes what is, for me, one of the funniest scenes in all his films: Tom gets bitten by a possessed doll hidden in his bed, grabs it, walks casually out of the room holding said possessed doll by the hair, and just chucks the thing down the stairs with all the energy of someone throwing a gum wrapper into the garbage. Problem solved. For some reason I crack up insanely every time I witness this.
Bad Ben: Pandemic – Actually made during the pandemic, this movie is a love letter to Bach’s fans – who call themselves Bennites – by putting many of them in the film. Tom Riley is in his basement, hiding out from the Coronavirus and trying to keep his fledgling paranormal investigation business afloat by helping clients cleanse their spaces of spirits via Zoom. The fans show up as customers contacting Ben about very similar situations happening all over the globe that appear to be connected somehow to the COVID-19 outbreak; fans simply Zoomed themselves talking to Tom while boxes and guitars fall over behind them, walls knock and doors slam shut, and, in many cases, ghoulish deaths occur. All the while we see Tom reacting to each situation with ever-increasing horror. From what I can tell, none of the fans involved in the making of this film are actors, so a lot of grace has to be given for this film to work, but as a fan of the series I appreciate what Bach pulled off here, and it also stands as a unique time capsule to what has been an awful, awful year for everyone; highlighting one of the many ways people have managed to stay creative and positive during unprecedented circumstances.
So, to sum up: Bad Ben is an acquired taste and a niche audience, but if you’re the least bit curious about the whole phenomenon then I recommend checking the first movie out and seeing what you think. It looks like Pandemic is currently streaming on Amazon for free with a Prime membership; not sure if the others are back to free streaming or not because I own them.
This movie was first released in the UK as The Borderlands and had a later release in the US in 2015 as Final Prayer. It was written and directed by Elliot Goldner. The film documents a Vatican team sent to investigate the veracity of a claim about a miracle made by a priest in a tiny parish in the English countryside.
SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Reason for Filming: The Vatican has sent a team to investigate claims of a miracle, and due to recent problems at other investigation sites, has decided they want every minute of the investigation to be documented.
What’s the Horror: Demons, Paranormal, Ancient Monster Lore
Does the Dog Die? A sheep is set on fire by some locals in an attempt to warn the investigators – you don’t see much but you do hear some awful sheep-screaming. I usually skip past this part.
Gore Factor: None until the very end, and it’s tolerable
Character Quality: Excellent. This is primarily a character-driven storyline and the chemistry between the main characters, as well as the other actors in the film, is effective and engaging.
Re-Watch Scale: Regular rotation. I love this movie.
At the heart of Final Prayer is the friendship that the two main characters, a clergyman named Deacon (which, yes, is confusing, and I questioned constantly whether or not this was his title or his name) and non-Catholic camera/sound technician Gray. Gray has been hired by the Vatican to go along on this investigation and it’s clear he is a new addition to the team – Deacon is initially not happy about his inclusion, nor is he pleased with the Vatican’s (and therefore, Gray’s) insistence that absolutely everything be recorded this time around – this includes fitting the two of them out with body cameras they are required to wear every waking second, aside from taking a shower or using the toilet. “I’ve been promoted to tripod,” Deacon grumbles as Gray forces him to put his camera on, and he’s not wrong.
It becomes clear throughout the course of the film that the main reason for all this added security is Deacon himself – it’s clearer to the audience than it is to Gray, at least, because the movie opens with a scene of a previous investigation where fraud was discovered by Deacon and his team. Unfortunately, the other members of Deacon’s team also went missing and were found dead some time later; we catch a glimpse of Deacon on a cell phone explaining to someone about how everyone vanished, and then he barks at the camera to cut away – much as he will spend a fair amount of time at the start of the movie barking at Gray.
Deacon is also displeased that a third member of the team is a priest named Father Mark Almidor. Deacon has no poker face when it comes to his displeasure with things, and his reaction to hearing from Gray that Father Mark is on his way clearly bothers him. It’s not a surprising bit of tension to inject into the film, and it’s worth paying attention to how the conflict between these two characters affects Gray’s judgment as he bonds more closely with Deacon. There are times throughout the film that Gray probably should listen more to Father Mark than he does to his new friend, but his distaste for Father Mark – who is unbearable whether or not we’re influenced by Deacon’s dislike of him – causes Gray to side more often than he should with Deacon. It’s this friendship between the hard-nosed, world-weary Deacon and the affable, loopy, and overly trusting Gray that endears the audience to them, while tragically leading Gray to his ugly fate. When Gray needs to have perspective on the situation, he is too easily led astray by Deacon – no matter how unintentional Deacon’s influence may be.
Deacon immediately gets up to his usual antics by refusing to wait for Father Mark to show up to start the investigation – a breach of protocol that Gray is appropriately wary about. But Deacon responds by basically kicking Gray’s camera around and threatening to break it, so off they go. They meet with Father Crellick, the priest of a small (like REALLY small) church that has recently caught what Crellick claims to be a miracle on camera. It was a baptism, so it makes sense that it was being recorded, and during the middle of the ceremony, as the baby starts to cry (that will be important later, as is the fact that the chapel has only been re-opened for a few months) the walls start to tremble, there’s some of rumbling sound in the background, and artifacts roll and tumble off the altar, seemingly on their own. It was odd to me personally to see Crellick immediately hold his arms up to heaven and say “Father…” as the film cuts out, as it doesn’t look at all to me like a miracle and much more like an earthquake. I can understand why the Vatican wants to investigate this one – although I know they investigate all claims of miracles no matter how convincing they may seem, and most are deemed fraudulent.
Crellick comes across as odd and more than a little shifty; he’s nervous and is shocked that his video miracle requires investigation. This strikes me as strange because I am not Catholic and even I know this is a part of the process, so it doesn’t ring true that Crellick would be insulted by Deacon’s presence and insistence on checking out the chapel. Crellick is quite young, though, and comes across as pretty unsure of himself, and it’s implied that opening this church has been a project of his for some time and he is struggling to establish it as a real presence in the rural community. None of this endears Deacon to him or leads him to believe in the veracity of his “miracle.” Gray, in my opinion, is overly impressed with Crellick’s video for a videographer and sound technician, but my guess is the movie is trying to portray Gray as a fairly gullible person early on in the proceedings. Gray keeps commenting on how convincing and amazing the video is, a fact with which neither Deacon nor the audience agrees. Obviously Deacon is jaded from years of investigating and discovering fraud, and Gray, who is not Catholic nor is he particularly religious, is all too fascinated by the supernatural aspects of the event to care. A lovely chat in a local bar draws out the first real conversation between the two; Deacon’s cynicism and Gray’s naivete are established, as well as the chemistry the two are going to build on as the story moves forward. Gray is more than willing to ask Deacon anything he pleases, and Deacon seems to enjoy sharing his wisdom on a subject Gray knows nothing about and about which he is deeply interested.
Soon Father Almidor arrives. He’s pissed Deacon started investigating before he arrived, so the two are off to a testy start. Gray, as usual, jokes and cajoles with the new member of the team, but Almidor is far less influenced by his charms (which can been seen as endearing, as I do, or as terribly annoying, which is another popular analysis of the Gray character). Since the cottage is tricked out with 24-7 cameras, as well as the chapel once Gray sets everything up, we see a few odd nighttime occurrences that are caught on film. In one instance, some people are clearly seen sneaking up to the front porch; we hear voices that distinctly sound like teenagers whispering and giggling. And then there’s the awful sheep scene, which I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say it’s the same group of teens trying to antagonize the outsiders. It’s never made clear why the townspeople are so hostile to the team at this point, and upon first viewing I thought it meant they were in on whatever is going on at the church, but now I’m more inclined to believe the antagonism is introduced both as a red herring and an added atmosphere among a small insular town that distrusts anyone they see as foreign, as this storyline gets dropped pretty quickly and not really resolved.
As Deacon, Gray, and Almidor spend their days investigating inside the chapel, they hear things they can’t explain. Scratching sounds, and a deep rumbling that inexplicably seems to move around the room. Father Almidor finds an open space in a wall that is covered by heavy plastic and shows clear signs of being in mid-construction; it’s clear that the recently re-opened chapel still needs a lot of work. As Almidor pulls back the plastic and peers inside – wearing his ever-present body camera – we hear a strange, electric, whizzing sound, and down Father goes, knocked unconscious and bleeding from his ear. This is another thing that is never satisfactorily explained, but it is what it is.
They take Almidor back to the cottage, where he insists no hospital trip is needed. This is probably good news, since I have my doubts there’s a hospital anywhere near their location. Almidor proves to be just as stubborn as Deacon when he wants to be, and while Gray pleads with him to get some medical help, Father Almidor simply says goodnight and skulks off to bed, leaving Gray to make a comment directly to the camera giving his own opinion of the subject to cover his ass in case Father Mark doesn’t wake up. It’s another nice moment where Gray is clearly in contrast to the other two men, who are so deeply entrenched in their acceptance of order and protocol and rules that they routinely behave in illogical ways – Father Mark has a job to do, and he’s going to do it, period-the-end. I guess he thinks God will take care of the earache? Through further conversations between Deacon and Gray, we learn that while Gray is not religious, per se, he believes in something, agrees that there’s an afterlife, and is open to the idea that God exists. In other words, Gray is probably the majority of the audience, and it works to draw us closer in to his experience. And while Deacon may be willing to buck the rules when it suits him, it’s also clear that he is still firmly committed to the comfort and routine of a deeply religious life (in an early scene, Deacon is shown removing small iconographic artifacts from a backpack and placing them carefully down on the table beside him and lighting incense, his face wearing a rare, peaceful smile) and is still capable of being clouded by his beliefs from time to time.
And speaking of Deacon and the two of them bonding in a bar – it is indicated at the beginning of the movie that whoever hired Gray also wants him to keep an eye on Deacon. There’s a phone call we see only through Gray’s perspective, where he is obviously asked if Deacon is drinking, and Gray (who already has an affinity for the guy) defends him by saying he doesn’t drink much, he’s very competent at what he does, and it’s just to take the edge off of the stress. It’s clear that Gray is on Deacon’s side here, but it’s also evident that Gray DID get warning before signing up for the job that his teammate might be a bit of a loose cannon. However, Gray comes across as the sort who respects that in a person, and he appreciates Deacon’s willingness to break the rules a little too much to see that this personality trait might be to everyone’s detriment in the end.
This is a slow burn movie, and the horror builds gradually. We get several scenes inside the chapel as the chaps investigate, and the sounds get weirder (along with the rumbling that moves around the space, there’s the occasionally crying baby – remember the baptism? – that Father Almidor writes off as interference from a nearby baby monitor, revealing a level of skepticism at least as deep as Deacon’s) and eventually, some unnaturally mobile candlesticks and even a huge crucifix falling off the wall in one of the film’s few jump scares. But to me these events were always combined with loud groaning or rumbling that indicates a moving of the earth, so I remained as skeptical as the two clergymen throughout most of the film – an intentional technique that eventually pays off in spades.
We also get a nighttime scene of Crellick – who’s been told by the team to stay away for a few days – sneaking in and praying for God to return and produce another miracle while the investigators are there. We can see it because of the cameras Gray has installed around the chapel. We can hear babies crying, rumbling and groans, and a door that slowly creaks as it swings back and forth. The next morning, Crellick is still sitting on the altar steps when the team arrives; he tells them he heard the sounds again the night before, which doesn’t do much to impress the cynics, although Gray is willing to believe him.
One afternoon, as the team is there arguing over what they each think is going on, we hear a rumble and see a candlestick leap off the altar. For a brief moment everyone is impressed, until we see stupid Crellick standing right outside the window, which is enough for Father Mark to discount the experience. Father goes chasing after Crellick, and finally catches up to him on the chapel’s roof. Crellick is upset – he knows the men don’t believe his miracle is for real, and while that’s probably enough to upset him, he also hints at something darker: if what’s going on is not a miracle, he reasons, then it must be something evil, because he knows it is definitely real, and if it’s something real and evil, did he do something to bring it about? Is he the one responsible for unleashing it, whatever it is? Father Mark attempts to calm Crellick down, and turns his head for a moment – since we are watching this from the perspective of Almidor’s head-cam, we follow his movements – and he (and we) turns back just in time to see the edge of Crellick’s robes as he topples over the tower wall and onto the ground below. Soon enough he is dead, and Father Mark decides that the investigation needs to close to avoid further controversy. He’s weary of the attention since the incident in Belem – the one where Deacon’s team ended up dead – and he wants to pack it up quietly and go home. Needless to say, Deacon does not agree.
Back to the chapel he goes by himself that night, and more spookiness ensues. He ends up getting super-freaked and running away, and immediately calls up an old friend, in direct defiance now of Father Almidor, who is supposed to be in charge, and ask for his help. Soon it’s morning, and Father Mark is pissed at Deacon for calling in Father Calvino, an old codger Almidor sees as a remnant of the Church’s past, when it still believed in demons and other hooky-spooky stuff he believes the Church needs to abandon once and for all, lest it lose all credibility. Father Calvino, it turns out, is an old mentor of Deacon’s, and a specialist in exorcisms and demon-chasing. Overall, this is odd given Deacon’s own cynicism when it comes to miracles, but it turns out Deacon’s become convinced that Crellick was right – there is something going on in the chapel, but it ain’t a miracle. And it most certainly is not of God.
Over the protestations of an angry Almidor, Father Calvino explains the history of the area, dating back to ancient times, as well as some history of the Church, that used to appropriate pagan temples and turn them into Catholic chapels rather than destroy them. Wouldn’t you know – this particular chapel was once the site of an ancient entity that pagans believed lived inside the large hill where the church is now situated. They used to pray and make sacrifices to this entity to appease it – some say they did not just sacrifice animals but possible humans, specifically babies, as well – so Calvino thinks the evil spirit of this pagan entity lives on in the chapel now; it may have been dormant for centuries, and been awakened when Father Crellick re-opened the church, or possibly when it heard that first baby cry at the chapel’s first baptism. Deacon and Gray also found an old diary in the chapel that hints at a priest centuries ago, who used the church as an orphanage and also wrote of mysterious happenings before going mad. No wonder Crellick felt guilty enough to plunge himself to his death – unless some unknown force pushed him? We’ll never know.
Off the team goes so Calvino can perform an exorcism that Father Mark is clearly against. He’s clearly outnumbered, though, as Calvino, Deacon, and Gray all now believe that there’s an evil force in the church that needs to be removed. Almidor throws a wrench into the trio’s unity by revealing to Gray the truth about Deacon’s involvement in the Belem disaster – Deacon was the lead investigator, he was told to shut things down but disobeyed, and it was through him stubbornly forging ahead that all his team members were killed. It’s clear Father Mark hopes to turn Gray against Deacon with this news to even the score, and it almost works – but in the most crucial moment of the film, when Gray should side with Almidor instead of his friend, Deacon plays the sympathy card on him to influence Gray to stick to his side.
To me, this moment is the crux of the film. It’s the climactic moment where Gray seals his own fate. We’ve watched the bond build between Deacon and Gray throughout the course of the film, and Almidor’s news causes Gray real pain. He’s hurt that Deacon would keep such an important thing from him, especially as often as the subject has come up, and his trust in Deacon is really shaken. Sure, Gray’s walking with the team back up to the chapel as if he’s going to follow along, but he’s furious with Deacon and doubting whether or not he can trust his friend. Deacon stops him to apologize and explain that he didn’t want to talk about Belem with anyone because the pain of how his actions hurt so many others is greater than he can bear. This works on Gray, and although it’s clear Deacon isn’t doing it intentionally, ultimately he uses his friendship with Gray to influence his decision. Gray cares about Deacon, and he feels pity for him for being in pain over his mistakes. He clearly sees his decision to stay with the team or go home as a test of his trust, and he realizes Deacon really needs Gray to believe in him. So after a moment of consideration, Gray makes his decision, and follows Deacon into the chapel.
It’s a fatal mistake, and after over an hour of slow burn the final act of Final Prayer kicks it up to eleven rapidly once Calvino and Co. make it into the chapel as the sky goes dark and he begins his exorcism ritual. Whatever is haunting the chapel does not respond positively, and it doesn’t take long for the walls to rumble, babies to cry, and Father Calvino to start bleeding out his eyeballs. There’s camera static and thunder and loud crashes that cause the feed to cut out for a moment – when Gray comes to, Father Almidor is dead on the floor, and Father Calvino is gone.
Deacon hears commotion in the little alcove where Father Almidor originally got his eardrum blasted (he dies, by the way, while holding his head and bleeding out his ears, as if the exorcism triggered whatever connection Father Mark now has to whatever’s going on in the chapel) and he charges down what we can now see is a spiral staircase. Father Crellick can clearly be heard, along with what sounds like Father Calvino, and while Gray takes a moment to shout for Deacon and focus in on some small bones that are evident on the stairway, he soon decides he’s had enough and turns to run out of the chapel. Unfortunately the door slams shut just as he is about to leave, and he screams a pitiful “I’m not even in this!” into the dark and empty room as he desperately tries to get the door to open. He’s right – he was just some bloke hired to do a job, and now he’s a part of whatever madness the team has unleashed.
But he doesn’t want to be alone in this creepy chapel, so he quite unwisely charges down the stairs to follow Deacon. He can hear him, but Deacon’s pretty far away, and the real terror in Gray’s voice and actions here are very convincing. Most dudes, I think, would hesitate to sound as completely fearful as the actor is willing to do here – his shrieking is high and wild, and he is sobbing uncontrollably. If the situation were not so dire, it might be funny, but as it is it’s chilling and very effective. We eventually get a jump scare as his camera light lands on Deacon – once Gray makes it down the stairs, he finds himself running through a dark tunnel, so the camera has now become a light source, which is how it will be used through the rest of the film.
Gray’s relief at finding Deacon is palpable, and it’s heart-wrenching how needy and desperate Gray is at this point. It should be a turning point for Deacon – he is haunted by how his actions hurt people in the past, and here Gray is, giving him the opportunity to redeem himself by making the right choice and turning back – but he insists on continuing instead, promising Gray repeatedly that it will be all right, and they’ll make it out alive. Whatever is going on is not supernatural, he insists, and there are no monsters here. Gray is too scared to turn back on his own, so he has no choice but to stick with Deacon, who is so drawn to the visions of Father Mark he keeps seeing in the distance, and the voices of both Crellick and Calvino that echo off the tunnel walls, to think about the very real danger into which he is leading the one person he should be trying to protect. Both Father Mark and Father Calvino, as well as Crellick, are clearly already dead, but Deacon can’t stop chasing the shadows of the men he left behind in Belem, and he loses all sense of perspective (figuratively and literally) as the tunnels get progressively more narrow and winding.
There are times when he seems to forget Gray is even there – the ultimate betrayal of Gray’s trust. After squeezing himself through a ridiculously narrow passage that opens up to a surprisingly open cave-like space, he hears Gray’s screams only to turn around (they’re both still wearing their head cams) and see that Gray has gotten completely stuck. Once again, it’s an opportunity for Deacon to be aware of how out of his element Gray is here, and how much he needs Deacon to lead him back out of the caves, but Deacon drags him through the space rather than pushing him back out, and it’s pretty clear at this point that Gray will never be able to make it back through that thing. It’s also strange – Deacon is a lot bigger than Gray, yet he made his way through that opening with ease whereas Gray got stuck. Are the tunnels – shrinking? I don’t really think they are – but I do think the movie is hinting at what’s coming with this little moment.
The two come across remnants of an ancient altar. There are markings on the wall indicating human sacrifice, and the bones of what are obviously children littered across the floor. This confirms a suspicion raised earlier about that priest who turned the chapel into an orphanage centuries ago – some more wall writings reveal that at some point this priest was overtaken by the evil of the place, and used children from the orphanage as sacrifices to what it was he believed lurked beneath. Yikes. Both Deacon and Gray are appropriately horrified. But they still see occasional glimpses of Father Mark in the distance, so Deacon is convinced there’s a way out ahead that they’re tracking down.
It’s about this time the movie sneaks up and slams the audience on the back of the head. Gray has a device on him that he sets up to provide a video feed to some distant camera, just in case they can’t find a way out and the feed gives someone information about where to find them. Still in Deacon’s wake, Gray follows him into a ridiculously narrow tunnel that looks distinctly different from anywhere they’ve ventured down there before – everything is covered in sickly green goo, and the walls underneath appear to be a strange shade of red. We see Deacon wedged into this space just ahead, and then – sickeningly – we catch a glimpse through Gray’s head cam as he shifts himself into a position where he can get inside of what’s happening behind him – the entrance to this tunnel is closing, and it looks like…a sphincter?
This is literally an oh shit moment, and when Deacon tells Gray it’s time to turn back, they can go no further, we hear the relief in Gray’s voice – thank God, we’re finally getting out of here – only to hear that tone turn to horror as he realizes the entrance is gone. Before either man can register the implications of this, the tunnel starts to move. “Dig!” Deacon shouts, and both he and Gray spend a few desperate moments trying to dig their way out of what at first appears to be a collapsing cavern, but then Gray screams, “It burns! It burns!” and we follow Deacon’s camera as it focuses in on Gray, covered in the green goo that is now secreting from the tunnel’s walls. Anywhere the goo lands on Gray, his skin begins to melt. “You said it wasn’t real!” Gray shouts at Deacon, as his skin, too, begins to melt from the secretions of what is now clearly a digestive organ. That’s right – there literally is an ancient monster underneath the chapel, and Deacon led Gray directly into its digestive tract without knowing it.
I have no words for the intensity of this scene – it’s a shock to realize what has happened here, and that the supernatural shit that’s been happening in the chapel was actually a real, living monster’s stomach grumbling and rumbling the chapel walls, causing things to fall and smash. As this horror is washing over us, we watch the fleshy organ close ever tighter on Deacon and Gray; the camera feed starts to cut out, but not before we get flashes of both of them melting away inside the churning organ. The final shot we see, after a second or two of dark silence, is poor Gray screaming in pain. The camera goes dark one last time, but not before we hear Deacon shouting out a Final Prayer for them both. The end.
Whoo! This is a movie that demands a re-watch, as it literally goes batshit in the final four minutes. The ending is quite divisive – for some viewers, it’s too much and comes at us too far from left field. For others, it’s shocking, brutal, and pretty much perfect. I am in the latter camp. While I was led to believe throughout the film that we would end up with a pretty standard demon-haunting, I instead got slammed inside the digestive tract of an ancient demon right alongside Deacon and Gray. And just like them, I never saw it coming. For me, Gray’s everyperson qualities make it easy for me to put myself in his place, and the tragedy of Deacon’s mistakes also makes him a sympathetic character. I really wanted these two to survive, and watching them die in such a horrific manner was downright painful. Also, upon second watch, I found the clues I missed all over the place the first time around, because the film had done such a good job of setting a very different set of expectations – and this, for me, reinforces the power of the ending. It doesn’t come across like something tacked on for shock value if you are able to see the signs. Sure, some of it doesn’t quite come together – I’m unclear on how the presence of some physical being can manifest the crying baby sounds, or the visions of the dead men Deacon clearly sees as he barrels way down into his own doom, or the need for a group of teens to burn a sheep, or how any of this connects to what went down with Deacon in Belem (even though there are hints of something supernatural happening there as well). But I’m willing to overlook it, because of the excellent character work, compelling premise, and slam-bang ending that left me feeling truly, deeply disturbed for quite some time. This is an excellent film, and truly one worth watching!
Devil’s Pass was released in 2013 and was directed by Renny Harlin. It follows a college student and her team into the Ural Mountains where she intends to make a documentary about the events of Dyatlov Pass – a true event that happened in 1959.
SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.
Reason for filming: I’m in college and making a documentary but I’m mostly going to focus on filming my friends!
What’s the horror: time travel, monsters, secret government experiments
Does the dog die? No animal cruelty here
Gore factor: None really, except for a severed tongue and a missing hand that aren’t much to look at
Character quality: the worst
Re-Watch scale: Never again. Cue up Blair Witch Project for the 1,000th time instead.
The Dyatlov Pass is a pretty fascinating true story with a lot of conspiracy theories swirling around it. I think this is not the only movie made about the incident, so if you want to watch something about it I would highly recommend something else. I’ve seen this one, and it’s not worth it. It adds nothing to the original story, has poorly thought-out explanations for all the questions surrounding the original event, and doesn’t tie anything together in a satisfactory manner. I’ve said before I give my found footage films a wide latitude – a found footage film can work for me as long as it’s really good in as little as ONE area, but this movie is poor across the board. Enjoy reading about it here so you don’t have to watch it yourself. Or don’t. Whatever.
We start out with a Claire Danes lookalike explaining a wee bit about the mystery, and how she has come to plan a trip to the area to make a film. Nothing out of the ordinary here – it’s a project for a college class, and she has recruited the necessary assistants to help her out. There’s a film student friend and a few “expert” mountain climbers who are coming along with Not Claire Danes as guides. One of these other assistants is a female, a sound technician named Denise who we learn from a male voiceover is the only sound tech who could handle the – zoom in on her boobs – “physical” aspects of the trip. Nice job, movie. But hey, we get two females instead of only one this time around, which is fairly unusual for field trip/hiking in the wilderness found footage movies, so there you go. Here’s hoping she’s not the first to die (surprise! she’s the first to die).
A quick summation of the original incident: In 1959 a group of experienced mountain climbers organized a trip into the Ural Mountains in Russia. They went missing, and were eventually found dead at their campsite. The tent had been ripped open from the inside, and the hikers’ bodies were discovered in various odd states of disarray – half-clothed, no shoes, as if they’d left the tent in distress. Some right next to an old campire, others farther away as if trying to escape. Some bodies positioned in a manner that indicated they’d been trying to climb trees before freezing to death. Internal injuries, missing tongues, and other weird signs of violence. It’s a bizarre story, one with no answers and lots of rumors. Moving on.
Before our team can get on their way, we cut to the future, where reporters are breaking the news of five students from Oregon who disappeared after attempting to hike Devil’s Pass. Cut to recovered night-vision footage of Not-Claire-Danes (whose name is Holly, by the way) crying and talking about having bad dreams where she opens a door and gets swallowed by darkness. Yeah, I hate it when doors do that.
Then it’s back to the crew on a train barreling through the snow establishing their characters. Andy has a fancy phone with a GPS system he’s super-stoked about, and he also makes smarmy comments about someone’s tattoo – either Holly’s or Denise’s, it’s unclear which one, and since neither of them punches him in the face I still don’t know. Andy doesn’t care for Jensen the videographer, who calls his camera “Lucille” and touches it a lot. Much macho ensues when Holly asks the mountain climbers what inspires them to, you know, climb mountains. The answers are long and uninspired. Andy does it because it’s cool to be out there in the wilderness where things like fancy GPS systems don’t work or matter, which is weird given the long monologue he just gave about his cool GPS system. JP does it because he likes having everything he needs to live for a year being tucked into one backpack. Let it be known that both of these dudes will be ready to bail on this entire trip after one growly sound. But for now, they’re a big deal.
When they get to Ivdel, at the foot of the Ural Mountains, their first stop is at a mental hospital where they try to interview an old hiker who planned to go on the ill-fated original trip but ended up not going, but of course they are barred from doing so. The students do manage to catch a glimpse of what appears to be their man, holding up some sort of sign before some nurses smack it down. I’m guessing it said something like “Don’t go or you will all die” since we have to have someone offer such a warning up in these movies, but it disappeared quickly and was in Russian, so for all I know it said “send nudes.”
Cut to a bar where there are more weird foreboding reactions to the students’ destination. Then a bartender gives them some special shot of booze that he lights on fire and everyone waits until AFTER they have slammed it back to ask what it is. It’s something the doomed hikers drank before they left way back in the day. For some reason, this completely bums the entire team out. It’s the first of many strange reactions this team will have in relation to things they all clearly were aware of (they’re venturing out to re-create a tragic, mysterious event that resulted in death) before agreeing to go on this trip.
Flaming shot bartender offers to drive the team to their next destination. When they get there, Denise’s eyelids are frozen shut. Holly scratches the note she saw the old hiker hold up into the snow and asks flaming shot bartender to translate. Sure enough, it means “stay away.”
Flaming shot bartender arranges an interview with a woman who was a part of the original rescue team. Man, this guy is one hell of a resource for a random dude they just met. Maybe they can just hang in Ivdel and hang out at the bar while FSB explains everything. Anyway, Denise is working the boom mic here, so at least we know it’s not essential that she use her eyes if they freeze shut again. For the most part, there’s nothing new here if you’re familiar with the original story, except for the woman says they found eleven bodies, not nine, and that there was some sort of a machine out there with the final two. Holly asks this woman if she’s sure because the reports she’s read says otherwise, and the woman side-eyes her into silence. She does not, however, warn them to STAY AWAY from the cursed location, which makes me think she’s more insulted by Holly’s impertinence than she lets on. Go check it out for yourself, missy, and if you make it back you can challenge my recollections.
Soon enough they’re hiking through the snow, and it’s cold, and Holly is being annoying, as seems to be a requirement for the camera-wielding protagonist in setups like this. She leans into the conflict between Andy and Jensen, which seems very eighth-grade of her and also an unwise idea since it would be far better for everyone if the whole team gets along. One of the dudes tells Andy that Denise “can’t take her eyes off you,” and I am amazed at how much like a middle school lunch table this bunch is. Everyone just giggles like this is totally professional and fine for five people who are about to go hiking into a dangerous situation and really should be focused on staying alive. The weather turns on them, and in the next shot it’s gray and snowy. Someone comments “this is awesome,” which it quite clearly is not.
They stop to set up camp and start a fire and eat roasted garbage and pretend to be fine with it. Holly continues to waste battery life by filming herself asking JP for food packing advice, then immediately proves how very much too late she waited to ask this question when JP pulls out a big package of freeze-dried something and Holly replies that she is vegetarian. It appears that JP was in charge of packing the food here, so why no one thought to discuss this before I have no idea. JP digs around in his pack some more and finds some macaroni and cheese that Holly can eat, which gets Holly through exactly one meal but whatever. This guy just got through telling us that he has enough in that backpack to last him an entire year, so I’m going to assume there are other vegetarian delights for Holly in there. Andy has whittled Denise a wooden dildo, and no you did not just imagine that sentence. Everyone laughs while I pray for an avalanche. Didn’t these two just meet? He couldn’t have whittled a damn flower first? Whatever. Denise asks what she’s supposed to with the wooden dildo, and Andy replies that he will show her later, and all this is done without Andy even looking up from his food, which is a really weird mood.
It’s nighttime and Holly wastes yet more battery life sneaking up behind Jensen and asking him what he’s doing. How does ANY of this relate to her course project? Jensen is not responsive, so Holly snarks at him that if he “doesn’t like looking at the aurora borealis Denise’s tent is right over there,” and I’m starting to agree with that old Russian lady that Holly should probably go ahead now and wander off a cliff. What the fuck Holly? Hasn’t Andy’s interest in Denise already been established? Established in a disgusting manner, true, but still established. I know Denise is a friend of Jensen’s and all, but if Holly suspects Jensen really does have a thing for her, throwing that in his face at a moment in which it’s entirely possible that Andy is in Denise’s tent instructing her on proper wooden dildo usage seems like very much not the right time.
It’s the next morning and the hikers see weird footprints – they look like someone, or something, was walking around their camp without shoes, and the prints seem to start out of nowhere and stop just as suddenly. Immediately, Denise is all “I don’t like this no no no no no no” and it’s not the first time I wonder if none of these people understood what they were signing up for. This is confirmed when Holly and Jensen try to film some shots of the footprints and JP and Andy act like dicks when Holly asks them to get out of the frame. The fuck? I’m pretty sure they’re all there on Holly’s dime and Holly hired them to help her make a documentary so what’s with the attitude every time she tries to film? I hate these people.
Holly points out that there are actually two sets of these weird footprints surrounding them, and right after that Jensen says something about a Yeti, and she gets ridiculously angry about it. I don’t get her reaction here at all – she’s fascinated by this story about a mysterious happening on this mountain, intrigued enough to learn to hike in the snow and fly to Russia to figure it out, she’s speaking directly into the camera about how unusual the prints are because they appear to be barefoot when that’s impossible, then she argues with Jensen about his Yeti suggestion that the prints were probably just caused by a bear or a snow leopard which is NOT AT ALL WHAT SHE WAS JUST SUGGESTING TO THE CAMERA. She clearly stated that while the prints looked human, they were clearly barefoot, which makes no logical sense, and that is at LEAST as bizarre as there being a Yeti behind them, so what the fuck Holly? YOU ARE OUT HERE TO SOLVE A CONSPIRACY THEORY-LADEN MYSTERY for which you have entertained any number of insane scenarios already, and when someone suggests just one more insane scenario you call him an asshole and stomp away? If this were my project I’d be all “Fuck yeah Yeti prints! Film everything!” and immediately start annoying people with my demands to keep the camera running at all times. Because I’ve seen a lot of found footage movies and someone always has to be that person, and if I’m going to be that person I’m going to get a Yeti on camera in the process. And anyway, it’s clear that Jensen is just kidding, so screw Holly and also screw this weird-ass scene.
Cut to Holly in another spot talking about the footprints some more: “It’s as if something dropped out of the sky, walked around barefoot for an hour, then disappeared again.” OK sure but whatever you do, DO NOT MENTION YETIS. Scientific speculation only please- you know, like theorizing that someone with massive-ass human weather-proof feet dropped out of the sky and ran in circles for a while before disintegrating. Then Andy calls out another square to mark on our found footage bingo cards when he accuses Holly of “messing” with them and faking the footprints.
The terrain is starting to look really dangerous, and I am amazed anyone gave Holly a grant to do this with no experience whatsoever. Suddenly, loud growly sounds are heard, and we can be thankful at least that they aren’t coming from various characters snapping at each other. Then they see more footprints. Cue camera static. They come across an old weather tower. Holly climbs the tower because she’s plucky and determined and has a class average on the line. I don’t know guys – I once had to travel across Houston to attend a symposium for class credit, and I chose to take a zero because of traffic, so I’m hoping this is at least a graduate-level course Holly’s doing this for. Masters thesis, perhaps? Because if this is all being done for a grade in Introduction to Unsolved Mysteries 101 then I’m thinking Holly deserves what she gets.
Holly climbs the tower, opens the door, and sees – something. I can’t tell what it is. It looks like some sort of machine and then – a foot? A dead rat? I even played it back and paused it but I couldn’t tell. Whatever it is, it makes her exclaim ‘what the hell’ and fall off the tower. Everyone asks her if she’s OK, and she says yes, and no one asks her what made her exclaim ‘what the hell’ and fall off the tower and she does not bother to explain what made her exclaim ‘what the hell’ and fall off the tower. I guess no one will ever know. I’m reminded of the old Russian lady who said those two extra bodies were found with “a machine” of some kind, though – was that what Holly saw up there? And why was it sitting next to an old foot?
They have literally been on this trip for about 24 hours and Denise is all “we need to leave right now.” It seems too soon for anyone to be this freaked out. They’ve seen footprints and heard one growl. Way to commit, Denise. Then Andy grabs Denise by the arm and mutters, “come on she’s just messing with us for her own stupid reasons” as they stomp off, and I just do not get these people at all. They have no reason to assume Holly is messing with them – usually in found footage movies when someone gets the blame for making up whatever is going on, it’s a person who is an established joker or liar – but there’s nothing to suggest this is the deal with Holly. There’s something so childish about the way this is playing out, and it emphasizes how ill-equipped these emotionally immature people are to be attempting a trip like this. I’ am full-on Team Yeti now and I know nothing about Yetis but I hope they are violent creatures.
Now Jensen is sitting on a snowy rock, wallowing in doom and gloom. He muses about mountains he’s heard of that emit sounds which cause people to go insane and posits that maybe that’s what’s happening here and again THEY HAVE HEARD EXACTLY ONE WEIRD SOUND. What is wrong with these people? Jensen couldn’t have considered these stories about crazy mountain sounds BEFORE agreeing to this trip and declined the invitation if it freaked him out? I hate to harp on it, but it’s just so clear the filmmakers are using character dialogue to try and create the mood they haven’t created through other means, and it is not working.
Holly sits down with Jensen for a heart to chilly heart. Jensen starts describing an acid trip he had in high school. Things were chasing him and he was running. Then the cops picked him up and he was shouting about aliens. And there were sounds. Growly sounds. The same sounds he heard earlier on the mountain. And…that’s it. It will actually matter later, but not much. Holly has never taken acid, but she used to have a dream where she was drawn like a magnet to a door, and when she opened the door there was nothing but darkness that swallowed her. So one day she saw a news story about Devil’s Pass and she knew right away that it was the place she dreamed of. The place that swallowed her in darkness. And somehow this means to her that she and Jensen are meant to be there. And get swallowed. By darkness. And this is a good thing? Was it a dream or a premonition? The answer’s a ways up the trail still…
Oh hey, they made it! Holly knows they’re at the accident site because she’s seen so many pictures. I guess maps are no longer a thing. Holly plants sticks in the ground with photos of the victim’s faces on them in the exact location where they died, and spray paints red body outlines next to them, which I want to be snarky about but I’m kind of into it, really. I am surprised Andy doesn’t start yelling at Holly for trying to scare them with spray paint, though, and use it as an excuse to drag Denise into a tent where they can braid each other’s hair and make prank calls. She and Jensen film a monologue about each of the original hikers and what happened to them when they died, and this bit, at least, is pretty effective. It’s the first time Holly has filmed anything that looks like a documentary I might watch. Too bad it doesn’t last.
Then Holly notices Andy looking at his GPS with a concerned scowl. She asks him what’s wrong, and he tells her it’s screwed up, and didn’t notify them when they arrived at the incident site like it should have. Holly immediately turns the tension between them back to eleven by snooting, “I suppose you think that’s my fault, too?” at him, which, seriously, Holly? You asked him a question and he answered, why not just leave it at that? These people deserve an avalanche.
Turns out it’s not just Andy’s GPS that is messed up. So is JPs watch. And his compass. All screwed. This is the “there’s no cell service” complication for this particular FF film. JP says his compass has been with him on all his hikes and it has never malfunctioned. Andy wants to call it quits, because they reached the site hours before they logically should have gotten there, which is weird, but I have to take Holly’s side here – they all knew they were hiking to a site on the side of a mountain that has been the feeding ground for tons of conspiracy theories for decades and at the first sign of the sort of weirdness they’ve all read about in the past they want to book it? So much for the bravado these dudes were spewing back on the train.
JP, Andy, and Denise all want to pack up and hike to a different location, just until their gear starts working again because they think there must be something strange going on in that particular spot. I guess they have a point. But Denise steps all over that logic by shouting “screw your footage, Holly!” at her when SHE WAS HIRED TO WORK FOR HOLLY AS A SOUND TECH FOR THE FOOTAGE HOLLY IS THERE TO SHOOT. I mean, at least come up with a better argument than the one that is least likely to convince Holly to leave. Why do none of these people understand how basic communication works between humans?
Holly then points out that people lived for thousands of years without GPS and watches and they were fine, which is AMAZING because this is the EXACT STATEMENT Andy made back on the train describing why he likes mountain climbing so much – you know, being up on top of a mountain where things like watches and GPS systems don’t exist. Even more amazing is the fact that Andy reacts as if he has never had that exact same thought before in his life, much less just 48 hours ago and RECORDED ON CAMERA.
Then we cut to Holly filming Jensen and whining about how she’s a “third wheel on date night” when she’s around Denise and Andy, and weirdly out of nowhere Jensen starts ranting about how he can’t understand why Denise wants to be with a guy like Andy who’s such a dick. So, he does like her? What is up with this chick anyway? Literally all the audience knows about Denise is that she has boobs and her eyelids occasionally freeze. I fail to see the appeal. It probably doesn’t matter because as quick as you can say ‘emotional whiplash’ Holly and Jensen are sexual innuendo-ing each other and the scene is over.
It’s darker now, and Holly has a Geiger counter, and quips to the camera that ‘without getting too complicated’ she will explain that it’s used to detect radiation. Um – how could she have made that more complicated? Probably the same way she makes interpersonal relations complicated – hey Geiger, I bet you really wanna fuck that compass.
Camera static. There’s definitely radiation in the area. More camera static. Holly follows the Geiger around LIKE IT’S A MAGNET PULLING HER SOMEWHERE. It’s getting really dark. She finds something in the snow and starts digging. Camera static. What is that? It’s a cave! Nope – it’s A DOOR! A huge safe-like door with one of those circular lock-type handle things. To convince the skittish Jensen to open it Holly actually hints that there might be a Yeti inside, which OK, cheap shot, Holly. Jensen wants to get the others, but Holly has to create more conflict in the film and widen the already well-defined unity gap in the group by insisting they not tell the others what they’ve found.
Holly continues her quest to be the worst middle school team leader ever by striking up a gossip session with JP about Denise and Andy and I want to throw her beanie-first into the campfire. JP then confirms his own awfulness by slagging on Andy as being “not boyfriend material.” Jesus, these people are all the worst. Where are the Yetis? Wherever they are, they’re not close enough to stop this madness as JP goes on to share with Holly that Andy uses his phone camera to film himself having sex with his “trail hookups.” Holly, being the worst female ever, brushes this off with a little laugh and leaves it at that. Then she immediately offers herself up as JPs trail hookup, if he’s interested. I have no words at this point. But I am mad this movie has actually made me feel bad for Denise. Jensen shows up so Holly has to drag him into this mess, which leads Jensen to utter the phrase ‘sloppy seconds’ and I am so done with this scene.
Except the next one is even worse, because now – we’re living vicariously through Andy’s cell phone as he talks to the camera in his tent with his shirt off. Denise is in the background, obviously naked and asleep under a sleeping bag. Isn’t it way too cold for this? And not that I went back and counted but I totally went back and counted, and exactly four minutes have passed since these two said goodnight to Holly and entered this tent so, way to go there, Trigger. You are nothing if not swift. Then he swings the camera over to “meet Denise” and PULLS DOWN HER SLEEPING BAG WHILE SHE IS STILL ASLEEP, trying to expose her breasts. I hate Andy so much I want him to die, like now. Yetis, meteors, radiation, Russian spies, I do not care. Someone just kill Andy already. KILL HIM.
And then my prayer works and the scene is interrupted by rocket sounds or gunshots or something, all praise be to the Yeti god. Explosions abound, or is it an avalanche? Oh wait – it’s both. An explosion and some gunshots that start an avalanche and goddammit it better take someone down. A dude (can’t tell who) is holding Denise’s hand to help her get out of the avalanche’s path, but Denise loses her grip and falls down and the dude just – keeps running. Oh hi, Andy. Then there’s a POV shot of some sort of projectile slamming into Denise’s face, and okay movie, finally. One down.
Yes, it was an avalanche, started intentionally. Guy-fights immediately ensue over which one of them is responsible for getting Denise killed, which, dudes, calm down, she’s dead and is no longer impressed by your toxic masculinity. Seems more logical to blame the assholes who started the avalanche anyway, but whatever. One of the guys says something about “a herd of exploding mountain goats” which I really hope ends up being a real thing as it sounds way better than Yetis. Especially if one of them takes out Andy. Jensen and JP immediately start fighting over who is right about what just happened, which seems like the most useless argument ever under the circumstances but that never stops this crew from going at each other.
Oh wait – someone broke their leg. It’s Andy! Andy broke his leg, and he’s in pain! Terrible pain! Oh happy day! This movie has taken some really stupid and frustrating turns, but this right here I’m all in for. Andy says someone needs to re-set his broken leg. Ooh that sounds painful. Let’s do it! Then the asshole has the nerve to tell Jensen to turn off the camera because HE DOESN’T WANT ANYONE TO SEE HIM LIKE THIS. That’s right – the douchebag who secretly films women while he’s having sex with them doesn’t want to be caught on camera in an embarrassing position. Keep filming Jensen! Film everything! Film like the Yetis are on their way!
The dudes take a macho-man moment to re-set Andy’s leg, and he man-screams in pain. Sweet, sweet Andy pain. It restoreth my soul. And of course, Andy has the stupidest man-scream ever. Even his moans sound smarmy and overloaded with misplaced aggression.
Holly decides now would be a good time to admit she and Jensen found a door in the snow. It is not. More shouting. JP is mad they could have gone inside a bunker somewhere instead of sitting out in the cold. Then he circles back to accusing Holly of planting the footprints, which – whatever, dude, you really need to let that go. Jensen sends up a flare and makes a comment about “orange lights in the sky,” which is something that was reported in the area back in 1959. So – door and magnet dreams, acid trip growly sounds, and now orange lights. It’s all…adding up now? I guess?
It’s the next morning, and Holly displays some seriously bad judgment when the crew spots people approaching them and she starts shouting and waving and asking for help. JP points out that these hikers are carrying no gear, which makes no sense this far up the mountain, and they realize they need to leave. The climax of the movie arrives when Andy realizes he can’t make it to wherever they’re going and tells JP to leave him behind. Yay! No more Andy! There’s some back and forth while JP tries to pick Andy up and carry him but eventually Holly grabs him and tells him they have to go. She does not look particularly upset about this, and neither am I. Off they go, with JP promising to bring back help for Andy. Bye, Andy! I can only assume your death will be drawn-out and painful, and the world makes sense again.
Holly, Jensen, and JP run towards the snow-door, and shots ensue. It’s unclear where they are coming from – I assume it’s from the two hikers who were approaching them, but a camera swing in that directions shows those two being shot at also, so I’m not sure. JP gets shot while they are trying to open the snow door, but doesn’t die, so, try harder, shooters. Try. Harder.
Into the snow-door they go. JP moans a bunch, and his moans are every bit as bad as Andy’s which makes me wonder if the two actors practiced together. The noises he emits imply both “I told you so” and “this is all your fault” but with sounds instead of words. The door leads to a tunnel, which isn’t surprising. The green camera light goes on. Jensen finds a power switch and tries it out, which seems unwise, but instead of blowing them all up it just turns the lights on. JP and Jensen are still fighting about what might be going on here – JP wants to barricade the door while Jensen insists that no one is coming after them; whoever is behind all of this just wants them to die with the least amount of effort possible on their part, is his thinking. JP predicts a slow death due to starvation and hypothermia, but he’s holding his arm where he got shot so who knows JP, you might get lucky and bleed out first. A girl can dream!
Jensen states the obvious – they have to find a way out. We get some pretty cool shots of underground tunnels that fork off in two directions; there are lamps on the walls lighting the way that create nice pools of light on the walls and floors. There’s a small explosion ahead down the tunnel in the direction they were heading, so off they go in the other direction. It looked to me like one of the light bulbs exploding, and sure enough, all the lights go out at that point.
Holly screams and when the camera swings around and catches JP in the night vision Jensen’s using again, he looks like a zombie in a straightjacket due to how he’s holding his arm, which explains Holly’s screams until I figure out who it is. Holly felt something, and she knows there’s something in there with them. But they don’t see anyone. The lights flicker on again. They walk down a different hallway and into a strange room, and more lights pop off around them, confirming it’s just the power blowing things out that’s causing the explosions. They’re in some sort of laboratory, and this is where the limitations of my video copy fail me. I was watching this on a cell phone, and that’s on top of the fact that the movie is already a little crappy in its original form since it’s found footage, so it’s really hard for me to see what’s going on from this point on. I’ll do my best.
JP gets back to man-moaning and has to sit down. Holly stays with him while Jensen wanders around, pointing his camera at the surroundings. He discovers some paperwork on a desk and calls Holly over. She says she’s seen the big book of files before – it’s page after page of documentation of people who were “killed in action.” She’s seen it in various reports and stories about the incident. All documentation stops in 1959, the year the hikers were killed. I guess that’s a clue? Holly shuffles folders around some more, and Jensen stops her when he sees a photo of some ship he recognizes as being used in the “Philadelphia experiment.” In order to help the audience, JP asks what that is. Jensen history-shames him before explaining the top-secret crazy human experiments that totally should not be documented and recorded in whatever secret laboratory they’ve found here inside death-trap mountain. It sounds like Holly doesn’t know about it either, but Jensen does not accuse her of living under a rock, like he does JP. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. There’s a rock around here big enough to squash JP, Jensen, I’m sure of it.
Jensen reveals more about the Philadelphia thing – the US Government was experimenting with teleportation, apparently, and a bunch of people were turned into mush as a result. Holly is flipping through photos now, but the version of the movie I’m watching makes it impossible for me to figure out what they are. I’m assuming it’s mush-people. Holly wants to move on, but JP can’t get up. They’re leaving him, but they’re totally coming back for him once they find a way out. So long, JP! You will not be missed.
Holly and Jensen forge ahead through another door and cough a lot. Jensen says something about a naturally formed cave. Holly calls him a spelunker. Are they flirting again? Holly finds some sort of nuclear power – box? Reactor? I can’t tell, but she immediately says “Alexander was here” and at first I think she’s reading graffiti that was scrawled on it until I remember that was the name of a member of the hiking group back in 1959. “This is where he picked up the radiation,” she says, sounding very confident that she’s right, which, OK movie. I’ll allow it if it moves things along.
They open another door. It’s dark. There’s a dead dude strapped to a table. Some military guy. Holly says something about a secret and keeping the secret and then she weirdly yanks open his mouth and FINALLY we find out what that foot/rat thing was at the top of the weather tower; it was – this guy’s tongue? Really? Now I definitely need to go back and look again because to my recollection dude’s tongue was HUGE.
Holly’s theory is that this military dude, who clearly was alive until recently, was sent to kill the five of them so that whatever secrets the mountain holds will stay secret. Then whoever sent this guy to do this had to be killed, since he knew too much. Soldier, I could have told you that this crew has figured out NOTHING and you might have kept your life. And your tongue. Oh well. Have I mentioned yet that none of this is scary? And none of it explains why the soldier’s tongue was cut out and stuck in a weather tower. Holly has an explanation that involves experiments and “letting something out” which is why the door was unlocked. Swinging the camera around the room, they see piles of bones. It’s an execution room, Jensen posits. Or rather, was. Or maybe still is given the tongueless dude strapped to a table who was clearly alive until recently. One of the original hikers had a missing tongue when they were found, so maybe this soldier is really that hiker? I have no idea.
There is a note tucked inside a pile of bones, which is jarring. A folded-up piece of paper is just nestled into a bone-pile? It’s a photo of one of the soldiers who was in that book they found of people who were killed in action. I’m not interested in this at all. In fact, I’m starting to think I’d rather watch Andy and Denise go at it back in that tent. At least I know that would end in four minutes. Did anyone save Andy’s phone?
“I don’t understand,” Holly says. Agreed, Holly.
“They don’t look right,” Jensen says, referring to the skeletons. I can neither confirm nor deny. Holly wonders if one of these freaky skeleton things is what the tongueless soldier let out. I’m sure the movie is dropping all this as clues to the puzzle, so I’m trying to put them together, but there’s a growly sound and Holly’s face in that moment sums up how I’m feeling right now:
More growly sounds. Jensen continues to ask what is that? after every growl and dude, literally no one can explain that to you, possibly not even the filmmakers, so stop asking. Honestly at this point, who cares anyway? If Mr. Growly doesn’t get ya, the tongue-cutters will, soooo…50/50?
There’s an open door Jensen thinks wasn’t open before. Through it they go. Holly thinks someone is there with them. Jensen focuses the camera on meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. There’s blood. Then Jensen spies something on a table on the far side of the room. What is it? It’s – a camera. Wait, it’s their camera? It’s still on, but the battery is almost out, so Jensen tells her to check what’s on the flipscreen quickly before the camera dies. Its Holly and Company back when they were trying to get in to interview that old hiker, and I swear at one point it sounds like someone on the recording says “Come On Eileen,” which is amusing. Holly fast forwards to see what else has been recorded, and when she hits play again, it’s a scene of her finding this camera and watching the scene on it with the crazy hiker in the window. Jensen mentions teleportation again and how it’s rumored the ship time-traveled during the Philadelphia Experiment and showed up somewhere ten minutes before it had even left, and no one was supposed to know about it, and the people involved in the experiment who didn’t die not only went crazy but somehow “changed,” so I guess the camera they just found is their camera from the future, and they are some sort of time-traveled manifestation of themselves running around this tunnel. I’m thinking of how Andy said they arrived at the accident site hours earlier than they should have, so I guess they all got sucked into some time portal right before that? It’s kind of cool, but getting the reveal via Jensen’s exposition is awkward.
There’s no time to figure it all out because we hear some crazy screams which I try to identify as maybe being one of them in another time dimension but I cannot. They come across something, or someone, in a cage, but for the life of me I can’t tell what it is. However, I have watched this whole movie now and I can tell you it doesn’t fucking matter. So let’s move on. Maybe Jensen will continue to provide ongoing commentary about everything that’s happening to help us along.
20 minutes left in the movie and finally – MONSTERS! A creepy stretchy skinny humanoid looking thing with a really wide mouth (mind your tongue, monster!) and he grabs Jensen by the forehead and – does things. The camera (I don’t know who is filming now) pans over to see Holly swinging a chain over her head and then – swear to god – chain-flinging a couple of creatures away from her, which is HILARIOUS. We’ve gotten absolutely ZERO indication that Holly would be able to pull off a Wonder-Woman move like this, and nothing remotely super-heroish has happened at any point up until now, so this is just ridiculous. And you can tell by the way they set up the shot that it was supposed to be super-impressive. It’s completely silly.
She runs over to the camera and talks to it like it’s Jensen, so he was filming? Who knows. It doesn’t matter because the two skittery creatures nab Holly, and much camera static and jerky movements ensue. Then they’re running, and it turns out they’re going back for JP. Skittery creatures leaping about. They’re on the ceiling. We get a shot of JP sitting in the same corner, and he’s had his hand torn off somehow so he’s sitting there on the floor sort of flapping his stump around. Jensen zooms in on it, which is a nice touch although I doubt JP would appreciate it. It doesn’t matter, because JP has either turned into a skittery creature or one just ate him. Either way a skittery creature is where JP used to be, so off we go again.
Another vault-like door. They just make it in before the creature gets them and they lock it out. Why haven’t any of the creatures killed them by now is what Jensen wants to know. There’s some sort of freaky tunnel ahead of them that looks WAY too much like the one in “Final Prayer” and I do not want to go through that again. Holly has the same idea, because she suggests turning around and taking their chances with the skittery bunch. No, Jensen says, you saw what they did to JP. They’ll do the same to us. They chased us here on purpose. This is where they want us to be. But – that is very decidedly NOT what they did to JP. They ate his wounded ass. So…try again?
Holly throws a rock or something into the tunnel and it lights up for a second and again I think of Final Prayer and I really (SPOILER!!) don’t want to see someone get digested again. But nope, it’s some sort of teleportation tunnel. They find ancient drawings on the wall, indicating whatever the tunnel is has existed for centuries. Jensen keeps throwing out theories. Aliens. Other portals all over the world. The monsters traveling around in time through this portal. “It makes sense,” Jensen says. No one agrees. Jensen’s flashlight dies, and in reaction to this Holly immediately says she can’t see, and yes, that’s how it works, Holly. Light go out, lady no see.
Now the camera is back in night vision, and we see the footage that was shown on the news coverage at the beginning of the film. Holly talking about a dream – the dream she talked about with Jensen back in her flirting days about magnets and doors and darkness. More monsters please – the movie makes no sense and it is seriously slowing back down to a crawl. Jensen makes more suggestions – the monsters skitter back and forth through time regularly, and are the cause of basically every weird UFO or creature sighting in the universe, I guess, which is a seriously anti-climactic conclusion to some seriously good conspiracy theories and UFO sightings. I’m not buying it. Stick to trying to solve the mystery right in front of you, Jensen, and leave the rest to another found footage movie.
Jensen’s suggesting mind power to escape the bunker or wherever they are and there are still fifteen minutes in this thing. As soon as I have that thought Holly says “We’re going to die here Jensen” and, yep, she read my mind. Maybe she teleported into my head! If she did sorry for all the hate Holly. But in my defense, you aren’t much fun to watch. Maybe they can get Claire Danes for the sequel.
They stand on the edge of the portal or whatever it is and Holly quotes Slaughterhouse Five. Thanks for reminding me of a way more entertaining story I could be focusing on right now, lady. They hold hands and step into what becomes a very bright light. Cut to their legs in the snow outside the portal and HOW ARE THERE STILL TEN MINUTES LEFT IN THIS MOVIE?
Two mountain climbers approach their frozen legs. Russian military swoop in with guns and try to send them away. “But they found all the hikers already,” says the male climber. “Who are they?” The soldiers try again to shoo them off, and then the female climber starts to argue. “We want to help,” she says. Shoo shoo away, the Russians say. Then they drag Holly and Jensen’s frozen corpses out of the camera frame, while the female climber questions them, what are they doing? How can they just move the bodies away without investigating the crime scene? They don’t even know who these two are! Ah, hello, old Russian lady from the beginning of the film who knew there were eleven bodies found on the side of the mountain back in 1959 and not nine. Nice to see you again. *Wink*
One of the soldiers picks up the camera – still filming – and carries it into the snow cave with the bodies. We see Holly and Jensen being wheeled into the facility on gurneys, where Russian military is now bustling about, sitting at the same empty tables Holly and Jensen found earlier (or is it…later?)
A soldier tries to store Holly and Jensen’s bodies “with the others,” but are instructed by the man with the camera that “Dr. Mintenko” will want to take at look at them separately. Into the old tongue-cutting room we go, this time busting with more military. Someone’s body is on a table but I can’t see whose – whoever it is, the men are noting how odd the clothes are and how they’ve never seen outfits like this one. JP? Andy? Denise?
Someone instructs the guys to put Holly and Jensen’s bodies into a special room. Yeah, the meathook one. First one, then the other body is hung on the meathooks, and we can see that they are now freaky and skittery-looking and frozen. “Let’s get out of here,” one of the soldiers says. “This place gives me the creeps.” Off they go, and the camera gets tilted a bit as if it’s been tipped over. But it’s still filming. We see more clearly that Holly and Jensen are now freaky skittery creatures. As we somehow manage to zoom in on the two frozen corpses, their heads slowly tilt upwards, and the camera focuses in on a tattoo behind freaky-Holly’s ear that I think is supposed to confirm it’s her. So I guess Holly is the one Andy made a smarmy comment to way back in the beginning of the film when there was still a sense of hope that this movie might make sense.
The end. Who cares.
This movie is a damn mess, and it’s a shame. There’s a good story to be told about what happened on Dyltalov Pass in 1959, but this ain’t it. The characters are awful. The plot twists make no sense. And none of it adds anything to the lore of the original story. All I can suss out is that Holly and Jensen definitely time traveled back to the original incident and that’s how the Russian woman saw “a machine” (their camera) and two extra bodies. Whether or not ALL of the crew time-traveled is unclear. Is it possible they were all a part of the original nine? I don’t think so, because it seems the movie would have then added five extra bodies to Russian lady’s count, not just two. But it does appear that there was some sort of time jump they all experienced when arriving at the accident site. But even that is unclear. And the presence of the skittery creatures seems unnecessary – if the movie had just left it with Jensen and Holly being stuck in some time loop where they have traveled back into the past and in the present are encountering themselves throughout the trip leaving weird footprints (although the freakiness of the footprints requires them turning into skittery creatures) as they time travel in and out of the portal stalking themselves, I guess I could have accepted that. But this movie bit off way more than it could chew – vegetarian or not – and in the end it just puked out a big old mess. Do not recommend.
Crowsnest is a Canadian FF movie that was released in 2012 and directed by Brendan Spencer. It follows a group of friends on a road trip who encounter some seriously bad action along the way. Yeah, yeah, I know. But stay with me.
SPOLIERS BELOW! Do not continue if you don’t want to know.
Reason for filming: Dude’s got a new camera! Let’s film everything! Let’s go on a road trip and film everything!
What’s the horror: Psycho killers
Does the dog die? No pets in this one, but some mutilated animals in some pretty gruesome close-ups shots that are easy enough to look away from if you don’t want to see.
Gore factor: It is gory in parts – as in, we see a lot of gory human/animal parts – but it’s not the main focus of the film. Where it is used, it’s mostly used effectively. And again, there’s fair warning that it’s coming, so the more squeamish (like me) can look away and avoid it if needed.
Character quality: Less than zero. Terrible people for the most part. But it’s fun to watch them die.
Re-Watch Scale: Occasional re-watch, with limitations – there’s a good chunk of this film that I skip every time, and even though I always tell myself I’ll commit to watching the whole thing. I never do.
This is a weird review for me to write, because this film is SO uneven, in my opinion – the bad stuff is really, really bad, but the good stuff is really, really entertaining and fun. Fun enough that I am willing to endure the bad stuff I can’t skip, and to skip the first 20 minutes of awful every single time. There are sections of this movie I absolutely love, and it makes up for the aspects of it that I hate, but overall it does make me wish for a better movie than this ended up being.
So yes, the setup for this movie is really typical stuff – we start out with a twentysomething dude firing up a new camera and immediately expositing how much he wants to record sex stuff with it, and trying to film females in the apartment across the street while they change clothes, etc. Then, in rapid succession, we get a lot of typical, annoying young-dude details that a lot of FF films like to throw in when using this premise, and that never fail to irritate the shit out of me – filming friends partying, trying to get a girlfriend to agree to have sex on camera, lying that the camera is turned off while they fool around in the hopes he can secretly film himself and his girlfriend having sex, getting yelled at by friends who get sick of being filmed. A very stereotypical start to a FF film that I usually hate, unless it has some good character work that makes up for it. This movie does not. I will admit here that I have NEVER watched the first 20 minutes of this film. I try, but I can’t even get past the first scene before I not only don’t care but want to rush ahead to the section where these assholes get killed.
Things don’t get much better when the camera transitions to daytime and the gang is loading up the car for a road trip. It’s more of the same; lots of people getting annoyed the dude is filming and the dude continuing to film. The conversation between the five friends (three females, two males) is grating, and no one comes off as likeable or entertaining here at all. Immediately conflict arises through the silliest plot device I’ve ever heard: there’s no beer in the cooler because the driver, Kirk, knows a place on the way to his family’s cottage where “you can get beer half-price.” I’m sorry – what? In my entire life I’ve never heard the phrase “half-price beer” uttered, and I’ve swallowed a lot of beer over the years. Who says such a thing? “Cheap beer” I’ve heard, yes, and even “dollar beer” as in “hey, Emo’s has dollar beer night on Wednesdays” (and yes, Houstonians, I just dated myself) – but “half-price”? Like you might say about buying, I don’t know, socks or hair products? It’s just so weird and not believable at all; if cost is an issue you buy some Natural Light or some other garbage beer that’s rock bottom cost and get your drink on. No one drives far out of their way in the middle of nowhere for something called “half-price beer.” And what kind of beer is half-price? All of it? One particular brand? Is this a special sale that ends at some point, or is that the focus of this country store? And is it really worth listening to your whiny buddy boy Justin rant and rail against the lack of beer for an hour and a half just to get to it? No, it is not. And yet, Kirk persists.
Once again, I skip most of the driving section (except for the ‘half price beer’ conversation, which always makes me laugh) because it’s not worth watching. It sets up nothing beyond ‘gonna go party at a cabin in the woods’ and establishes pretty stereotypical character types (party girl, girlfriend, prude girl sister of party girl, party boy boyfriend, stubborn idiot boy/jilted ex). You may be wondering why I even kept watching at this point, and that’s a good question: I saw some trailers for this movie before watching it, so I knew there was going to be a decent payoff eventually, and the trailer left enough to the imagination to keep me watching. Once the group burns out on fighting with each over exactly how lost they are and whose fault it is that they got lost (newsflash – it’s Kirk’s) they stumble across a strange, dilapidated clump of buildings surrounded by tumbleweeds and dust. It sort of looks like a rejected set from Westworld. It’s not clear if this is the infamous “half price beer” store Kirk’s been searching for, or if it is indeed a random hellscape where the gang ends up after getting themselves terribly turned around, but for what it’s worth there appears to be some sort of store that’s operating there, along with a bunch of nothing else happening in these nasty old buildings.
This is a good place to start watching, though, because we get a nice dose of creepy in the form of a very The Ring-ish little girl who jump scares into the camera frame as whoever is manning it at the moment spins around (various people will man the camera throughout the film – the reasons for doing this are never believable, but that’s the case in most FF so I’m fine with it). It’s a nice, creepy moment that heightens the tension in an already creepy scene, so I’m pleased. Of course, the camera pans away from creepy girl for a moment and then flashes back, only to find said girl has vanished. It’s another standard moment for a movie like this, but I am at least pleased no one tries to get her to take her top off or slam back seven shots in a row. I’ll take it.
By the way, when the dudes get back in the car from whatever general store they ventured into, it turns out they did, in fact, get their half-price beer, and I am sorely disappointed to see that it is not a six-pack of white cans with HALF PRICE BEER in block lettering on the side – well maybe it is, but no one holds a can up to the camera, so it’s the same as if it isn’t. What we do see is that they also got a general sense of unease and a creeped-out conversation from some weird dude inside who stared at them and offered a stern warning to “turn around now,” a warning that the girls, of course, blow off as the guys just trying to mess with them. Someone always has to get warned in setups like this, or at least get a general sense of the willies (which prude girl, whose name is Danielle, takes care of), while someone else has to insist none of it is real and that it’s all an elaborate prank. Soon, it’s gloomy and drizzling rain, and Justin mutters something about needing to “drain the lizard” (I kid you not), and the gang pulls over on the side of the road so the reptile-draining can commence.
It’s at this moment – approximately 28 minutes in – when this movie FINALLY kicks it into high gear. Danielle is being all “this is all a bad idea I have bad feelings” and her sister Amanda (aka Party Girl) is all “aw poor widdle baby are you scared why not come out into the middle of the road like me and spin in circles wheeeeeee” and then WHAM! A huge-ass beige and brown RV literally comes out of nowhere, blares its horn, and almost runs Amanda over. It’s a GREAT jump scare, and while I admittedly am easily impressed and not an expert at all about what is an effective effect and what isn’t, I am impressed by how convincing this moment is. It’s completely unexpected, and makes little sense based on the glimpses of foreboding we’ve gotten up to this point that leads us to believe something supernatural is going to happen (a group of millennials in the woods and all). It’s unclear at this point if this is just another harbinger of doom and gloom to come, or the actual cause of all the anticipated horror. After the moment slams the viewer into another dimension much as it slams Danielle into the ground and we all recover, everyone is understandably freaked out, while Kirk is understandably pissed that some RV just tried to make roadkill out of one of his friends.
Oh – speaking of roadkill, I forgot to mention that right before the group gets to Creepy Ghost Town they encounter some pretty nasty looking roadkill on the side of road, and of course Kirk and Justin get out to film it. It’s gross. It appears to be an animal that has been not only skinned, but somehow turned inside-out. If you must see it, start watching a little before the half-price ghost town scene.
And this next bit is I think why this aspect of the movie can still freak me out, because I would have done exactly what Kirk does next. He goes after the RV at full speed, demanding comeuppance for almost turning one of his friends into the human equivalent of a deflated tire. I mean, it was clearly intentional and could have been avoided. I’ve rolled this around in my mind a million times, and there’s just no way I could let someone get away with this either, so I can’t blame Kirk for getting in the car and going after the driver of that thing. Problem is, of course, that this RV is HUGE, like, even more so than the typical RV. It’s tricked out somehow, and really long, and there’s something not normal about it. But again – even if it was a weird, tricked-out, long-ass RV, I’d be hard-pressed not to follow it and do something about the fact that the driver tried to kill my friend. Plus, it’s an RV, so surely the driver is some older couple who is too senile to be on the road or something, right? I mean, something along those lines has to be the explanation. It should be easy enough to catch up to it and do – something. Who knows what one should do at that point, but again, you don’t just let some asshole try to kill your friend and then just get away. Or maybe that’s just me.
Perhaps it’s this that makes the film, at this point, a thrill rush. I can relate to what Kirk does, which makes what happens in reaction to his actions even more terrifying, because it could actually happen to me. Kirk gets everyone back into the car and takes off after the RV, chasing it down a seriously isolated, backwoods gravel country road with nothing else around. The girls, understandably, are upset and just want Kirk to stop, but Justin and Kirk are insistent that they get close enough to the truck to get the license plate number and then they will call it a day. Again – not unreasonable at all. They come around a curve in the road, spot the truck, and give chase.
So now they’re on a dirt road, it’s raining, and as they gain on the RV it suddenly slams on the brakes, sending Kirk and Co. into a slippery skid. Then it guns the gas, spins its wheels, and takes off again – surprisingly fast for a recreationary vehicle, I might add. The guys still didn’t get the license plate number, so while they sit there in the middle of the road trying to decide what they should do, the RV can be seen through their front window, some distance away, hitting its brakes again, and then – turning around. And then – charging straight at the gang’s car, gaining speed. For a moment or two, Kirk hesitates, hoping for the thing to get close enough to catch the license plate number, but then the RV blares its horn again, and the kids figure out that this thing ain’t stoppin’, and it has a heck of a lot of get-up-and-go for a twenty-ton vehicle.
A word or two about that horn – I don’t know if there is anything special about it, so perhaps it’s purely the connection to threat and death that makes it so menacing. Or maybe there’s some special sound effect that adds to the menace, I don’t know. But it works. It’s a significant sound that portends death every time we hear it, and it heightens tension every time. It’s a very deep sound, more like a foghorn on a lighthouse than one on a RV (for reference, some friends of mine had an RV growing up, and its horn played “Dixieland,” so there you go).
A great chase ensues, wherein Kirk and Co. have to skeedaddle in reverse for a while, with the cab of the RV coming ever closer and blaring its horn. Also, only one headlight is working on the thing, which – I don’t know, it’s an interesting detail that hints again how something is not quite right about this vehicle. It’s been through some things. Or more likely, it’s put other people through some things quite similar to what it’s putting our protagonists through right now. Another nice detail we see is that the car Kirk’s driving has its license plate resting on the dashboard of the car. The license plate on the RV still can’t be seen, which is unusual, and it turns out something’s not quite right with the placement of the one on Kirk’s car, either. It works to connect the two vehicles together, as if from this point forward, they can’t, or won’t, stay separated.
Kirk should be able to get away from this thing, but even after he manages to spin the car around it keeps gaining. Soon it’s ramming them from behind, blaring that deep, creepy horn, one headlight winking through the back window. This is the scene I saw in the previews, and when watching it for the first time it still wasn’t clear to me if this was the entire threat the gang would face, or if they would actually make it to the cabin and other madness would ensue. I like that it kept me guessing.
After a few more rams into the back of Kirk’s car, the RV just – disappears. Kirk thinks he’s outrun it, and is overly proud of his accomplishment. “He can’t catch us going up a hill!” he keeps shouting, which is not a very catchy victory chant, to be honest. Kirk’s pumped, but Danielle is about to puke from all the jostling of the car, and eventually the girls convince Kirk to pull over so she can get it all out. The screaming and fighting between the team here is a bit much to take, so I can’t say I blame her; there’s going to be a lot of that as the show goes on. Screaming, not puking. But there’s more of that to come, too. Finally Kirk is shouted into pulling over, at which point he confirms his total douchiness by whining about scratches and dents on his parent’s car while Danielle loses her lunch on the other side of the road (I hate movie puke, by the way, so rest assured you don’t see it here). The contrast between the sensitivity the girls can be seen showing to each other in the background of the shot and the way Justin and Kirk act like macho dicks in the foreground is a nice juxtaposition that actually does provide us a little twinge or two of sympathy for the women. Especially with what comes next.
They pile back in after some more asshattery from Kirk, and things seem to be calming down – but soon Danielle needs to puke again, so Kirk pulls over and she rushes out, leaning down and getting sick right against the side of car this time (you still don’t see it) . Kirk starts bitching about her getting puke on her car, and the girls try to act concerned while also giggling about the whole thing – an understandable release of adrenaline and tension. Then WHAM! With a blast of the horn the RV slashes past, completely flattening Danielle as she is puking on the side of the road. We hear the crunch of her bones as blood splatters up across the side windows of the car. And just like that, it goes quiet, leaving the rest of the gang, and the audience, in shock. Did that really just happen? Is that Danielle’s blood on the windows? Is she dead? Holy shit!
Well, Danielle is not dead, and she also is surprisingly intact given the situation, but whatever. I’m going to assume this low-budget production just didn’t have the capacity to make her look actually maimed so they went with internal injuries in spite of the external blood that sploshed all over the car. A minor quibble. They drag Danielle back into the car and hurry on up the road, more shouting ensuing over what they should do – keep driving to find a hospital, or pull over and try to find a location where they can get cell service to call an ambulance (oh yeah, as is the case in just about any FF movie, no one has cell service now that they need it). In the end, it doesn’t matter. Danielle crosses over pretty soon, and now we know what the real threat is gonna be in this movie. It’s that creepy-ass RV, and whoever – or whatever – is its driver. We have no idea who is behind this, because along with the lack of license plates, the unbelievable speed, and the extended-cab length of that spooky thing, are some seriously tinted windows that render visibility into it impossible. Who knows who’s behind that wheel. It could be anything. And it’s clear now that it’s stalking them.
I really found this to be a neat twist on the friends-in-the-woods found footage sub-genre. No witches or paranormal activity. Just brief, quick hits from some psychos in a massive van. It takes the term road trip to a different level – not a higher level, necessarily, but at least a different one – and I like it.
Eventually they decide to pull over and see if they can walk to higher elevation via some roadside hills and get their cell phones to work – as usual, not everyone is in agreement with this plan and everyone’s shouting and cursing it all out, but once again I actually am in agreement with Kirk’s choice, which rather disturbs me since he’s such a dick. But they’re in real trouble, one of them is now dead, and it’s obvious that driving around is not optimal, as it’s what has gotten them to this place to begin with. So trying to find cell service seems logical. But Amanda refuses to leave her dead sister alone in the car, and after screaming at her shockingly doesn’t work, the rest of the group leave her there while they wander off into the woods and hike up high to try using their phones.
I’m sure you can guess what happens next – no cell service can be found, and soon enough we hear that RV horn again, the screech of tires, and Amanda’s screams. Weirdly, the gang is shocked when they run back to the car and find both the living and the dead body gone, which shouldn’t be a shock at all given what they heard. But shocked they are, and now they’re completely panicked. I guess I should mention that somewhere in the midst of all this a fight breaks out among Brooke (the girlfriend of Justin), Justin, and Kirk that ends up revealing how Brooke and Kirk used to sleep together or something, which upsets Justin and leads to him stalking off heartbroken with the camera, but honestly who cares. There’s absolutely nothing that’s been established that would lead the audience to care about any of this, and it comes across as merely a device to separate the three. Since Kirk is the protagonist who owns the car, and Brooke is obviously his One That Got Away, it’s pretty clear who’s going to get the horn next, and at the moment, he’s all alone in the woods, and he’s got the camera.
The whole boy/girl/ex-boy conflict isn’t the only old trope the movie trots out at this point. While more wandering around the forest ensues, we get the first of what will be three – yes THREE – Blair-Witch style camera confessions. Two come from Justin and one comes from Kirk towards the end of the film, and I hate every single one of them. Both Justin and Kirk film themselves summarizing what has happened up to this point, in case the cops find the camera after they’ve died, and honestly – do we need TWO scenes of characters explaining to the camera all the action we’ve already seen? No, we do not. We do not even need one, much less two of these, and I also don’t need to see either one of these dudes tell their loved ones goodbye. But, there’s enough other good stuff happening now that I sit through it, so I don’t miss anything. And what I don’t want to miss is how the movie ups the stakes some point soon after Justin cries into the camera. Because we’re about to find out just what’s up with that goddamn motor vehicle, and it’s pretty badass.
Justin stumbles about alone until he crawls into a clearing and sees the RV sitting there, right the fuck in front of him. It’s pretty jarring, and Justin seems extremely exposed. He manages to hunker down behind some brush, and I tell you I’ve never in my life had an RV infuse me with fear, but this thing is damn menace. It’s freaky and seems to have a mind of its own. It’s a monster, is what it is, and I fully believe in it as an evil force at this point. I don’t even know if there is a driver inside of it. It has a creepy life all its own.
The RV is still and quiet and appears to be empty, so Justin, in a moment of what I can only assume is complete insanity, decides to approach it and try to get the license plate captured on camera (yes, this is the point at which all of my own instincts to defend my friends would have escaped me, replaced with self-preservation and an I’m sure they’re already dead level of selfishness. No more heroics for me). The closer he gets, the higher the tension, as his camera focuses on the side door of the camper, where we all expect something to burst forth at any moment. Nothing does, but there is blood visible on the underside of the door, and Justin follows a path of more blood to the back of the car, where the lack of license plate is confirmed. Where it should be is nothing but duct tape – a nice touch that gives us some quick insight to what is going on inside. Whatever is doing this is human, is very real, and has an intentional plan here that he or she intends to execute with whatever scant resources at their disposal. We can picture the sort of person who slathers duct tape over their license plates before heading out to commit murder, and it ain’t pretty. It’s someone who plans – but not too much or too carefully. Someone not afraid to get messy.
We’re about to get more information about just who that person, or who those people, are, because soon enough Justin hears footsteps approaching, as he’s hanging around in back of the RV like a spare tire. Under the vehicle he goes, continuing to film so we can see two sets of very human legs walk up to the car – clad in baggy pants and wearing heavy hiking boots. Something about just this glimpse of them fills the audience with dread: Oh shit, we think. Hicks.
It shouldn’t be a surprise given the backwoods location, but it kind of is. Two heavy-set figures who are clearly men are the ones who own and drive this beast. Who’ve already killed one friend and possibly a second by now. They stand close as if in discussion for a moment, then stomp off in different directions, with gaits that seem slightly bow-legged and heavy. We see more of one than the other as he walks away; he’s wearing baggy jeans and a dark plaid flannel, and he walks like he spends a lot of time stomping through muck. What the fuck. Why are they doing what they’re doing? What’s the end game here? It’s puzzling and unclear. It’s weird, and more than a little unsatisfying. They don’t have pointed tails poking out of their jeans, or cloven feet. What exactly is going on?
Once they’re gone, Justin crawls out from under the RV and decides to take a peek inside. The interior of the RV is completely dark, so the old gotta use my night vision camera canard comes into play. What we see via green light is pretty nasty: plastic-lined floors, buckets of bones and blood, knives and saws, and wait – is that a human foot? I think that’s a foot. It goes by pretty quickly, but we get the point. These dudes don’t just drive around generating roadkill. They do things with it. Bloody things. Ew.
The camera pans up to a human leg with a sawed-off foot we can only assume is the one we just panned by on the RV floor. It sounds awful but to be honest, it isn’t that bad. Again, I doubt these guys had the budget for real gore, so it’s serviceable at best. But we get the point, and I for one can have my imagination fill in the rest. Yep – we’re in Texas Chainsaw territory. Justin pans up, and it turns out the leg is attached to a body, and the body – is Amanda! She’s covered in blood and unconscious, but Justin’s proximity wakes her up. I have to say, as much as I didn’t like any of these characters up to this point in the film, both Justin and Amanda do a good job of being terrified and desperate in this scene. Amanda in particular sounds appropriately out of her mind with fright. She can’t see in the dark so she doesn’t know who it is that’s entered the camper, and it takes a while for Justin to calm her down enough to identify himself. He tries to keep her quiet, but she’s way past that by now and can’t control herself. It’s clear her cries are going to draw the murderers back to the RV at some point, and the tension here is real. She’s tied down, and Justin can’t untie the knots to get her out. Her panicked, desperate tears are very effective here; she knows there’s no way out, and she is terrified.
Then the movie ups the stakes a bit more. Justin hears something in the back of the RV and sneaks off to investigate. He pulls back a curtain to reveal – Ring-Girl from Creepy Westworld! Who the girls saw for a brief moment back in Half-Price Beer land! That’s right, she calls these insane car stalkers daddy, apparently, and they reward her by feeding her body parts. At the moment, she’s chowing down on what appears to be one of Danielle’s hands. When the kid sees Justin – and in the green light she looks downright demonic – she freaks out and goes in for the kill, scratching at him and screaming while Justin tries to keep things quiet so as not to alert the murderers. He ends up killing her, which gets Amanda, who still can’t see, started up again. Justin’s instincts kick in, and he now knows there’s nothing he can do – he can stay with Amanda and face the same fate when the hicks return, or he can bail out now and save his own ass, knowing Amanda is a lost cause anyway. It’s a pretty harrowing moment, as Amanda knows better than to believe Justin’s promises to return – the terror, shock, and outrage in her screams as he leaves is haunting, so once again – well-done here, Party Girl. And also, so long – we barely knew you.
From that point on, it’s a matter of time before Justin becomes the cannibals’ next meal. Sure enough, the screaming has brought them back, and they follow Justin into the nearby forest. There’s a great shot of one of the men as he walks right past Justin, who is crouched behind a tree – he’s wearing a face mask, and it’s significant that not once do we see either killer’s face throughout the whole movie. It ties them more closely to the ubiquitous RV they command; all three hulking, faceless, and utterly evil.
Masked killer leaves the perimeter, but it doesn’t matter – killer number two has spotted Justin, and as he grabs him by the feet and drags him away, mask-faced killer picks up the camera – of course – and films a tasty little close-up of number two slicing through Justin’s throat and lopping off his head. But again, it’s actually not all that awful, unless sound effects get you gagging.
So now we know everything, all mysteries have been resolved, and all that’s left is to finish off Kirk and Brooke, his ex. The fact that they clearly still love each other is evident in these last scenes, but to be honest I don’t care. They’re still annoying and I have no investment in either one of them. But we get a few more great scares as they stumble around in a desperate attempt to escape their fate. After finding Justin’s camera and doing something not enough protagonists do in these films – which is to playback the footage that’s been taken, thank you very much – they too understand what’s happened, and they are understandably beside themselves. Their friends are dead, and they’re lost in the forest with the killers still out there. More stumbling around ensues, until they make it to a road – a road! – which gets their hopes up at first, until the goddamn RV comes rumbling up and stops to deposit something off to the side. Brooke wants to move on, but of course Kirk has to go up and see what it is they left behind, and of course he has to take his camera with him, and it’s pretty clear that Justin got the same skinned and turned inside-out treatment that roadkill got that they spotted back in the film’s beginning, and it’s pretty gross. The ex barfs too, and we see it this time, so yeah for me this is an averting-of-the-eyes scene. It’s also clear, at least to me, that the RV killers knew Kirk and Brooke were nearby, and dumped Justin’s remains on the side of the road as a warning.
More wandering and weeping commences, and just when that starts to get old we get another great scare. The RV makes another appearance, stopping directly in front of where Brooke and Kirk are hiding behind some trees. After several tense seconds of hearing Kirk whisper, “they don’t know we’re here…they don’t know we’re here…” the RV door opens, two beer guts rush out (but again, we do not see their faces) and they tear off after them so fast Brooke and Kirk barely have time to register what’s happening. It’s pretty impressive as a jump scare, as the RV door opens fairly slowly in comparison to how quickly the two fly out. And at this point there’s no denying that somehow they know where Kirk and Brooke are, as much as Kirk may have stated otherwise.
There’s a pretty big scuffle, but the two manage to break free, only to discover that in the tussle one of the killers actually severed Kirk’s hand so badly that it eventually just – slides off. It’s pretty nasty, but a nice touch. To me, the best part is how Kirk reacts to losing his hand almost exactly like he did in the beginning, when he sees how much damage the RV did to the back of his parent’s car. It’s as if his hand and the car’s blinker light are interchangeable and deserving of the same level of rage. I guess the loss of the hand does make it impossible for him to use hand signals to indicate which way he’s going to turn until he gets his taillight replaced, so fair point, Kirk.
They find the car. They try to start it, but the engine won’t turn. They cry. They admit they love each other (I think, I don’t remember much about this part because I don’t care, but I assume this is what they do). Kirk is losing hope, Brooke tells him to buck up. We see the RV pull into the road far behind them. The car still doesn’t start. The two aren’t aware the RV is approaching. To be fair, Kirk is going on about how jealous he was of Justin and how much he wanted to kill him for dating Brooke or something like that, so I can’t blame anything that pulls up behind them for wanting to give ’em a good slam, because seriously shut up, Kirk. You and your half-assed half-priced beer are the worst. The RV crashes into them, which sends them careening down a hill or something, which doesn’t matter because we get camera static and then we see Brooke driving on an actual road and who knows how all that went down. But Kirk, with his one good hand I guess, grabs the camera and flips it around to reveal that the RV has also skidded off the road behind them and appears to be stuck, and whatever miracle occurred to turn the tables on them has Kirk getting all cocky again like in his “they can’t beat me up a hill!” days, which everyone should take as a bad sign.
For some reason Brooke eventually stops the car, which immediately dies and won’t start again. No worries, because now she has cell service and can use her phone – she calls 9-1-1 and stirs Kirk out of his near-death-due-to-blood-loss stupor long enough to grab the camera so he can zoom in on a distant road sign, so they can communicate their location to the police. Route 48. They’re on Route 48! A location! Yaaaaaaay!
Except no, because just as Kirk swings the camera around to film the unbridled joy on Brooke’s beautiful face, well, the RV’s right there, and with one last blast of its horn, it smashes Kirk, his one good hand, and his beloved ex into oblivion. The end. It’s a nice little last blast of surprise, and I like it.
As I said at the beginning, I really wish the entirety of this movie was as good as the RV scenes. As it is, though, it’s a really erratic watch – scenes of utter annoyance and boredom running up against some fun and thrilling killer car and cannibal backwoods bastards moments. It’s easy to get a bit of movie whiplash from the whole thing, with the unevenness of the tone and the way attention to the stupid camera bogs things down from time to time. Especially in the confessional scenes that bring everything to a crawl right when tension should be at its highest. And to be honest, all of these characters are god-awful. Danielle is some weird sort of teenage Emo social ignoramus, and it’s unclear why the obviously going for ho party girl Amanda brings this Eeyore of a sister along, except to foreshadow doom and gloom. Kirk is literally the worst – just unappealing, pushy, rude, and all kinds of selfish. His admissions of love for Brooke in that final scene make me want to slap him with own severed hand. Shut up, Kirk. Brooke and Justin are just kind of there, really – neither offensive nor interesting, except for Justin’s annoying insistence on keeping the cam running, so I guess they made a nice couple? Who knows and who cares. The only thing that matters in the end is whether or not they cooked up nice and tender for Ring-Girl and her two daddies, so there you go. Crowsnest. Check it out.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Don’t scroll if you don’t want to know.
Home Movie was released in 2008 and was directed by Christopher Denham. It’s the story of the Poe family – parents David and Claire, and twins Jack and Emily – who have moved to the semi-isolation of the woods in upstate New York to live the good life. However, as a compilation of home movies reveals, there is more to their decision to leave the city than meets the eye, and as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, David and Claire try with an alarming lack of effectiveness (and, truth be told, logic) to bring the kids back from the brink.
Reason for filming: Mom buys a video camera to record her notes regarding her patients, but Dad just can’t resist staging happy fun-time films with the fam.
What’s the horror: Creepy kids, psycho killers
Does the dog die? Yes, and also the family cat. And some frogs. In other words, animal lovers beware.
Gore factor: Fairly low in my opinion, and I’m not big on gore myself. For me, as long as I have warning that it’s coming and I can decide on my own whether or not I want to witness it, I am good – and there were a few scenes where there wasn’t warning in this one, but they weren’t too visceral.
Re-watch scale: Regular rotation. As I mention below, I watched this one three times in a row the first day, and can easily see myself keeping this one in heavy rotation. It was an immediate favorite.
This is a slow burn home-grown horror film; in the end, there’s nothing supernatural happening here. Just two increasingly creepy kids paired with two increasingly stupid parents. Mom is a child psychologist and Dad is a pastor, and the irony is thick with these two – although pairing a psychologist’s clinical approach with a faith-based response explains some of this. Mom and Dad cannot agree on what they should do here, because their different belief/faith systems keep colliding. It’s hinted that this has been an issue in their marriage from the start, but up to this point has only been a meet-cute conflict until they’re in the clutch, at which point the cracks start to show and eventually break wide open. Keep that in mind kids – no matter how hot the pastor or the child psychologist is, you need to sit them down and flesh out how the two of you intend to raise kids before actually creating one or more with that person. Just sayin.
The cautionary tale continues, as what starts out as preferred isolation on the part of the twins progresses past sullenness (which we see right from the start – never do we see Emily and Jack even remotely happy) to menace. At each turn, Dad becomes more manic about putting on a happy face for the camera – dressing up in outfits for each holiday, mugging for the camera, and continuing to laugh and cajole no matter how little response he gets from his children or irritation he gets from Claire. Claire, too, appears as clueless as David for quite a while – it’s clear they enjoy each other’s company far more than they do their children, and they seem to assume that if they just mug, smile, and cuddle MORE these kids will come around. They do not. I can’t say I blame Emily and Jack for this, at least not for refusing to join in with what is obviously feigned happiness and enthusiasm – kids see right through that shit, and so does the audience.
Soon Dad is reduced to drinking too much, forcing the kids to pray at Thanksgiving dinner (which they respond to with coordinated bomb-drop attacks on forks, glasses, and eventually full plates of food) and finally seeing the light about the situation WAY before Mom the Child Psychologist does. The true motivation for the move to the country is revealed when David shouts at Claire that their relocation “didn’t work” – the kids were going downhill back in the city, it seems, and have not gone uphill by moving to the actual hills. In fact, they’ve been expelled from school and done some bad things to family pets by Christmas morning, and David has taken to calling them psychotic. He ain’t wrong, but boozing it up and screaming at Claire ain’t gonna fix a damn thing. Nevertheless, he persists.
Claire responds unsurprisingly, but rather unethically, by deciding she is going to “treat” her own children, rather than taking them to a neutral third party to figure out what’s up, which is what she should have done. The reasons for this are revealed in another fight between her and David – they’re both embarrassed and ashamed of the damage their kids have caused in the past, and may have even moved away to escape some of that attention. So, Mom would rather try and treat the children herself rather than admit to an outside party that her kids are fucked up. In fact, it’s likely both Claire and David are aware of how two fucked-up kids would damage their own careers – a fact we can suspect is not lost on the way-too-smart-for-their-own-good-and-anybody-else’s children.
Of course Claire’s “treatment” fails miserably, and although the medication she prescribes (which isn’t consistent with reality as psychologists can’t prescribe medication but whatever) chills the twins out for a bit, it isn’t long before Emily and Jack are up to their old antics again, this time taking the kid from school whom they chewed on in a bathroom before and upping the stakes by putting a trash bag over his head and tying him to a table (Mom and Dad, are you paying attention? Because there’s a thing called foreshadowing that you might want to ponder here).
After that little attempt at murder, Claire and David can hide no longer – cops are called, and the kids are busted for the little psychopaths they are. In another required-for-the-story-but-in-no-way-would-happen-in-real-life glitch, the cops decide to let the twins stay home with their folks one more night (yes, after attempting to suffocate a kid to death these two get one more night at home) before being hauled away for whatever fate awaits them – it isn’t clear what that is, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because OF COURSE the kids turn on their parents and wrap this all up once the coast is clear. Soon enough, Mom and Dad are the targets of the twins’ psychosis, and there’s enough rope and trash bags around to put an end to this saga in an unnerving final scene, replete with a callback to one of Dad’s bigger blunders – reading a bedtime story to his already creepy kids involving a dinosaur, paper bags worn over heads, and the eating of children. Oh, and Dad’s ridiculous let’s-show-my-disturbed-children-how-to-pick-a-lock-and-tie-a-tight-rope-knot-to-show-how-cool-I-am display works out well for neither parent here, either.
While the exact reason for the twins’ pathology is never even remotely explained, we do at least get a hint or two that it’s been going on for some time through the eventual exposition Dad provides during that fight with Mom. For me, that was enough. I don’t require too much of found footage films in this or many other regards, because of the suspension of belief required to enjoy the genre at all – the old why would people keep filming while being chased through the forest thing will rarely, if ever, be resolved satisfactorily, so allowing leeway is a requirement of the genre. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with FF horror that can throw a movie off-track, but for me it’s just about balance – what a movie lacks in logic CAN be made up for with good camera work, acting, or tension, for example; and good camera work can make up for a lack in logic. And while the reasons to continue filming are weak here, the tension this movie builds makes up for it.
And there’s something to be said for that final camera confession in which Claire and David engage – it’s questionable why they even feel the need to do this, as so far there has at least been the pretense that the movies they’ve made were for purely personal or work-related reasons. Why do they need, at this point, to sit down in front of the camera and discuss what’s happened that day, and what’s going to happen in the morning? And Dad’s weepy, pathetic breakdown over never being able to see his kids again rings more than a wee bit hollow – is he overacting for the camera in case it becomes evidence, and he wants to look like a compassionate loving father whose only concern has ever been for the well-being of his kids, rather than someone partially responsible by failing to pay proper attention to the situation? Claire acknowledges the bizarre folly of making this last home movie, as if even she has finally figured out what has at least possibly been part of David’s motivation all along – a cover-up for his own complicity in his kids’ crimes.
I personally found this to be one seriously dark, sinister film, and although it was clear from the beginning that the parents were going to end up being victimized by these kids – there was never ANY indication that these two had an ability to properly analyze the situation and act appropriately – the HOW that was going to happen kept me just enough in the dark to stay on the edge of my seat. And when the shit went down, damn, those kids were scary enough to make me feel for David and Claire who, while clueless, flawed, and even downright stupid, still didn’t deserve what they got in the end. And of course, it happened right when they’d finally come to see the light about their demon spawn, and consequences were about to take place. The end.
The actors who played the twins – I believe they are twins in real life – were so believably creepy that I kind of fear for their sanity and hope this movie didn’t scar them for life. I’m fairly sure it didn’t, since I was prompted to look them up on Google to see if they showed up in any news articles about psychotic murder sprees and came up blank in that regard – just IMDB pages and the like, with not a lot of credits for either one. That’s a shame, because they both knocked evil-kid psycho-babies out of the park here, and deserve more work. They were downright menacing from start to finish, with a particular blank stare and cold plotting precision in their affects that made their actions all the more chilling. They seemed, in other words, the epitome of dead inside, and that just ain’t something anyone expects to see in kids this young, actors or no.
It’s the kids’ completely blank affects contrasted by Mom and Dad’s downright childishness in the earliest film clips that sustain the movie’s slow burn. The more sullen and withdrawn Emily and Jack become, the more manic the parents behave, giggling like schoolchildren with forced oh aren’t they just the cutest little devils responses to the children’s escalating behaviors. Jack throws rocks at Dad’s head? Force him to rake leaves as punishment, then undo any level of authority that may have afforded you by turning it into an isn’t this funny let’s mug for the camera while you do it game that immediately provides Jack with the upper hand when he finds and caresses a huge dead bug and completely creeps you out so that you shut down the camera. Emily glares at you with pure hatred while hiding behind her homemade fence plastered with a “no parents allowed” sign and you demand, with ever-increasing ineffectiveness, that she come out from behind it? Playfully place her in a wheelbarrow and giggle while she refuses to acknowledge anything you say, keeps her eyes closed, and totally poses as a corpse complete with arms crossed over her chest while you behave as if this is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen – all while acknowledging that your child DOES THIS REGULARLY and you’ve reinforced it every single time. It’s clear neither Claire nor David has the ability to generate and maintain any sort of authority, and while this may not be the whole reason for the kids’ psychosis, it surely doesn’t help.
It’s no wonder that by the end of the movie, the kids have completely turned the tables on them. Pun intended, as the final act involves the twins commanding the videocamera, using all the pills Mom’s been pumping into them to drug her and Dad into a stupor, and using the lock-picking and knot-tying techniques Dad taught them to restrain them on the kitchen table with garbage bags over their heads. Meanwhile, Emily and Jack sit on either side with paper bags over their heads and knives in hand just like the dragon in Dad’s poor choice of a nighttime fairy tale. We don’t see them eat them like the dragon does in David’s titular tale since the camera cuts out before they do, but the movie has hinted enough that that’s likely to happen – when the twins are caught first biting each other, then later chomping down on some poor kid they trap in a school bathroom – to heavily imply Mom and Pop are about to get gnawed.
There are enough callbacks like this final visual reference to a story David read for them near the beginning of the film to make up for some the movie’s illogical moments, in my opinion – I don’t like it when a movie explains too much and leaves nothing to the imagination, and in thinking about and reviewing the film I am satisfied with the small attempts made to tie the film together in its entirety. Is it perfect? No, but few horror films are anyway, and perfection is boring. I think this one wraps up neatly enough, and ends on a sinister note that stayed with me long after viewing. In fact, I re-watched it right away and then a third time the same night, because this one had a lot of what I love about the genre: the feeling I am really watching found footage of some awful something, entertaining characters, decent acting, a building up of suspense that actually goes somewhere, a satisfying ending, and a desire to re-watch the film. This one had all of that in spades, and I highly recommend it.