Found Footage Fave: The Houses October Built (SPOILERS!)

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Reason for filming: A group of life-long friends rent an RV and go on a road trip the week of Halloween, to try and discover the most extreme haunt experiences possible.

What’s the horror: haunts gone wild

Does the dog die? No animal cruelty

Gore factor: None

Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. This is another one I can watch at any time.

The Houses October Built is an interesting found footage film with a lot going on all at once. It’s part documentary (there are real interviews with real haunt workers), part horror story (just how much of what’s happening to these characters is a part of the ‘extreme’ haunt they’re trying to track down, and how much of it is the work of true psychopaths who are out to cause them harm?), and part social commentary (the protagonists make a lot of assumptions about the ‘backwoods’ haunt workers they encounter in the small towns they pass through, and it’s at least hinted at that their privileged unawareness is part of what causes their trip to go awry; there’s also the issue of how the four male characters’ slightly toxic masculinity at times puts the one female friend in danger)This is not a universally-loved found footage film by any means, but in my opinion everything melds together in a pretty satisfactory way, even though at times it can feel scattered or even slightly out of control. It’s an interesting mix that creates a pretty unique found-footage experience.

A lot of the enjoyment of this movie hinges on how you feel about the five characters you follow through the film. It’s a road trip story, with five Texans (shout-out to Texas!) who rent an RV and film themselves going on a week-long road trip across both Texas and Louisiana, looking for off-the-beaten-path, more-scary-than-usual haunted attractions. A lot of time is spent with these characters in the RV cutting up and discussing what they want to get out of the trip, and if you don’t find them likeable or their chemistry engaging I can’t imagine you would enjoy watching this one. Personally I find them all likeable (although some are more likeable than others, but that’s necessary to move the plot along when things start getting dicey – someone has to be the asshole that keeps pushing the more cautious characters into sketchy situations) and I find their chemistry to be very natural and charming (two of the characters are real-life brothers, and several of the cast members really are friends). We spend a lot of time with these people in their journey across Texas in their rented RV, so being able to tolerate them is pretty essential to enjoying the film.

Let’s meet the team! Bobby, Jeff, Brandy, Mikey, and Zach

The film starts off with some actual news reports of haunted house tragedies that have occurred in recent years – the haunt worker who accidentally hung herself for real while working but who was already dead before it was discovered, the haunt worker who was actually an escaped murderer. And who knows how much interview footage they actually recorded during the making of this thing, but they definitely picked the more chilling segments to intersperse throughout the movie, such as the dude who described his experience as one of “getting out of my own fucked-up headspace and taking out all that aggression on someone else for a few hours.” Yikes.

Interview with a clown

Each aspect of the film – the haunts themselves, the interviews, the characters’ reactions to their surroundings – escalates over the course of the movie, and if nothing else, this is a movie that knows how to build tension. The first few haunts are impressive, but more fun than scary, yet each successive attraction grows darker and more disturbing. There’s a shift from the concept of a haunted house patrons want to enjoy to a terror experience they have to endure, and the boundaries of what is acceptable to portray and impose on people are subtly, but constantly, being pushed. Throughout this descent, there are also many warnings about the various stages of danger these people might be in, with the one female character, Brandy, being the most vulnerable. At one point, a character in a haunt starts whispering her name and telling her, “Brandy…you’re donna die.” At another point, some shady male characters who appear to be working with an extreme haunt (it’s unclear to what extent they’re involved) traps her in a bathroom and threatens her. There’s another incident where someone sneaks into the RV and films the gang while they are sleeping, and whoever is behind the camera takes a particular interest in Brandy, even reaching out and pretending to caress her sleeping cheek.

Clown confrontation

At each escalating stage, it’s unfortunate that Brandy’s friends fail to recognize not only that Brandy might be an actual target but also her growing discomfort with what’s going on. After the two men trap her in a bathroom, we hear Bobby saying to the others, “We can never leave Brandy alone again,” which is NOT a realistic solution to the problem. When the video that was taken in the RV ends up online in a haunt chat room, the dude’s response is “don’t tell Brandy, she’ll freak out and want to leave.” Perhaps the best example of the men’s inability to recognize that they are in over their heads and are actually not able to protect her, we hear Zach yelling to some haunt workers “Don’t you touch her!” while he’s got a bag over his head and his hands tied behind his back. In response to this command, the haunt worker simply kicks him to the ground, and Brandy is left to deal with the situation alone.

None of the men come across as assholes, and they genuinely care about each other as friends, including Brandy – they are just clueless about the fact that they are getting themselves into a situation they can’t control. In fact, they simply seem unable to conceive of the idea that there are situations they can’t handle, even as the evidence that indicates the opposite stacks higher and higher. There are points throughout the journey where most of them express doubt about whether or not they should continue, with the exception of Zach, who, as the organizer of the whole trip, is the most insistent that they all see it through to the end. It’s one thing to seek out extreme haunts when we know that’s what we’re going for, but it’s another thing to be surrounded by a bunch of assholes out in the woods, complains Mike at one point. It’s all part of it, Zach reassures him. We just have to go with it. But by the time the final “extreme” haunt begins. it’s clear even Zach is nervous and feigning more confidence than he actually feels.

The source of this mysterious extreme haunt experience the group hears about and eventually finds – or rather, the haunt experience finds them – is sketchy from the beginning, and the film does a good job of making the origins of this climactic event unclear. There are hints from the first haunt stop that the group has made some enemies – at one point, Mikey finds a ladder and sneaks up onto the roof of the building, shouting an Almost Famous-like “I’m a Halloween God!” into a megaphone and inspiring a chorus of raucous cheers and applause from the hundreds of haunt-goers gathered below. It’s a silly, spontaneous, frat-boy-ish move that has no ill intent, but that seriously pisses off the owners of the haunt. In fact, haunt characters/workers from that first haunt (as well as each successive one) will make appearances at later attractions, sometimes even though they have traveled hundreds of miles since then; the camera will quickly pan past a familiar clown or creepy doll-girl or deranged rabbit that we know we’ve already seen at some past stop, but the images flash past so quickly that we can’t be sure. So – are they being followed from the beginning. and if so, why? Is it merely because they’ve managed to earn the ire of some haunt owners, all of whom communicate with each other using private message boards online? Or do they simply travel around from haunt to haunt themselves? Is it possible they’re all a part of this mysterious “Blue Skeleton” group the gang keeps hearing about and pursuing, the roving haunt attraction that’s so underground and extreme, its location changes from Halloween to Halloween, and can only be found through private channels?

This is NOT a happy clown

There are other moments where the group’s journey into the seedy underbelly of haunt attractions highlights their own naivete about what they’re playing with. At one stop, the gang stops the RV for some beers before heading out to the evening’s attraction, and they encounter a haunt worker hanging out in the same area. They strike up an uneasy conversation, as the worker doesn’t appear to be all that thrilled to find them hanging out in what he clearly thinks is his camping spot, and things take a turn for the worse when Bobby starts talking about his fasciation with the haunts they’ve seen so far. He mentions how there are all these little kids working in the haunts, because out in the “backwoods” there are no rules and no one’s going to call CPS. “What you mean backwoods?” the haunt worker aggressively barks back, clearly unhappy with the label

As the haunted houses get darker and more death-oriented than your standard ghosts and ghouls (we go from aliens and evil clowns to rapists and mad scientists ripping people open on operating tables), Zach gets closer to locating the notorious Blue Skeleton, and eventually makes the connection he needs. This is when shit really gets weird. They’re given a location of some dive bar where they’re supposed to meet with a “Mr. Giggles” who will tell them how to make contact with the extreme haunt group, and this bar scene is worth the wait. The entire bar seems to exist for the sole purpose of creating a creepy atmosphere for thrill-seekers searching for extreme haunts; even on a weeknight every patron in the bar is dressed up as ghouls and behaving as if they always dress that way. A couple in rotted out clothes drags themselves slowly across the dance floor, some huge dude in a prison outfit and a face smeared with blood sucks on a brew, and two zombies sit at the bar counter smoking like it’s any other Tuesday night in the world. Everyone is in character from the moment the group walks through the front door until the moment they leave, and it’s bizarre. When the guys ask one of the zombies about Mr. Giggles, the huge prisoner-ghoul pulls up “Halloween Spooks” on the jukebox, and a demented clown – who eagle-eyed audience members may recognize as having been seen in previous haunts already – comes shuffling out onto the dance floor, bizarrely gyrating and wiggling towards their table. The look on Brandy’s face here says it all:

The guys are called outside to meet with the aforementioned Giggles, and Brandy makes the terrible decision to go to the bathroom. This is when the two zombie dudes decide to corner her in there, and she manages to push her way past them in time for Bobby and Mikey to question them. Brandy is shaken, and the guys decide they have to be more careful about leaving her alone, but sadly, they don’t decide that things have gotten out of hand and that perhaps they should quit their haunt journey while they’re ahead.

It may be too late for that, anyway; because the haunt now seems to be following them. Aside from being filmed one night while they sleep, they also find themselves surrounded by a whole host of costumed creepers a few nights later. A weird cow heart shows up in their RV fridge one morning, causing Mikey to barf into the sink clad in nothing but his hot pink boxer briefs – which is quite an image. On Halloween morning, a huge pumpkin is thrown against the side of the vehicle, with an invitation to New Orleans inside. When they throw open the blinds, they find five blue skeleton masks stuck under the windshield wipers. Mikey and Brandy are the most disturbed by this, but no one but Zach seems the least bit interested in pursuing the invitation. In spite of their obvious discomfort, all the pressure to be the one to say no way falls to Brandy, and she can’t bring herself to do it under the circumstances. She’s basically bullied into participating, and without her leading the opposition, no one else steps up to suggest they bow out. So on to New Orleans they go, blue masks in hand.

This is actually from the sequel but whatever

Halloween night in New Orleans is as insane as you might imagine, and in the chaos the man-child Jeff is the first one to pick a guy in a Blue Skeleton mask out of the crowd. Unfortunately, he thinks it’s Bobby, who is wearing the exact same blue hoodie as this guy, and he follows the dude into an alley like an idiot (sorry Jeff, but situational awareness is a skill you need to develop). Suddenly he sees someone else in the alley, and it’s the weird porcelain doll-girl from the very first haunt, along with a deranged rabbit we’ve already spied miles ago before shit got too real. Jeff turns around, and a whole host of deranged clowns and haunt workers from previous haunts are closing in on him. He gets the shit beat out of him, then he’s tied up and dragged off. And that’s the last we see of Jeff.

Oh, Jeff. These people are not your friends.

Back to the remaining four. Zach has called Jeff’s cell phone, which now has a message on it saying they need to meet someone at a random address out in the middle of nowhere if they want to see their friend again. Cut to the RV trumbling along in the darkness. Inside, the mood is grim. No one’s speaking, and everyone is some combination of pissed and terribly concerned. Mikey asks where in the hell they’re going, and Bobby stops the RV to yell at him about how he doesn’t know what to do, either. Any thought of this whole Blue Skeleton/extreme haunt thing being a game are gone now, and everyone’s starting to lose it a little. A car approaches them in the distance. It stops. For a moment nothing happens, but then Zach gets a text. Get out of the car now, it says, or your friend will die. Mikey is confused. This isn’t real, right? he asks Zach. I mean, let’s just go out there and get this over with, we know what this is. It’s the extreme experience they’ve been seeking, we the audience think, but even we are not sure. Is this a haunt, or are they all in danger? There’s no way to know.

And there’s not much time to think, because as soon as Mikey says he’s not scared because its not real anyway, Zach gets another text. You will be scared, it says. So…they can hear inside the RV now? I don’t have much nice to say about Zach about this point, but at least he takes it upon himself to be the one to get out of the RV and approach the waiting car, since this was all his idea in the first place. Shortly after he leaves, however, the RV is shaken and glass is broken; the remaining three fall to the ground and within seconds, several big skeleton-masked thugs break in and drag them all away. Oh dear.

Oh shit – Can they hear us?

There’s a bus ride with blaring music and everyone but Jeff – who really is never seen again – seated inside with black bags over their heads. Eventually the bus stops, and the three guys are taken outside, leaving Brandy in the bus alone with two skeleton-dudes. She’s weeping openly now, and begging not to be left alone. The guys shout and scream for her to come with them, but surprise surprise that no one cares. I’ve done my fair share of reading about the extreme haunt experiences, and when they are done properly, participants are give a safe word they can say at any time and their experience is immediately ended. But there are no safe words here, and it’s clear that whatever’s going to happen from here on out is definitely not going to be well-organized, safe, or possibly even legal. Thanks Zach.

To maintain the found footage conceit, Blue Skeleton is also filming the experience, and they give each person a camera to film everything that’s going on. That takes a big suspension of belief to accept, but I’m willing to allow it. We first follow Brandy into a creepy as hell dilapidated house where lights flash on and off, music blares out for a few seconds at a time before cutting off again, and doors slam at random. Zach appears to be locked in a darkened room with nothing but a blue light overhead, while Mikey and Bobby wander around in the dark looking for a way out. They are all IMMEDIATELY over it and asking if they can quit. No one answers. Eventually, they all end up getting the crap kicked out of them as their cameras cut out. It…doesn’t look good.

Cut to Brandy, unconscious and bloodied, being stuffed into the trunk of a car. She’s taken out to the middle of nowhere, where a deep hole has been dug into the ground. Simultaneously, the other three wake to find themselves locked into coffins. Cut back to Brandi, who’s laying in a wooden box. As the lid is closed on it, we see that there’s a camera inside. She comes to, but only after the lid has been closed, and we watch as she screams for help while hearing dirt being piled on top of the lid. They’re burying her alive. Likewise, we cut to the guys in their coffins, all banging and scratching, trying to get out. Then we cut to a shot of one of the Blue Skeleton guys, still wearing his mask. He looks directly into the camera, and it cuts to black. The end.

Poor Brandy really needs new friends

Some people are unhappy with this ending, calling it anticlimactic, but I think it’s perfect. To me it indicates they’re all going to be killed, and that’s the ending I still go with, even though a sequel was filmed that blows that theory all to hell (and as a sequel, it’s…not good). In my opinion everything points to this being the end of the road for the group, and the threats have seemed pretty real. So I choose to believe that’s how the story ends. It’s open to interpretation, however, which I think is what some don’t like about it. It also feels abrupt after so much skilled tension-building, but that doesn’t bother me either. Your mileage may vary, but overall I’d highly recommend this movie for something unusual that makes the most of the found-footage format in a unique way.

Found Footage Fave: Rec (SPOILERS!)

Reason for filming: A local TV show called “While You’re Asleep” is spending the night in a fire station to show what life is like for the firefighters who work there.

What’s the horror: a deadly zombie virus

Does the dog die? No animal cruelty

Gore factor: Pretty high. There’s a lot of blood and gore in this one.

Re-watch scale: HEAVY rotation. Even though I just watched this one, it was an instant fave. One of the best found footage films out there, in my humble opinion.

Zombies are usually not my thing. And since the pandemic began, neither are movies about deadly viruses that force people into quarantine. But having watched just about every found footage film I could find, I finally decided to give this one a go, since I’d heard so many great things about it. Well, not exactly – I first watched the American version, which was filmed a few years after this one, called Quarantine.

Quarantine was good, but mostly it just made me want to watch the original. And I have to say, the original is better, even for those of you who hate having to read subtitles (personally I always have the subtitles on even with English films, so I’m fine with it). While Quarantine sticks pretty close to the original with its story, it lacks some of Rec’s urgency and chaos and moves at a slightly slower pace. And most importantly, the main character, Angela – the female reporter – in Rec is just far more likeable than Quarantine’s. She comes across as much more down to earth and professional than the Quarantine version, who comes across as much too flirty and, at times, is both a sexual harasser and a victim of sexual harassment, both of which seem to be fine with everyone involved. Quarantine actually has Angela stroll into the firefighter’s showers and film dudes naked – no, seriously, she does – while they strut around bragging about the size of their dicks. This sort of nonsense continues throughout the first 10 or so minutes of the film, before the real action begins, and it’s incredibly off-putting. I found it hard to forgive any of them for their sleazinesss even when they were being face-ripped and slaughtered one by one. None of them come off well in the opening moments, and it does affect how much we care about what happens to them down the line.

Did you know firemen have dicks? Cuz I’ve seen them!

But enough about Quarantine. Rec has none of this skeeziness. The Angela in this film is way more focused on trying to get a good story than just hang with the boys and be the Cool Girl. She films the firemen at dinner, playing basketball, even their sleeping quarters when things get dull (but at no point does she follow them into any showers) and basically hopes against hope that a call will come in so they can film the men in action. Oh Angela. You are going to regret the granting of that wish. Which is a shame, because have I mentioned she’s extremely likeable? Because she is.

This is the only Angela who matters

It only takes about eight minutes from the start of the movie for a call to come in, and off they go. Angela and Pablo, the cameraman, hop a ride on a fire truck with Manu and Alex, the two men who’ve been tasked with escorting the camera crew around on this night.

This is Manu. And there’s a reason there are no pictures of Alex to be found.

As the truck arrives at the destination – an apartment building where a report has been called in about an elderly woman trapped in her flat – they see a police car that is already on the scene. “Maybe this is more serious than we thought?” Angela asks while trying not to sound too hopeful. They enter the building, where several of the tenants are milling around in the foyer area. It’s dark and cramped and very echo-y, so the various conversations they’re having among themselves make it sound like there’s a lot more people down there than there are in reality. The crew heads up the stairs where a policeman is waiting in front of an apartment door. Much ado is made of the fact that there’s a camera crew with them, but Angela sticks to her guns, insisting they have permission to film, and tells Pablo to keep the camera running as they enter the apartment. He does.

Conchita is not having a good day.

It’s clear right away that the tenant, Conchita, is in a state. Pablo briefly turns on his camera’s light to reveal that she is also covered in blood. Yikes. As one of the cops approaches her and tries to calm her down so they can get her some help, Conchita goes off. She tackles the cop and basically rips half his face off with her mouth. It’s shocking, and pretty gross. We see Angela run in the opposite direction from the melee (smart move, Angela) while Pablo, ever the professional, turns his light back on and gets right in there to film the good stuff. It’s utter chaos as everyone’s screaming and the men are trying to get Conchita off the cop and drag him to safety. Conchita’s forgotten for the moment (although Alex was instructed to stay with her, ahem) as the team rushes back down the stairs with the bitten cop bleeding profusely. And we’re off, folks.

The men try to rush the cop out of the building, but…there’s a problem. A swarm of policemen are now crowded around the front – we can see the garish flashing of their blue and red lights reflected off the concrete walls – and they refuse to let the men out. They are refusing to let anyone out, it seems, and no one inside knows why. Soon enough they’re given instructions by someone with a bullhorn. “The health authorities have decided to close off the building. Please stay calm and we will get you out as soon as possible.” Unsurprisingly, this announcement generates the opposite of what you would call calm.

Angela is NOT having it

Much chaos ensues. The firemen are shouting about needing to get the injured man to a hospital. The one remaining cop is trying to get everyone to follow the instructions of whoever’s outside calling the shots. He’s also trying to get Angela and Pablo to stop filming, but they’re having none of that. And the tenants want to know why they can’t go back to their rooms, at least, but the cop says everyone has to stay downstairs. There are sirens blaring, and lights flashing, and people bitching and shouting, and then – BLAM! Poor Alex slams onto the floor in the background, and it appears he’s been thrown over the first floor railing. It’s another huge shock, and it kicks things up another notch for everyone involved – and thanks to the found-footage POV, the audience is a part of that sad bunch. We’re trapped, and it’s clear there’s something awful going on.

Oh look! I found a picture of Alex. A few hours after this, his poor head will be cracked wide open. So long, Alex. We barely knew ya.

Back up the stairs we go, to find out what the hell Conchita’s been smoking that gave her the strength to chuck a firefighter down a stairwell. She’s not playing around, though, and immediately charges at the team when she sees them, so down Conchita goes in a blaze of bullets. She’s down folks, but I wouldn’t count her out just yet. This zombie thing’s got legs. And teeth.

Things are getting serious now, and the crew is trying to find another way out of the building. But the cops outside are one step ahead of them, and every exit they find is in the process of being blocked and covered with a huge-ass tarp, so they can’t even see out. One woman is holding a daughter, who has a fever and has been waiting for her father to bring them antibiotics, but he can’t enter the building to give them to her. Two men are in the process of bleeding to death. One old lady’s been shot. And everyone’s stuck in the foyer of what’s become a prison. It’s madness. Then there’s another announcement from the bullhorn: A “BNC protocol situation” has been declared, and they’re going to send in a health inspector to assess the situation. BNC, apparently, stands for biological/nuclear/chemical threat situation. Yikes.

But wait, there’s more! Soon everyone’s cell phones stop working. So do their televisions and radios. And the building supervisor, who also happens to be a medical intern, says the two wounded men won’t last much longer. And the little girl’s fever is getting worse. There’s more rushing about trying to find a way to escape, but every exit’s been blocked off. There’s a lull in the action here, as Angela films an update by interviewing some of the tenants about what they’ve seen and what they think is going on, and the intern tries to keep the injured men from dying. An elderly couple bickers with each other about what they think is really going on. A Chinese woman struggles with her Spanish to describe the fireman falling from upstairs. The little girl’s mother threatens to sue when this is all over. Angela interviews her daughter, who tells her she’s sick with tonsillitis, and she misses her dog Max, who’s at the vet. An older dandy who is mostly concerned about his face being shiny and that the camera films him on his good side blames the Chinese for the whole thing, as does Lawsuit Mom a little later on. Ah, racism. It’s not just for Americans.

A health inspector enters, covered by a bright yellow Hazmat suit complete with full head mask. Now that’s reassuring. Off he goes to get some blood samples or something from the wounded men. Angela and Pablo find a way to peek into the area where the injured are being held and film the proceedings. There are handcuffs, and needles, and lots of whispering. And then both of the dying men rise up off the tables and attack. The poor intern gets bitten by Alex. Somehow the health inspector manages to escape, as do Manu and the cop. They lock the intern up inside the room with the two zombies. It’s too late for him. He’s been bitten.

There’s no getting around it now for the health inspector; it’s time to spill the beans. It turns out that a day before a dog was taken to a vet. He was sick, and fell into a coma. All of a sudden the dog roared back to life and started attacking everything in sight. They had to put it down. A microchip led the health department to this very building. “Was the dog named Max?” Angela asks. Yep.

Oohhhhh I see – so the “let’s blame the Chinese” lady turns out to be the one who brought the virus into the building? Interesting.

Just as everyone starts to surround Mom and her daughter and demand – I don’t know what – answers? Retribution? – the daughter barfs blood into Mom’s face and runs screaming up the stairs, with her eyes all bugged out and her teeth grown sharp. The mother is trying to chase her daughter up the stairs, understandably, and so to stop this the cop handcuffs her to the stairwell. Then they go up to find the little girl on their own.

Not worth saving. Nope.

They find her, all right. And in trying to save her the last remaining cop gets bit, and tells the rest of the team to leave him there. They do. It’s a smart move, even if it is a futile one, because this thing is spreading fast and there’s nowhere to go. They’re trapped, and it’s clear that they’ll soon be outnumbered.

And damn, ya’ll, Conchita’s still not down for the night! Poor Manu has to sucker-punch Nana AGAIN before heading back down the stairs, where he passes the Chinese couple and the vanity man who are on their way up. “They’re getting away!” he shouts as they pass, and as Manu makes it down to the foyer we see the door where they’d locked away the intern and his newbie zombies opening. They need to run away, but whoever handcuffed Mom to the stairs has lost the key, and they can’t free her in time. As Angela, Pablo, the health inspector, and Manu run up the stairs, we see the zombie trio come rushing out of the back room and immediately making a meal of her. “I’m sorry,” Manu tells her as he rushes away, which I’m sure made her feel loads better.

Conchita AGAIN?!

They encounter vanity man in the hallway and lock themselves into an open apartment. The health inspector locks himself into a bathroom, telling them that he’s been bitten and to stay away. Unfortunately, the door doesn’t hold, and the health inspector ends up ripping off half of vanity man’s face before Manu, Angela, and Pablo run away. So long, vanity man. Here’s hoping the health inspector at least left your good side intact.

Back out in the hallway now, the quartet realizes they’re running out of options. They can hear the sounds of raging lunatics all around them, and they’re unsure where to go. Angela says they need to get into the storage room, but they need the intern’s keys since he was in charge of the building. But no one can knows where he lives, and they can’t even remember his name. Finally Angela recalls it – Guillem – and they make a mad dash for the mailboxes in the building’s foyer to find his apartment number. They quickly find it, but oops – Mama’s woken up from her nap, and it does NOT look like she accepted Manu’s apology.

Zombie Karen wants to speak with the manager

Fortunately she’s still handcuffed to the stairwell, so they manage to skate past her while she rages and reaches for them wildly. More zombie encounters ensue – the Chinese dad, then a random woman I don’t even recognize. There’s a sad little scene where Manu asks Pablo to help him take down random woman, and he puts the camera down to do so, and all the audience sees is her sad little feet in house shoes twitching away as they kill her. It’s a weird, tragic little visual. They run into a darkened room and struggle to find the light. As soon as they do, the light goes on and oops – Chinese mom is right there, zombied out and raging. Watching this scene makes me wonder how much fun it must have been to play one of these creatures – just going shit-wild and making as much ruckus as possible must have been a blast. Then Manu grabs a mallet and puts an end to that shit, and off they all go to open up the intern’s apartment and find his keys.

It’s important to note what’s going on here: we started out this disaster on the first floor of the building, where most of the tenants were gathered together to wait out the situation. The cop was trying to keep everyone in one place to control the chaos, but unfortunately, he failed. Conchita was still upstairs causing a ruckus, and then the little girl got loose and ran up there as well, and as the two injured men and the just-bitten intern busted out the back door it became a free-for-all, with everyone running off in all directions, and for the most part getting themselves infected. And now we have the last remaining three getting pushed higher and higher up the stairs towards the top of the building. And what can they do then? The chances that the cops outside have left any roof access unblocked is slim to none. They’re running out of time AND space to survive. And with every passing second there are more zombies coming to life and running amok. In short, it’s not looking so good for these three.

They make it to the intern’s apartment and Manu uses his death mallet to bash the door open. He WAITS OUTSIDE – Manu nooooooo!! – while Angela and Pablo make a desperate dash through the rooms to locate the keys. The TV is still on, with the intern’s dinner sitting on a tray in front of it, a small reminder of how quickly these people’s lives have gone from normal to nightmare. Angela and Pablo are beside themselves by now, barely holding it together as they trash the apartment looking for keys. They finally find a huge keychain full of them and grab them all, then dash out of the apartment only to find Manu gone. Noooooo not Manu! Angela clearly agrees with me as she starts crying and calling out his name. Unfortunately he answers her:

Manu noooooooooo!!!!!

I have to pour one out for Manu here. He never stopped trying to help people reach some sort of safety. I know he’s just a character in a movie, but believe me when you’re watching this thing it feels like you’ve been involved in this situation for years at this point, and losing Manu is a real heartbreaker. When you lose Manu, you know you’re out of luck entirely. It truly feels now like only a matter of time until our dear TV crew is done for, too. Plus, we know how found footage films end, and no one ever survives this shit. But just like Angela and Pablo, still we hope, although I’m not sure a world without Manu is one worth living in. But I guess we gotta try.

They end up reaching to the top of the building – the penthouse – which is a suite no one has occupied for many years. We heard this earlier in the evening when one of the cops was asking who all lived in the building. Anyway, here we are at the end of the road. It’s the top apartment, and there’s nowhere left to go. They make it inside just in time, as the rush of zombies are right on their heels. They slam they door and find themselves in total darkness. We hear the screaming zombie horde and Angela’s manic wailing as Pablo tries to turn on his camera light. When he does, they find themselves surrounded by newspaper clippings and papers and files. A quick camera zoom around the room makes it clear that some sort of – dun dun DUNNN! – lab experiments have gone on up here.

There are needles and an old tape recorder up there, too, and Angela plays it back to reveal that there was some sort of Vatican project going on up here, wherein they took a possessed girl and tried to isolate an enzyme that made her possessed, or something? Then the enzyme mutated and became contagious, I think? That’s all I can gather from it. But no matter, because while they are listening to this an attic door up above them slams open, and Pablo sticks his camera up there to see if there’s any way to escape through the attic. He finds some wicked creature up there instead, that smashes his camera light and breaks it. He resorts to using his night vision to see what’s going on in the room, which unfortunately means Angela is completely in the dark.

That’s probably for the best, because what Pablo sees through his camera is pretty terrifying. I’ll spare you a shot of it here, but I did find this picture of the actress playing Angela posing with the person who played the role of the possessed girl, who it turns out has been locked up in this penthouse for years.

Yikes

Imagine seeing that through a night vision camera, lumbering about and smashing things around, trying to find out who’s in her room, and you get the idea. It’s awful. Soon enough the creature finds Pablo and smashes him to death with a hammer. Now we’re down to just Angela, the only one left in the building alive. We see her in the dark, crawling towards the camera that Pablo has dropped, and in the background we can hear all the screaming and growling in the building full of zombies. Then she screams as she is pulled backwards into the darkness, presumably by the possessed creature. The end.

Rec is considered to not only be one of the best found footage films around, but one of the best zombie movies out there as well. It was so successful that it spawned three sequels, all of which I have watched. None of them live up to the original but overall they’re not bad. I may or may not recap them at some point. Alls I can say at the end of this is that if you ever watch just one found footage film, make it this one. I have my other faves for sure, but this one tops them all. It’s that rare beast that would not have been better served without the found footage conceit; it’s actually BETTER because of it, which is really unusual. For the most part a film is made in this style because of budget constraints, but Rec without the found footage angle wouldn’t be nearly as fun of a ride.

Found Footage Fave: Hell House, LLC (SPOILERS!!)

Reason for filming: Mockumentary – several years prior, a haunted house attraction experienced disaster on opening night, and several tourgoers as well as all the employees died. The film serves as a documentary that tries to uncover the truth of what happened.

What’s the horror: ghosts, demons, supernatural

Does the dog die? No animal cruelty

Gore factor: very little.

Re-watch scale: HEAVY rotation. This is one of my favorite horror movies, found footage or not.

Spoilers below – don’t scroll if you don’t want to know

Hell House LLC (usually just called “Hell House” – they may have had to add the “LLC” since another movie is out there with the Hell House title) is that rare treasure of a found footage film that even people who dislike the genre appreciate. It hits all the right notes, is incredibly creepy, has a consistent feel and pace throughout, and has good actors in all the main roles. The documentary format lends an air of realism to the story, and is very well-done – somehow they had the budget for a scene of the aftermath of the tragedy, complete with ambulances and stretchers and a shit-ton of fire trucks, which is impressive. There’s also another fantastic set piece in the “Abaddon Hotel” – which is a real Halloween haunted house attraction under another name. It’s old, it’s creaky, it’s creepy, and once it’s all dandied up for opening night it’s hard at times to tell what’s real and what’s part of the show.

The hotel the night of the disaster

We start the story with Diane, a reporter who is putting together the documentary to try and get to the bottom of what happened that caused so many deaths in this Halloween haunted house. There’s been no real news since the incident, and no one with any authority wants to cough up any info.

Diane, the reporter

Diane is contacted by Sarah, the one surviving crew member of the company that ran the attraction, who wants Diane to help her tell her side of the story. Sarah shows up with a bag full of tapes – it appears the crew was filming everything that happened in the lead-up to opening night, with the intention of using the scenes for promotion or perhaps a documentary of their own. Sarah gives Diane the tapes, and from that point forward we cut between Diane’s interview with Sarah and footage from the tapes she provided.

Sarah says she’s “in a good place now.” She’s not.

We also get a few interviews with tour-goers who were there that night, a local historian, and a photographer who snuck in and took some photos after the incident. All of these actors play it straight, and take the documentary format seriously. It’s very convincing.

The historian
A tour-goer who survived
The photographer
Photographer’s shot of the basement complete with creepy handprints

The Hell House footage begins as the crew drives to a new location the company’s founder, Alex, has scouted out for the coming Halloween season. Sarah, Diane’s interview subject, is Alex’s girlfriend, and even though the sole female character is relegated to girlfriend status, Sarah does a good job giving her character a personality of her own. It’s unclear what she does to help the team prepare the house, but she’s always around doing something, and the crew has good chemistry with her that makes her feel like part of the team. There’s also a lighting crew made up Tony and Paul – they’re the two who also man the cameras, with Paul taking the lead in that department. A tall stocky redhead named Mac rounds out the team; where Alex and Mac are overly serious and focused, Tony and Paul are laid back and full of wisecracks (“What are you doing?” Alex asks Paul one day as he wanders around filming. “It’s my day off,” Paul responds. “What? There’s no days off, get back to work!”).

Paul, Mac, Alex, Tony, and Sarah

Paul, as the main cameraman, is the head jokester; he has a good sense of humor that unfortunately often gets sexual harassment-y with one of the female actors they hire to work the haunt. She doesn’t seem to mind, but still, it grates. Tony is less defined; he seems to be a good-natured guy who wants the company to succeed, but that’s about all there is to him. Mac is pretty much a dick; it’s clear he can’t stand Paul, and is constantly blaming him for everything that goes wrong in that way someone often does in found-footage films that keeps them in denial about what’s really happening. This prevents Mac from realizing the truth about this mysterious hotel they’ve – rented? bought? it’s never clear – until it’s too late.

Alex and Mac with their actors: Joey the gas station clown, Melissa the harassment victim of Paul’s humor, and the woman who works the door and is never given a name

This is emphasized in a scene that’s really refreshing for a found footage film; if you’ve ever wondered why people get so much evidence on camera of strange happenings that they never just stop and show to the people who don’t believe them, well, here’s your reward. Because Paul actually does just that. After catching one of the incredibly creepy clown mannequins they’ve installed moving around on its own, Paul shows the footage to everyone. And of course, Alex and Mac chalk it up to Tony and Paul messing with them, no matter how much Paul persists. They do the same thing when Paul shows them footage of an extra mannequin just appearing and disappearing in a strobe light room, which is an awesome scene, by the way. With each flick of the light, we repeatedly see an extra body appear and then disappear in the next flash. But Mac and Alex have money to make, and they aren’t going to be stopped by Paul’s shenanigans.

The extra mannequin that appears between strobes

Let’s talk about those clowns, because they are wicked. There’s one that’s practically another character in the cast, and all it does is stand around and move its head once. But it’s menacing as hell, and every time it pops up onscreen it gets your heart racing. Clowns, blink-and-you-might-miss-them hooded figures in corners, and a zombie girl who just appears in Paul’s room one night when he turns on the light, creeping closer and closer to him every time he peeks out from the covers he’s hidden himself under – the scares are fairly small and quiet, but they are effective. It’s a slow burn, and being introduced to the disaster of the night in question at the very beginning of the movie builds tension.

Zombie girl
Completely creepy clown

When we finally get to the big night, we get to see this scene again, but with the added background information and the footage from behind the scenes. This fills in a lot of the blanks, but not all of them, which doesn’t bother me but is a complaint people have about this film. Why can’t the crew just pack up and leave once it’s clear there’s something terrible going on there? We know there’s a reason why, because we catch the end of a conversation between Tony and Mac where Tony keeps saying it over and over: “We can’t leave…we can’t leave.” But we’re never told what the reason is. It seems to me that it’s a money issue, and that Alex probably put all their money into this new location, but that’s conjecture and never confirmed. Another question people have is, just what exactly did happen in that basement? The film devolves into incredibly shaky tour-goer footage at this point, and it’s hard to see much beyond hooded figures, skeletal faces, and chaos. For me, that’s enough, but for a lot of people it’s a bit unsatisfactory.

The hooded figure you might have missed if you blinked

I have a few questions about this team of haunt makers, too. They make some sketchy decisions that are necessary for the sake of scares, but that peg them as irresponsible nonetheless. The first is when Tony “finds” an actor to dress up as a scary clown and stay stationed in the basement with their female actress as protection, since the crew can never get a camera to work down there (hint, hint). When Paul asks Tony where he found the guy, Tony says he found him at a gas station; Paul asks if he worked there, and Tony looks bemused. “I have no idea,” he responds with a grin, which they really should not have recorded if they’re trying to promote their haunt with this footage. To know that they just grabbed a dude out of a gas station parking lot and hired him as security would be enough to keep me away, just saying. And sure enough – at the first sign of trouble in the basement on opening night, the gas station clown just bails. He up and runs out of the house, leaving the actress chained to a pipe over her head, which is another detail that is necessary but stupid. There’s no reason to really chain a girl to a pipe in a haunted house; she could have easily just held her hands up there and been fine. But then we wouldn’t have had a way to strand her in the basement so the hooded figures could do – something to her, we’re not sure what.

Melissa meets a fate worse than Paul

Now, remember how I said up at the top of this post that all the crew members were killed in this incident, and then I said that Sarah was the sole survivor who shows up at Diane’s interview with a bunch of tapes? Well, that wasn’t a mistake. But I’ll leave the rest for you to discover when you watch the film.

Room 2C

The success of Hell House LLC spawned two sequels and a director’s cut of the original. While the director’s cut has a few interesting scenes included that were left out of the first one, it doesn’t add much to the story to have them included, and I can see why they were left out as they tend to slow down the pace a bit. The sequels are another story – I personally do not like them, but a lot of people do, so you’ll have to find one of those people for a recap of them. There were two sequels made, making Hell House LLC a trilogy, but my guess is that a trilogy was never intended and got tacked on due to the popularity of the first film. They add a lot of details about the hotel’s history, the creepy previous owner who hung himself in the dining room in the 80’s, a weird cult he led, and other disappearances that have happened since the event. The third one in particular goes waaaaay out there to create some sort of arc, and for me it just does not work. The first film was fine on its own, and it doesn’t benefit at all from the sequels – again, in my opinion. As a horror film, I think part 2 is actually better if you haven’t seen the original; it’s nowhere near as good as the original, but is a fun found-footage film in its own right if you don’t compare it to part 1. The third one draws much more on the lore of the place and the backstory with the original Hell House crew, and it’s a spotty, silly bore with a ridiculous ending. So while I will occasionally give part 2 a view, I never watch part 3 at all because, ugh. The original film is a standout of the found-footage genre; one of the best out there, and the sequels do not live up to that standard.

Found Footage Fave: The Paranormal Farm Series, Part 3 “Halloween”

Reason for filming: Carl and Taz, who are – you guessed it – still alive, head back to the farm to convince Darren and Lucy to sign a contract they still need to get on file so they can use the behind the scenes footage they shot during Part 2

What’s the horror: ghosts, psycho killers

Does the dog die? As with the others in the trilogy, no animals are in danger here

Gore factor: None

Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. While ultimately Part 2 is my favorite of the three, they’re all great.

So, here we go – Carl and Taz are back, and Part 3 starts as did Parts 1 and 2, except that this time they’re heading out to the farm at night instead of in the afternoon, which starts things off on a more somber note. We get a few hints at how it is that, in spite of appearing to meet their end at the hands of Darren’s death-gathering (remember, it is NOT a cult) at the end of Part 2, they have both managed to live on and film another sequel, but the full story won’t come out for a bit, so I’ll wait to share that information.

As it is, the two arrive at the farm just in time to hear Lucy screaming from the now-familiar farmhouse, and as Taz and Carl rush inside they find them both being attacked by their own mannequins. Carl manages to free them while Taz films the entire ordeal. And no, we still don’t know exactly why it is that all these dummies surround the house, and guess what, we never will. Moving on.

Darren tells them the mannequins have been acting up quite a bit lately, and he has no idea why. While this conversation is taking place, we can hear Lucy hacking and gasping in another room dramatically, and one of my biggest joys in watching the final installment of this series is watching how much Lucy French really digs into her role, hamming it up at every opportunity. Gone is the freaky, tipsy, sullen Lucy of the first film. In her place is a woman who is tense and upset at all the supernatural activity that’s still occurring on her farm, and who is also starting to get more than a little miffed at Taz and Carl for failing to help rid of the place of evil spirits.

Get it together, Taz!

It’s a new twist thrown into the mix in Part 3 – we got a taste of Lucy and Darren’s irritation at the guys in Part 2, when Lucy snaps at Carl for how she came across in the first film and Darren keeps bristling at Carl every time he calls his group of clown mask-wearing fire-chanters a cult. And both of them reveal a deeper sense of frustration this time out, which has led more than one reviewer to wonder how much of that is for the movie and how much of it is real – are the owners of the farm simply sick and tired of making these movies, or is that all for show? It’s one of the delights of this series that the audience never knows – but my guess, based mostly on Lucy’s commitment to her character, is that it’s mostly for show. She really seems to be having a good time here, even when she’s supposed to be traumatized.

Darren, however, is testier than Lucy is overall, which is why at the end of Part 2 he asked his “gathering” of beast-casters to scare the shit out of Carl and Taz. That’s right – it turns out that the entire cult attack of Part 2 was just a ruse Darren pulled together to get even with Carl for continuing to conjure Sarah’s spirit after he explicitly told him to stop. Obviously it got out of hand – Darren never intended for the guys to get chased with machetes, and he certainly didn’t intend for Carl to stab Taz with a rake; he just wanted to get Carl back for disrespecting his requests that they stop the spirit-conjuring. And thanks to some backstory from Taz, we learn that right after Carl ran off another of Darren’s buddies removed his clown mask and pulled Taz out of the swimming pool before getting him help. As Taz describes this, he side-eyes Carl, who tells him “I really can’t apologize for it anymore,” indicating that there’s been more than one conversation about this since it happened.

Darren being testy

While it’s clear that Taz has forgiven Carl, it’s also clear that this time out everyone is tense. Carl, focused on his film as usual, jumps right into a conversation about getting those contracts signed as they all sit down to dinner, and both Lucy and Darren avoid the subject by reminding Carl that there are still bad things happening at the house, and in spite of all the time he’s spent there he hasn’t helped them solve any of their problems. Carl backs off the contract talk, and in spite of all the tension between them they manage to have a nice meal. There’s definitely a kinship between them all by now, but along with that is more honesty about how everyone truly feels, and it plays out almost like a family drama throughout the film.

And there is a family drama here, although it takes a while to get to that. For now, Lucy and Darren don’t want to sign the contracts without a guarantee that Carl can help rid their farmhouse of spirits, and even though Carl thinks he’s proven his gifts to them already, the couple wants more assurance. Lucy takes off one of her rings, slaps it down on the table, and demands that Carl make it move with his mind. To say this is a weird request is an understatement; we’ve never seen any signs of telekinesis from Carl, so where this idea comes from is a mystery. Carl is similarly confused, and starts to explain in great detail to Lucy what his gifts are – as an empath, he gets in touch with spirits through emotions and feelings on another plane and doesn’t have any real skill in the telekinesis department – but as he’s doing this, lo and behold the ring scoots across the table towards him on its own. Everyone gasps, and Darren and Lucy immediately sign their contracts, convinced now that Carl is legit. Carl and Taz, however, have no idea how that just happened. Taz wants Carl to start moving other items with his mind right away, but Carl resists. It has to have been a fluke, he reasons, since he’s never done such a thing before. We’ll get back to that later.

Carl and Taz set out in the dark to check out other areas of the farm to see what energies they can pick up on. My favorite part of this scene is when, after encountering more orbs in one of the barns (or attics or something, I can never tell) Carl says that they should contact a paranormal investigator about them. “You are one,” Taz reminds him. Hee hee. We get some good scares as Taz and Carl investigate a stuffy loft – an overhead light keeps swinging harder and harder at the other end of the room, and at one point some sort of figure rushes quickly past, scaring the crap out of everyone. Carl swears he sees a shadowy figure leaping over a fence, too, but by the time they get down there, whatever it is has gone. Still, we’re off to a good start.

Cut to later that night, and Carl, Taz and Lucy are taking it easy in the spa. It’s a great moment; watching Carl and Lucy relax in the bubbly water makes us all feel right at home, and reminds us how much we’ve come to love just hanging out at the farm with Lucy and Darren and familiarizing ourselves with their strange, quirky ways. Then a light goes on, and a shadow is seen; everyone’s fairly calm by now, as nothing bad has happened during their little pool party, so Carl isn’t particularly concerned as he pulls back the tarp’s flap, but he steps outside and immediately starts screaming. Taz and his camera go rushing outside to find Carl standing there in his Speedo, covered in blood. Taz looks around for what might have done this, but there’s no one else there. It turns out not to be Carl’s blood that’s all over him, thank goodness, and with no leads to go on everyone shakes it off and turns in for the night.

The rest of the night is uneventful, and it’s clear the next morning that Carl and Taz are feeling more at home on the farm now, as seen by the way Carl hides around a corner in order to jump-scare Taz as he comes out of the bathroom, and how Carl casually grabs a random kitchen knife and wanders around muttering “Yah! Yah! Come get me!” But the jocularity ends when Carl and Darren walk into the kitchen, where they’d both been just a few minutes prior, and everything has been upended. All the cabinets and drawers are open, and stuff is thrown about everywhere. There’s even a putrid rat on the kitchen counter, and Darren’s had enough. He lays into Carl for spending all his time filming and screwing around instead of using his psychic gifts to help them out, and stomps off. Carl gets the message that he and Taz have become just a bit too comfortable at Darren and Lucy’s, and they need to buckle down and get to work clearing the farm of whatever’s doing all the haunting and blood-smearing.

Oh, and there’s a random new guy hanging around.

Carl and Taz head out to try and interview some random people around town. Instead, they find something black and furry scampering around in some brush – at first it looks like a dog, but when it turns around and starts charging towards the guys I actually yelped a little; it really looks big and hulking, whatever it is. The camera snaps off as they run away, and pops back on as they wander through through an empty house, exiting through a back door into a lovely garden. There’s a woman sitting on a bench outside, and Taz and Carl approach her to warn her about “the beast” they just saw bounding about in the brush. Like the other locals they’ve encountered, this woman seems unfazed by the news, and it takes Carl and Taz way too long to figure out that she’s blind. It turns out that she’s a psychic, as well, just like Carl, and she picks up on his gifts right away as he leads back into her house.

Well, she’s not quite like Carl. She hasn’t used her gifts in years, and she hints at some past trauma that might be why that is, but doesn’t name it specifically. She does name what she senses is Carl’s gift, though – moving things with his mind. Soon enough, another visitor wanders into her house – it’s Robert, Sarah’s father from the second installment, and it turns out he’s this woman’s ex-husband and Sarah’s mother (In the cast list, she is known only as “the spiritualist,” so I don’t have a name for her – incidentally, “The Spiritualist” is the title of another Carl Medland movie, and in that movie Caroline Burns Cooke plays a character named – you guessed it – “the spiritualist”). It’s clear she can’t stand Robert, and for me this is the only part of the movie that drags. The woman who plays the spiritualist is a great actress, but she’s so scattered and melodramatic that it’s almost uncomfortable, and it seems her hatred for Robert is made clear in the first one or two minutes he’s there and the rest of that time is just overload. To be honest I usually just fast forward past this section, which lasts about fifteen minutes.

“The Spiritualist” – Caroline Burns Cooke

Finally Carl gets them both to agree to hold a séance that night, and sure enough the ghost of Sarah shows up. Once again, the spiritualist is so fragmented – she rarely completes a sentence – that it’s hard for me to follow, but the closed captioning helps: she can feel Sarah, but there’s something evil in the way that prevents her from being able to communicate with her daughter clearly. There’s a nice little jump scare when some costumed kids show up banging on the door for trick or treating, as it’s Halloween, and after everyone calms down Carl tells the camera “I’ll go get them a banana,” which cracks me up.

Here’s Robert! Actor Robert Gray

The next day, based on what the spiritualist tells Carl about his ability to move things with his mind, he tries one more time to consciously unscrew a nut from a bolt that Taz gave him earlier – and yes, there are many screw jokes thrown in for good measure. He settles down and concentrates. And sure enough, the nut winds off on its own. He also makes a coin move across the table. It’s a cool effect, and after he’s done Carl’s fingers start smoking. “Taz, it’s not good to smoke!” he quips, wondering aloud if he’s about to internally combust. He does not. But the point is – Carl can move things with his mind. This will be useful later.

LOL Darren’s expression

The next morning, the team sets up a trap to capture the beast, using a big hole dug into the ground by covering it with a tarp and placing some of Lucy’s animal baits on top of it. It’s not super-clear what the plan is here, but before we can figure it out Carl and Taz go back into the house and discover a woman in Jessica’s bedroom, where Carl is staying. It turns out to be Jessica herself, and she’s popped into town to surprise her mother with a visit.

Nothing major, just a shot of Lucy’s animal bait hanging from a tree branch

Jessica says a few strange things during this encounter, the strangest of which is her claim that her mother has been sounding tired lately, and stressed, and that they need to be careful not to overtax her. Yes, Lucy, who we’ve seen mowing and chopping and horse riding and dog feeding and stable cleaning and cooking and basically never sitting down for more than five minutes over the course of two and half whole movies is easily worn out, it seems, and I don’t believe that for a minute. She appears to be one of the healthiest people on the planet, and she regularly wears both Carl and Taz out with her energy, even though she’s clearly 20 or 30 years their senior. Jessica also asks the two repeatedly how much longer they will be filming, pushing them to say they’ll be done by the end of the day, but Carl stands his ground and says they need more time.

Carl and Taz head outside to speak with Robert, who is lingering over Tia, Sarah’s favorite horse. Then Jessica appears again, as if she’s following them around, so it’s surprising when she pulls Robert aside for a private “catching up,” as she calls it. The two walk off to the barn, and Taz and Carl return to the bedroom, where Carl takes the crystal ball the spiritualist gave him and starts staring into it, unintentionally causing a large package to fall to the ground from the top of Jessica’s closet. It’s a package she was stuffing up there right when Carl and Taz walked into the room earlier. Carl looks at it for a moment, then rushes back outside to the barn with Taz confused but in tow.

And here we go. Medland’s ready to knock down the various pins he’s set up over the course of the movie, and he and Taz get right to it. They overhear a conversation between Jessica and Robert that confirms they had an affair years ago, and Jessica is not happy that Robert’s moved on. Yikes. Jessica sees the two hiding behind some hay bales, grabs a knife to chase Carl and Taz off, but Carl is undeterred, and he marches right back into the barn where Jessica and Robert have gone and confronts her. She was saying something about Sarah when he walked in, and he wants to know what it was. Then the spiritualist walks in, for some reason, and Jessica flips out, asking Robert if he’s betrayed her by getting back together with Sarah’s mother, holding the knife to Robert’s throat. Carl decides it’s time to let his telekinesis powers fly, and he starts screaming at the top of his lungs, which causes the entire barn to shake and barrels and hay bales to fly around. Everyone surrounds Jessica, including Robert, and she finally admits to killing Sarah herself because she was threatening to out her affair with Robert.

Much drama ensues. Robert screams at Jessica. The spiritualist screams at Robert. Jessica screams at everyone. Then the best part of the entire series happens, in my opinion – Lucy comes in and really lets rip, and it’s right out of a soap opera. “Yeeeeew bitch,” she drawls. “How daaaaaaare you! You call yourself my DAUGHTER?! After all I’ve done for you?!” It’s delicious. I love Lucy. Lucy French, that is. Jessica blames Lucy for the whole thing, telling her that her father (who isn’t Darren, by the way) was abusing her, and Lucy ignored it, which is why she killed him, too. Dang. Jessica’s gotten away with a lot of murder. But not anymore, because Taz proudly proclaims he’s gotten the whole confession recorded, and with that, he and Carl pack their bags to get the hell out of that madhouse. But before they leave, Taz asks Carl how he knew what was up with Jessica, and Carl pulls a black furry costume out of the package that flew off the top of the closet earlier. Jessica was the beast who covered Carl with blood the night of the spa.

Jessica, played by Nicole Faraday

From the way they rush away, and how relieved they are to be out on the road and away from all that drama, it seems clear there will not be a Paranormal Farm 4. And anyway, Carl gets a call from Hollywood while they’re on the road, and it appears they’re on their way to California to film a documentary of a haunted house. Welcome to America, Carl and Taz!

Each installment of this series has more structure than the last, and Part 3 definitely is the least spontaneous of the bunch. While this makes “Halloween” more plot-heavy and intentional, which leads to some lags here and there, it’s necessary if Medland is going to give his trilogy a satisfying conclusion. Though the addition of even more characters here means some of the unity and cohesiveness the core cast has established gets diluted, it actually makes the dramatic conclusion easier to accept. We’re not left wanting another installment, because the whole thing’s gotten way too messy this time out, and everyone is good and tired of each other by the end of it. In fact, we don’t even see Carl and Taz tell Darren and Lucy goodbye, and Darren in particular barely registers in the final moments. If that makes you feel sad and nostalgic for the simpler times of Parts 1 or 2, well, you can always go back and start the whole thing over. It’s what I always do. 🙂

Found Footage Fave: The Paranormal Farm Trilogy, Part 2: Closer to the Truth (SPOILERS!!)

Reason for filming: Carl, who is still very much alive, is returning to the farm to film some behind the scenes footage for the DVD release of Paranormal Farm, Part 1

What’s the horror: ghosts, cults

Does the dog die? As in the previous film, there’s animals everywhere, but they’re all safe. Two dogs do get into a fight, but nothing comes of it.

Gore factor: None

Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. I love this series!

The blurbs don’t lie

SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t scroll if you don’t want to know.

At the heart of the sequel to 2017’s surprise zero-budget super-indie hit is a clever premise. We start part 2 just as we did in part 1, with Carl filming as he drives to the farm and explains what he’s about to do. The movie he made with Darren and Lucy has had some success since being uploaded online, and Carl’s got a distributor now who wants him to film some extras to include in its upcoming DVD release. And within moments of the movie’s opening, Medland has essentially upended the entire premise of his original film.

*Side note: As much as I love to add as many screenshots and photographs as possible to my posts, the side-effect of having done this since at least 2011 means I have once again used up all my storage space. However the cost of maintaining all of this as well as expanding my storage to be able to continue uploading files is no longer cost-effective, so I am reduced to using links to photos from this point forward. That’s not a problem with my own photos as I can link to them on my Flickr Pro page, which has unlimited storage, but when it comes to screenshots of films I am at the mercy of what I can find to link to publicly, and for these movies that’s not very much. So there aren’t as many screenshots of these films as I would like to have. Sorry.

Of course, we all knew PF1 was fake, no matter how convincing its found-footage feel; we just didn’t expect the sequel to totally acknowledge that at all, much less in the first ten seconds. The foundation of any found-footage film is that it’s just that – footage that was taken by others who experienced something horrible and then found by others who are now sharing it. So closely do found-footage enthusiasts attach themselves to this idea that many will eschew any movie filmed in this style that tries anything that takes it out of that realm – adding music, for example, or having multi-camera perspectives, or overly effective lighting. Paranormal Farm 2 doesn’t break any of those rules; it’s still filmed entirely on a cell phone, and incorporates no musical cues or other tweaks some FF films attempt to pull off (for the record, such flourishes don’t bother me). But in a few sentences, Medland has managed to blow the entire conceit of his first film out of the water.

And so, having knocked down some the previous movie’s mysteries, Medland sets up some new ones to explore, while quickly and handily taking care of the whole why-isn’t-he-really-dead business in a pretty satisfying manner. Bringing a character who is clearly dead by the end of a movie back to life in order to film a sequel always requires a willing suspension of belief on the part of the audience, who usually accepts whatever explanation is provided in order to enjoy returning to the world of the original. But in blowing up the premise of his original movie, Medland actually creates a sequel with a surprising amount of depth most sequels fail to deliver. Instead of a movie that’s a rehash of the first, with perhaps a bit more money thrown at it and a new cast, Medland goes in the opposite direction, revisiting the same characters but revealing the real people behind the false personas of the first film, while also continuing the spooky mood and taking the supernatural elements in a new direction. It’s brilliant.

Not completely out of the water, though, as it turns out – we soon learn that there is something supernatural occurring on Darren and Lucy’s farm, and there is a cult hanging around (although Darren will bristle at the word every time Carl uses it), and there was a young woman who disappeared in the area about five years ago; it just wasn’t the farmers’ daughter Jessica, who is very much real and also very much alive. And the rumor around town is that the young woman who died was mauled by a mysterious creature the locals call “The Beast.”

The characters best served by this perspective are Darren and Lucy. In fact, it’s hard for me to remember how off-putting and unlikeable these two were upon first viewing, because it doesn’t take long at all for “Closer to the Truth” to reveal the downright loveable oddballs behind that façade. Lucy French benefits the most from this FAQ-style of character development; it’s rude to point it out, of course, but the damage to Lucy’s face is unavoidable. In the first movie, it adds to her creepiness, but it would be a shame to allow that perception to continue any further (although there’s another film from 2013 that was filmed at this same location by Taz called “Crossland;” it also incorporates Lucy into its story and makes creepy use of her disfigurement, so I can only assume Lucy doesn’t mind). Medland gets to work right away giving Lucy space to tell her story, which is that she was in a horrific car accident that smashed a whole side of her face, and it’s now full of titanium and skin grafts and an eye socket that didn’t get set right which makes it hard for her to see. She shows Carl some photos of her face in different stages of recovery with cheerful resilience: “You’re smiling in all of them,” Medland observes, to which Lucy replies, “Well, because I’m alive.” Cut to a scene of Lucy rolling around on the floor barking with her dogs, and the redemption is complete.

Darren gets his chance too, when it is revealed that he used to be a stuntman with some world records under his belt. As I started to write this paragraph about Darren I decided to Google him and see if he was really ever a stuntman, and yep, he was, although the scrapbook pictures he shows Carl had me pretty convinced this was true already. He also apparently really did have a nervous breakdown after retiring, and wrote a book about the power of positive thinking and perception that is no longer in print. When, in the movie, Darren talks to Carl about this experience, it’s a truly sympathetic moment. One minute he was this locally famous guy jumping over things on a motorcycle, and the next he was just another unemployed one. “I felt worthless, basically,” he tells Carl, and there’s something shocking about the stark honesty of this admission that’s quite endearing. In “Closer to the Truth,” Darren and Lucy are no longer the antagonists of the story; they’re more aligned with Carl in trying to discover the truth about the supposedly real haunting that is still taking place on their farm.

Yep, that’s really Darren

Although, not entirely. Lucy is pissed at Carl for how she was portrayed in the first film, and she has to get that off her chest eventually. “You humiliated me,” she lectures him, in another super-meta moment. And Darren gets pretty testy with Carl several times, especially when Medland refers to the gathering of friends he has who meet out in the woods around a campfire on occasion to “send the beast back through the gate” as a cult. It’s not a cult, Darren insists, just some friends who don masks and chant around a fire every once in a while, to which Carl logically responds, “I don’t see the difference between that and a cult.” Indeed.

Medland also adds some new characters into the mix here, which is a wise choice to keep the sequel moving. The producer, Mumtaz Yildirimlar, who goes by Taz, meets up with Carl at the farm to help him film DVD extras. The pair have great chemistry, and Taz is a proper foil for Carl who helps flesh out his character; Taz’s good-natured silliness often clashes with Carl’s perfectionism, and reveals Medland as the more rigid and controlling of the two (although he’s still charming and funny throughout). And Taz is even more spooked by the supernatural than Carl is, if that’s possible, and Carl regularly has to push him to stay in the mix. For example, when Carl gets the idea to hold a séance to try and contact the spirit of the dead girl, Sarah, Taz wants to sit that out because he is terrified of such things. This prompts quite the lecture from Carl, who insists that Taz is there with a job to do, and therefore, he needs to show up for everything. “He promised me he wasn’t going to do this,” Taz says into the camera, but ultimately, he shows up.

Carl and Taz (from Medland’s Facebook page)

No one is, in fact, very thrilled with Carl’s séance idea, but Carl has encountered another new character while out riding Lucy’s horse, Tia – Sarah’s father, Robert French, and he’s convinced the man has something to do with Sarah’s disappearance. Carl’s interview with Robert is sufficiently creepy – he’s clearly still haunted by Sarah’s death, he’s hurt that there’s gossip in the town that he had something to do with it, and he keeps caressing the photo he holds of Sarah as a child in a manner that Carl finds “darkly disturbed.” And even though Lucy insists Robert is a stand-up guy, a “gentleman’s gentleman,” as she puts it, Darren has a different perception, telling Carl that Robert was not the best of fathers and making it clear he doesn’t like the guy. All of this piques Carl’s curiosity to the point of insisting on the séance that no one else wants, and while it is successful in contacting Sarah, it also pisses everyone off, and soon Carl is on his own.

Robert French

But before we get to that, though, as it sets up the final act, let’s address the question – is the sequel actually scary? We have some motifs from the previous film that show up again – those creepy mannequins are still around, doing creepy mannequin things. The plasma ball lights up without provocation, and lights still flicker off and on. And all the animals on the farm start acting oddly as soon as Carl shows up, including Lucy’s adorable dogs, who take to scrapping with each other so much that they end up in muzzles. Oh, and a rooster attacks Carl while he’s on Robert’s property, which leads to some amusing dialogue: “I got attacked by a huge cock,” Carl tells Taz, “I think I need stitches,” then pulls up his pants leg to reveal the smallest rooster-wound ever known as Taz explodes in laughter. So, while the hauntings here are often tempered with humor, “Closer to the Truth” still manages to spook.

Lucy’s dogs, after their fight (they’re both fine, I promise)

The majority of scares are reserved for the final act, though, as much of “Closer to the Truth” is about humanizing Lucy and Darren, and discovering what Taz and Carl can about the mysterious “beast” lurking around in the woods near their farm – some more investigation reveals that it’s most likely a large panther, which, while not exactly a supernatural monster, is still a big threat to any animals or humans who might cross its path. As Lucy keeps insisting, this is how it is in the country – there are predators about, and sometimes those who attempt to coexist alongside them end up being prey, as is believed to be the case with Sarah, and you either accept that or move away if you can’t handle it. Another fact of country life that Carl and Taz learn the hard way is that you really, really shouldn’t trespass on other people’s land: while out in the forest investigating “the beast,” they come across two farmers who don’t take kindly to seeing strangers on the property with a camera, and there’s a tense albeit hilarious car chase that ensues between the filmmakers and some deliverance-style hunters who ride up alongside of them and point guns at them through their open windows while Taz screeches in what can only be described as “like a girl.”

NOT the panther from the film, but still…scary

When Carl, in his usual melodramatic fashion, relays this experience to Lucy, it’s quite fun to watch her and Darren blow it off as just another fact of country life; if she’d had a gun and seen two strangers stalking about on her property she’d have pointed it at them, too, she tells them – and after checking out “Crossland” I recognize this as a callback to that movie, as it’s the entire point of that film. Also filmed on Lucy’s farm, she plays a far more malevolent character who basically murders anyone she catches trespassing, and also rants at one point about how anyone who ventures “off the footpath” deserves what they get – which is the exact line she uses on Carl and Darren, albeit with much less venom.

Not the ACTUAL hunters with guns in a Jeep who chase Carl and Taz, but close enough

Some more Googling actually located the farm where both “Crossland” and the “Paranormal Farm” movies were filmed – it’s a real farm, owned by Lucy, and it rents out space to campers and RVers in the area. It actually gets great reviews, and Lucy is often mentioned as a perfectly delightful and accommodating host, so while there’s truth to Lucy’s ownership of the farm, her malevolence is all an act, just so you know. Indeed, my fondness for Lucy led to me actively rooting for her while watching “Crossland” (which was written, produced, and directed by Taz) even though she’s clearly the antagonist in that film. But I digress.

Ashmere Farm

Darren stops the séance before the spirit can fully spell out the name SARAH, and Carl leaves his phone charging in the room so he can spy on Darren and Lucy’s conversation. Lucy, – who appears to have been hitting the box wine again, god bless her – keeps insisting that there’s no reason to investigate Sarah’s death as it’s all over and done with and everyone has moved on. Darren hints to her that there’s more to it than that, but it was long ago and he doesn’t want to relive what for him was a dark time. Lucy, perhaps due to the wine, doesn’t appear to catch what Darren is hinting at – that he knows something more about Sarah’s disappearance – and eventually Darren drops the conversation and they both wander out of the room.

When Carl goes up to Jessica’s bedroom, where Taz is waiting, to relay what he’s heard, the plasma ball from Part 1 lights up again on its own. Soon Carl is communicating with the spirit again, which at this point he’s convinced is Sarah, and he feels guided back into the barn (at least I think it’s the barn; there are many buildings on the farm and it’s hard to tell what’s what) where he discovers a real Ouija board. Carl is convinced this means Sarah really wants to communicate with him, so in spite of Taz’s reservations they head back to Jessica’s room to use it. While doing so, the lights go out on their own, and Carl hears a voice whisper to him “don’t go through the gate.” Taz freaks out and leaves the room, and soon after that Darren comes into the room and freaks out that Carl is still holding seances after being explicitly told to knock it off, and he kicks both Taz and Carl out of the house.

I’m really hard-up for images here, sorry

But not right away – he is kind enough to at least let them stay the night and pack up their things in the morning. But what at first appears to be a last act of generosity takes a sinister turn, when Carl is awakened from sleep by – you guessed it – someone in a creepy clown costume filming him with Medland’s own camera. Carl flips out and charges out of the room and down the stairs, with creepy clown and camera close behind. We are guided down the stairs via the camera’s perspective, and as we turn a corner we see Carl sitting at the head of the kitchen table, held at knife point by another dude in a clown mask who is also, inexplicably, wearing a superhero costume. He’s surrounded by other clown-mask wearing creatures. “Tseab, tseab, tseab,” they all chant, which Darren has already explained is “beast” spelled backward. Soon the truth comes out – the cult killed Sarah (why? who knows), and if Carl doesn’t leave immediately he’ll be killed too. Carl convinces them to give him back his camera and tries to get more of a confession out of the men, but they leap up from the table instead and charge him, which forces Carl to take off.

Another chase scene ensues, during which we can hear at least one of the cult members (I mean gathering members, sorry Darren) telling Carl to “go back through the gate,” and that’s the last reference that will ever be made to said gate so figure that out for yourself, I guess. No matter – because soon Carl manages to run to a neighbor’s house and bang on the doors, but it appears no one’s home. Then Carl hears some commotion and hides in a dark space on the side of the house, grabbing a rake to defend himself. He hears something approaching, and steps out from the shadows to stab whoever, or whatever, it is, and we soon see that he’s accidentally shoved the rake into the gut of Taz, who falls into a swimming pool. A creepy clown is right behind him. Both the creepy clown and Carl take off, leaving poor Taz behind impaled on a rake, and it always cracks me up to hear Carl yell “I’ll be back, Taz!” as he runs off, leaving Taz to fend for himself. So long Taz. We barely knew you.

Carl has to run back into the house to grab his keys, which he does with much panic and mucho shenanigans from the mannequins, who keeps popping up in doorways ever closer to Carl at every scare. He ends up having to run right past one of them to escape (which totally reminds me of a scary clown mannequin scene in Hell House, LLC, albeit probably unintentional), but escape he does – only to end up getting squelched by some weird costume-wearing dude standing out in the middle of the road after Carl (still Taz-less) hops into his car and starts driving away. For reasons unknown to me, Carl gets out of the car with a flashlight to get a closer look at this weird character, who suddenly sprouts wings that fold around Carl as the camera goes dark. The closed-captioning simply interprets the final audio moment as “squelch.” The end.

You get the idea.

So there it is. The end to both Carl and Taz, and the end of the mysteries of the Paranormal Farm. Or is it? Stay tuned for part 3.

Found Footage Fave: The Paranormal Farm Trilogy, Part 1 (SPOILERS!!)

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.

Carl, the investigator

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.

Darren and Lucy, the farmers

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.

Mannequins, clown masks, and a plasma ball are all put to good use here

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.

Hiding under the covers, as one does when the spirits are about

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.

Lucy
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).

I doubt they are really clown mask wearing, Beast worshipping cult members, but they sure do act like it at times

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.

Found Footage Fave: Confined (2021)

Reason for filming: People are communicating with each other via computer (the movie doesn’t use any particular technology) during the pandemic

What’s the horror: An evil presence that may or may not be associated with COVID

Does the dog die? No animals in this one

Gore factor: None

Re-watch scale: I really enjoyed watching this one, and have watched it several times since my first viewing.

Where to Watch: Tubi currently has this for free on their site

Confined (2021) - IMDb

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 Nobody Was There." | Clip from CONFINED (2021) - YouTube
Sumayyah Ameerah as Lisa
It's 4 in the morning, what's going on?" | Clip from CONFINED (2021) -  YouTube
Kipp Tribble as Austin (told ya)

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.

Confined (2021) - IMDb
Kenny Yates plays Jared, an online researcher trying to solve the mystery
Confined (2021) - ALL HORROR

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.

Bad Ben Is At It Again (Bad Ben: Benign)

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.

Bad Ben: Benign Trailer Brings the Ninth Terrifying Chapter in Nigel Bach's  Cult Franchise

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).

Bad Ben Review (2016) - My Favorite Horror
From the original Bad Ben movie

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.

Bad Ben (2016) Review - Found Footage Critic
Another Bad Ben 1 image

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.

Nigel Bach on Twitter: "Bad Ben 6: The Way In...coming soon.… "
From Bad Ben 6: The Way In

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.

The Fourth Time's Not The Charm : “Bad Ben : The Mandela Effect” | Trash  Film Guru
From Bad Ben 2 or maybe 3 since there was a prequel that came before it but I am not sure if it counts: Badder Ben

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.

Movie Review: Bad Ben: The Mandela Effect (2018) | by Patrick J Mullen | As  Vast as Space and as Timeless as Infinity | Medium
An image from Bad Ben 4: The Mandela Effect

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.

Watch Bad Ben: The Way In | Prime Video
From Bad Ben 6: The Way In

Found Footage Fave: The Bad Ben Series (SPOILERS!)

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 :

  1. The original Bad Ben, about a man who buys a home that turns out to be haunted
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Found Footage Fave – Final Prayer/The Borderlands (SPOILERS!)

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!