Does the dog die? There are some dead forest animals; mostly we see the bones and that’s it
Gore factor: Medium – there’s lots of blood in this one, but not as much actual gore
Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. This is a new film but I’ve already watched it many times.
First, let’s talk about the filmmakers here: The Adams Family (with one D, not two, so no nostalgic TV connection there) consists of mom, dad, and two daughters, who do all of the acting, writing, producing, directing, etc. among them. Sure, they call in resources when needed, but for the most part, this is some seriously all-in-the-family indie shit. And for the tiny budgets they work with, the two movies I’ve seen from them (they’ve made more but they are hard to find) are quite good. I much prefer their latest, Hellbender, to their previous offering, The Deeper You Dig, just because it has a more cohesive story, better pacing, and a more satisfying ending, but TDYD is also a pretty unique and creative horror film.
The Adams Family is led by actors Toby Poser and John Adams. Adams was a male model back in the 90s, and Poser was a “bad girl” on the soap opera Guiding Light. In other words, even in their fifties, these are quite beautiful people. Poser in particular is captivating on-screen, at least in my opinion – we are the same age, and she appears in her films with almost no makeup, a fair amount of wrinkles, and zero plastic surgery. She’s also a woman of normal size, although a look back at her time on GL reveals she was as slim in the 90s as I was, back when it took zero effort to stay thin. And her hair is amazing.
While John Adams played lead opposite Toby Poser in TDYD, here he is mostly off-screen, only appearing in one short scene – this is primarily Toby and Zelda’s show, with some of older sister Lulu Adams worked in for good measure.
The story involves Poser as the mother, who never gets a name in spite of her leading role, and daughter Zelda as Izzy – true to form for this family, Zelda has quite the modeling career going as well as her writing, producing, and acting gigs. She’s signed with Elite models, which is about as, well, elite as you can get.
She’s quite good in this film, and I won’t do that thing where social media shits on her for having an in-road into Hollywood because of her parents’ relative success – I get where other actors may be overlooked because someone else has a famous last name, but it also makes a lot of sense to me that acting talent can run in families, somehow, so if the actor or actress in question is good at what they do, I’m not bothered. Everyone who’s never acted thinks it would be so easy, but being a good actor takes a certain amount of instinct not everyone has, and in my opinion, talent is talent. And Zelda Adams has it. Not to mention working with her family on a micro-budget and helping them do everything themselves.
So here’s the deal: Mom and Izzy live an isolated life in the mountains of- somewhere? – the setting isn’t stated that I can recall. Things are a little odd from the jump – Izzy is homeschooled and has some unnamed illness that requires her to remain in isolation from others, only able to socialize with Mom. To make up for that, Mom plays bass in their two-woman band, called, appropriately enough, “H6LLB6ND6R,” while Izzy plays drums. They really camp it up when they practice in their basement – donning theatrical Bowie-style makeup and performing on a makeshift stage. Hellbender’s music accompanies the film, and while it’s all rather slow and moody and not particularly complicated skill-wise, the duo can flip from a whisper to a scream on a dime, and the melodies are intriguing.
There’s an odd strain between mother and daughter in the beginning of the film – a restraint that feels like it’s about to break loose. This is ultimately a coming-of-age story; Izzie is chafing against the restrictions of her supposed illness, and it’s clear Mother is aware of this and concerned about how much longer she can keep her daughter under her thumb. Not for lack of trying though; the opening scene of Mom leaving Izzy home alone to drive into town is chock full of “keep out” imagery:
It’s clear, however, that Mom loves Izzy deeply, and that Izzy reciprocates that love.But band practice with Mom in the basement is starting to feel a bit pointless to Izzy; she suggests that perhaps they should start to branch out a bit and play live at parties or in town. Mom is 100% against this idea, though; reminding her that it’s too dangerous for Izzy to socialize with others. You may start to wonder at this point whether or not Izzy would be in better health if Mom fed her something besides platefuls of twigs and forest berries.
It’s no surprise that Izzy starts wandering farther out from their isolated home, and eventually stumbles across the other humans who are off-limits to her; a lost uncle visiting family nearby encounters her while lost in the forest, and when Mom finds out Izzy’s come in contact with someone who could harm her, she takes care of it in a decidedly not-normal fashion.
Once Mom poofs said uncle into nonexistence we’re clear on where the weirdness in their relationship comes from; Mom’s clearly some sort of witch with magical powers of the destructive kind, and daughter Izzy has no idea. In other words, Mom’s got secrets, y’all. And as Izzy wanders farther into the physical and symbolic forest with restless teenaged curiosity, the tighter Mom wants to hold onto her.
Enter Amber, whom Izzy meets when she accidentally ventures into her backyard. Amber is likeable and friendly, seemingly unphased at the appearance of a random stranger on her parent’s property – which we’ll eventually learn is because it’s not her parent’s property but a vacation home she’s ‘borrowing’ while whoever owns it is away – and invites her over for a swim and a beer. Izzy, we learn, doesn’t even own a bathing suit, so Amber promises to bring her one the next time she visits. At this, Izzy beams, clearly pleased to have made a friend, and the next day she sneaks away for another visit, which doesn’t pan out as well as she’d hoped.
This time, Amber has friends over, and after they ooh and ahh over Izzy’s musical skills, they settle down for some serious drinking. It’s pretty clear booze is new to Izzy, but she’s game to eat the tequila worm, which causes her to stare woozily into the distance as if she’s going to be sick – which would be understandable really – until she lets loose with a guttural, otherworldly howl. The other kids burst out laughing, and right then the owner of the summer house comes bursting through the fence, screaming at the kids to get the hell off his property. Off everyone goes into the forest, including Izzy, but she’s clearly under the influence of the alcohol, or the worm, or something, because she’s still acting stoned as hell and unable to speak. Unfortunately, their great escape ends with Izzy attempting to strangle poor Amber, who pushes her away and darts of deeper into the forest, understandably telling Izzy to stay away from her, so, end of friendship, I guess? Which is a bummer, because she seemed like a genuinely nice person and it was nice for Izzy to get a moment or two of bonding with someone other than Mom, but whatever is wrong with her has gotten in the way – and by now she’s figured out that what is wrong with her is not some illness that makes her susceptible to germs or whatever.
A confrontation with Mom is inevitable at this point, and when Izzy returns home Mom is waiting. She knows something’s up, and when Izzy asks her what exactly they are Mom spills the beans (or twigs I guess): they’re witches, from a long line of women who practice a very dark magic indeed: in fact, they are able to reproduce asexually, eliminating all need for male participation, and they draw their power, quite literally, from eating living things. Hence Izzy’s reaction to the tequila worm.
Mom’s kept all this from Izzy to protect her, or so she says – their power is dark and ugly, she says, and it is feared in the outside world. She believes there’s no way for Hellbenders to survive in the modern world unless they hide their power, and the only way Mom sees to keep their evil tendencies under control is to isolate. It’s clear she’s not just talking about keeping Izzy away from her own nature, here, but also herself. She’s done things in her past that agonize her, but as she tells Izzy, she did what she was taught to do. Until she reached a point of believing that what she, and all Hellbenders, were doing was wrong. Drawing power from death and destruction can only lead to one’s own D&D, in the end – at least, that’s how Mom sees it. Izzy, totally new to the idea of her own power, sees things differently. But we got a glimpse of the Hellbender in action when Mom disintegrated Sad Uncle in the first act, so we know where embracing their Hellbenders can take them.
At this point, the movie becomes a bit predictable, but it’s still fun to watch. Izzy wants to know more about her powers, and Mom sets out to teach her now that the cat’s out of the bag. But she does so with hesitation; she doesn’t want Izzy’s newfound knowledge to overly influence her or change her – which is exactly what happens. Due to Mom’s deception, no matter how well-intentioned it may have been, Izzy has already destroyed the one normal friendship she’d managed to make – Amber has made it very clear that she wants nothing more to do with her, but to Izzy, the connection they made is far too important to discard. She’s never had a friend other than Mom, and it turns out Mom’s been less than forthcoming with her. It’s coming of age run amok, and Izzy lashes out at the people around her whom she sees as her betrayers – her mother, for lying to her all those years, and Amber for rejecting her friendship and refusing to give her a second chance. Mom has tried to explain to Izzy that their powers can do no good in the world and that it’s their responsibility to suppress them, but she’s coming from a place of experience in the witchy world where she was able to make that choice. Izzy has just discovered her own power at a crucial time in her development, and the reality is that her peers are always going to treat her like an outcast, like a freak – something every teenager fears, something that seems even far more likely for Izzy – and the bond she shared with her mother was based on a lie.
It doesn’t take long for Izzy to push beyond Mom’s boundaries around their history – she easily gains access to Mom’s secret sanctum and learns more about her heritage. She starts off on a discovery journey of her own, practicing the darker magic Mom is desperate for her to avoid. And when one last attempt at friendship with Amber falls flat, she takes revenge – against both Amber and her mother. All of Mom’s secrets have been spilled, and Izzy uses them against those she sees as causing her pain.
Ultimately, Izzy spares her mother from Amber’s fate – so long Amber, we barely knew ya – but it’s clear the power has shifted. Mom is scared of Izzy now, and Izzy knows it. The final moments of the film reverse the dynamic of the first act, with Izzy telling Mom she’s going into town, while Mom is forced to stay where she is.
There are intimations throughout the unspooling of the Hellbender mythology (to which we’re given only glimpses) that these centuries of asexual reproduction include an element of violence on behalf of children against their mothers; the mother who gives the child life must eventually sacrifice her life – literally – to the daughter, who is compelled to eliminate her. I’m guessing at this because none of it is explained clearly, which I think is best. To overly explain the mystery of this world our protagonist is just beginning to explore would be incongruous with what’s happening at this moment. Izzy doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about the darker side of her family history which might give her pause; she’s actively rejecting the perspective of her mother during this process, so it makes sense that what we learn is barely enough to grasp also. We’re only shown what Izzy wants to focus on, which is a power that’s been denied her for 16 years. At the movie’s end, Izzy’s path forward is unclear, but she’s already killed one person within weeks of learning about what she’s capable of, so it doesn’t look good for anyone. Perhaps she will eventually draw the same conclusion as her mother, who has made it clear to Izzy that she regrets her past acts of violence, but it’s also clear, based on how things turned out for Mom, that fully denying her power is a losing proposition also. We know Izzy’s fated to reproduce and grapple with a daughter of her own and how who that girl becomes determines her own future. Izzy may be feeling her witchy oats at the moment, but moving forward is going to be complicated.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reason for filming: Carl, a wanna-be paranormal investigator, arrives at a Devonshire farm to try and help its owners figure out what can explain the supernatural occurrences on their property
What’s the horror: poltergeists, ghosts, cults
Does the dog die? Lots of animals in this one, but the only ones that die are already dead and being used for bait for other animals (squirrels, rabbits). They barely even look like animals anymore, and are not related to the story in any way. But they are there.
Gore factor: None
Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation. I love to watch these films!
SPOILERS ABOUND! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
The Paranormal Farm trilogy starts with this entry, released in 2017. It’s not clear if the writer, director, and star (Carl Medland) intended to construct a trilogy around the concept, but my guess is that he didn’t, and continued on with the story in parts 2 and 3 due to the reception of this first one.
Shot entirely on Carl’s cellphone, Paranormal Farm starts with the protagonist explaining to his audience what the film is going to be about. It seems Carl recently filmed some mysterious orbs in a French chateau, and as a result of uploading this video to YouTube he was contacted by Darren and Lucy, a couple who own a large farm in Devonshire. Darren and Lucy have had strange occurrences on the farm, and they’ve asked Carl to investigate.
Now, I’ve read an interview or two with Carl about the making of this first film, so I want to share what I know here since I think it plays directly into the enjoyable aspects of this movie. Obviously it had no budget, and the decision to film it on a cellphone was to create an “immersive” experience, according to Medland (he uses his real name in the movie). There was no script, and Medland claims the producer (who goes by Taz and is introduced in later films) was the one setting up the scares – it seems to me this would be impossible to pull off unless the owners of the farm were given more details, even if Carl didn’t know them – but the interview I read doesn’t get into that. I will say that the film feels very reactionary, much more than most found footage films, in the sense that it genuinely seems to be reacting to the farm setting and the oddness of the two characters, as if the script is being constructed as the director familiarizes himself with the setting, and begins incorporating elements of the farm into the experience. I credit this at least partly to the fact that Carl Medland was already a filmmaker and screenwriter before this endeavor, and it is far from his first time making a movie. He definitely brings to this a skill that transcends the format’s limitations.
Some of these farm-quirks are downright inexplicable, like the presence of MANY mannequins placed around the property, fully dressed in farming attire. Why are they there? It’s never explained, and since Carl never asks the couple about them, it remains a mystery, both to him and to us. This is one choice Medland repeatedly makes throughout the film that works well to keep us rooted in Carl’s experience: there are a lot of weird things going on here that he documents, but never asks for clarification about, and while that does come across as a bit strange, the more immediate effect is to make us feel as nervous and edgy as Carl does as he wanders about trying to solve the mystery of the supernatural goings-on. Sure, it would have made sense to ask Darren and Lucy what the deal was with the mannequins, but it works so much better if we (and Carl), don’t know. Likewise, Carl often experiences pretty scary things on his own that he fails to clarify with the couple (such as the figure in the clown mask that follows him around at one point), opting instead just to tell them that some force around the farm feels malevolent.
To Medland’s credit, that lack of questioning never comes off as merely a way to service the plot. In fact, this movie throws a lot of weirdness at you that goes by too quickly to make sense of, and in this manner Carl’s failures to ask for details or report them as they occur seems normal. The scares here feel really organic, and it all goes back to the idea that Medland (or Taz) is fully utilizing elements of the farm that already existed to create scares and reasoning for those scares as he goes, which should feel sloppy but doesn’t. Credit for this organic feel must also be given to the other two characters in the movie, Lucy and Darren.
Medland says Lucy and Darren went into this project with no idea of what they were supposed to do beyond a very thin framework, and that he peppered them with questions on the spot that they had to make up answers to. While that seems hard to believe at times, I can say that their behavior in relation to Carl’s questioning is certainly odd, especially in the beginning when they have no idea what Medland and Taz are going to throw at them. But they are clearly game for the whole thing, and knowing they were totally making up information in response to what they were being fed goes a long way to explain how odd they come across in the first film. Their answers are often vague and non-committal, and at times they both squirm and shuffle oddly in their responses. (It may be a bit of a downer to know going in how this was filmed, but hey, I warned you.) Given how the movie ends, this weirdness really works and manages to come together quite nicely – although there’s no way they weren’t coached on what to do in those last ten minutes. At least I certainly hope that’s the case (and future installments will confirm that it is).
And just what exactly is going on down on the farm? Well, there’s strange sounds and knocks in the walls. Stuff gets knocked off of shelves or moved around. There’s a huge gong that sometimes bongs for no reason. And there’s strange lights that they both see in the distance sometimes at night – right around the spot where they think their daughter Jessica disappeared five years prior. The couple show Carl around the farm, both inside and out, then take their box of wine out to a camper parked on their property and leave him alone to do his thing for the rest of the night.
Soon Carl is experiencing paranormal events of his own. The lights flicker every time he whispers Jessica’s name. Just as Lucy described, the gong rings out on its own. And a strange dude in a clown mask is wandering the premises, along with the creepy mannequins who suddenly don masks themselves – one has even grown a Freddy Krueger claw. At one point, Carl gets the bright idea to use a plasma ball he finds in Jessica’s room to try and communicate with her (another example of Medland using what he finds in the moment to move the story) and channels her just long enough to get a weird clue that is never totally explained. Plasma balls, dummies, clowns, weird sounds – it all culminates in the moment when Carl visits Lucy and Darren in the camper (where Lucy has clearly taken advantage of the majority, if not all, of the boxed wine) and tells them he does feel Jessica in the house, and that she is at peace, but there is also something evil lurking about, which leads Darren to inexplicably get upset and run off.
And that’s when the movie ties things all together. As Carl searches for Darren, the clown-masked mannequins start to move and lay chase. After much running about and away, Carl stumbles upon a campfire out in the woods, surrounded by more clown maskers chanting “tseab, tseab, tseab!” Um, okay? Of course, he steps on a twig that alerts the cult to his appearance, and more chasing ensues in the form what appears to be an ever-increasing population of clown-mask-clad characters, culminating in Carl hiding out alone in the barn, only to be discovered by a maniacal clown with a chainsaw who hacks off his arm (we don’t see it). Carl’s phone is still recording, of course, and so the audience sees the maniac remove his mask to reveal that he’s actually Darren.
Cut to some security footage the next day, showing the now-dead Carl being strapped to a ladder as bait for a mysterious “beast” who lives in the forest. Then cut to a scene of the family singing happy birthday to someone who is clearly their son, while Lucy scoops out heaping helpings of lasagna onto paper plates. “This tastes different this time,” someone says, to which Lucy quips something to the effect that there’s a secret ingredient in it, which we’re led to assume is Carl. The end.
The way this seemingly muddled mess of a movie manages to tie it all together quite nicely at the end really sold it to me, as well as the personality of Medland himself, who is funny and charming throughout. He wants to be a paranormal investigator, but he’s so scared of every single supernatural thing that happens that it appears he’s chosen the wrong profession, even though he really can channel spirits such as Jessica’s. Likewise, we can attribute the weirdness of Lucy and Darren to their evil-cult plans, which appears to also explain the mannequins and clown masks and other bizarre goings-on – Medland manages to fit it all in to this cult he reveals in the final moments. Even though the necessity of clown masks and mannequins is still unclear, it’s satisfying enough in its own right, and leaves Medland with some terrific meta-material that he will mine in the next film – which I’ll discuss next time.
I’m pretty sure this was made with almost no budget, as it is simply several people communicating via computer during confinement due to a pandemic. That’s one of several things I think this movie does cleverly; it doesn’t date itself by using any particular technology when communicating with each other, and it never names the pandemic as COVID. This gives it a little bit of a broader scope, and makes it applicable to any time period.
The concept is pretty simple. A woman and her boyfriend are separated due to his job when he tests positive for whatever the plague is that has everyone in lockdown mode (we can assume it’s COVID, but again, since the movie doesn’t say, I don’t want to make assumptions) and is forced to stay out of town until he is cleared to go home. The two are communicating via computer when the man, whose name is Austin (and who I have to mention looks WAY too old for his girlfriend, not to be ageist but it’s pretty jarring) hears a knock at his door. He goes to answer the door, but no one is there. The next day, while Lisa, the girlfriend, is doing that THING that found footage movies simply MUST throw into the mix where the dude asks the girl to make some sort of naughty video for them (ugh), she hears a knock at her door. She goes to answer, and yep – no one’s there. It’s late at night, and she’s a little freaked out, but she gets back into the tub (no, we don’t see anything) to make her video, and there’s a loud knock again, but this time it’s at her bathroom door. But once again – no one’s there.
And that’s pretty much how it goes – although they’re miles and miles apart, both of them are hearing knocks at the door, that escalate into knocks inside the walls of the house, then they also hear scratching, and doors start to open on their own. Rooms they just left get trashed, and stuff is moving from where they put it down to some other random place. Meanwhile, they both start feeling sicker and sicker, as if this weird, supernatural haunting is somehow connected to the virus.
There’s also some pretty good drama between Lisa and Austin, and I like the way they did this. Usually in found footage films I find the obligatory “people must fight with each other” trope to be completely overdone, but the way this film goes about it makes more sense than it usually does; instead of the usual fighting over what to do about the ghostly happenings (one person wants to leave, one wants to stay, blah blah blah) they actually fight about what the happenings are. Austin thinks it is an ex-boyfriend of Lisa’s playing tricks on them, while Lisa knows that isn’t the case; Austin thinks Lisa’s complete rejection of the idea that it’s her ex means she still has feelings for him, and he pushes and pushes her in every conversation – to the point that I found myself wanting to strangle Austin as much as Lisa does. It’s super annoying, but really effective, and a much more engaging way for tension to build than usually occurs in found footage movies, because it’s something you could really see a couple getting into conflict over, and instead of being fighting for the sake of fighting, it actually adds some depth to their relationship.
There’s also a friend named Avery who’s involved on the periphery, a police detective who gets drawn in at one point, and the moderator of an online group dedicated to people who are having the same supernatural occurrences as Austin and Lisa and who is trying desperately to find out what’s going on before more people die. The dude does make a connection that I won’t get into here, in case you don’t want to be spoiled – but it’s an effective explanation that works within the confines of the story. There are also occasional YouTube videos of other people experiencing the same thing scattered into the mix.
I do think the acting is very effective in this movie. I was particularly impressed with Lisa, who is played by actress Sumayyah Ameerah; she just has a few other credits and there’s not much about her online, but she really has to carry this film, and she does a great job. She’s very likeable, and her increasing panic as the illness and the hauntings escalate is more than one-note. She gets a bit of backstory as well, and her therapist makes a few appearances to help flesh out some of her issues that are definitely getting triggered by her isolation and panic as well as her conflicts with Austin. Kipp Tribble, who plays Austin, is also quite good here. He has kind of a shitty role to play in being such an ass to Lisa about her ex, but he commits to it enough that you want to punch him, but you don’t want him to die or anything.
One thing that makes this movie stick with me even upon repeated viewings is that it works well within the confines of the (completely absent?) budget and the found-footage constraints. It doesn’t try to do or show too much, and as a result, it comes across as pretty realistic. We’ve all seen the videos that claim to show actual hauntings, and they’re never anything more than a shadow or a random sound or something falling over; while that’s never convincing when looking for ABSOLUTE PROOF of the supernatural, there’s a reason such videos still get so much play – it’s easy to convince yourself that pencil that rolled off the table could have been a poltergeist, and it’s similarly easy in this movie to believe that loud knocking on a door in the middle of the night just might be the boogeyman out to get you. This movie does not underestimate the power of those creepy ‘house sounds’ we all experience when we’re home alone and awake late at night, and it doesn’t try to fill in any visual blanks about what might be causing them. In short, this movie does just what it needs to do to creep you out, and nothing more, and that’s a good thing in my opinion.
I also like how the movie ties this current pandemic to similar plagues throughout history, reminding us all that humanity has been here before, many times. COVID, the Black Plague, you name it – there’s always something lurking out there that’s waiting to wipe us all out. And when your luck runs out, it might just start knocking on your door.
What’s the Horror: Badass pissed-off witches and family curses
Does the Dog Die? Heidi owns a sweet golden retriever named Troy, but there’s no need to worry. He suffers no cruelty in this movie.
Gore Factor: Not much – on a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a four. Everything is very stylized here, and what blood there is still manages to be kind of twisted and beautiful.
Character Quality: It’s lacking. Sheri Moon Zombie does her best, but her range is limited, and there’s a lot that isn’t fleshed out among the others. A few character actors give powerful performances, though, and while Sheri Moon is a little one-note, she is quite likeable and sympathetic, and you can’t help but root for her.
Why Do I Like It? Zombie creates tension and dread beautifully in this movie, and the visuals are stunning. It’s more of a mood than a movie with a plot, but it’s a hell of mesmerizing mood in my opinion. It’s lovely to watch, and just feel.
Rob Zombie movies – I either love ’em or hate ’em. It always feels to me like he aims much higher than his relatively independent budgets allow him to go, and he ends up having to modify his original vision down to something that often just looks confusing and half-baked. But when he is able to bring his visions to the screen clearly and entirely, I think he rocks – and not just because he’s also a musician.
The Lords of Salem, which released in 2012, is probably an example of a Zombie film that got lost a bit in translation, possibly because his vision exceeded his budget again. It’s a common theme I’ve heard in the movie commentaries I’ve listened to on other films; Zombie constantly mentions scenes that had to either be cut or reconstructed because he didn’t have the money to pull off what he’d conceived in the script. In 2013, Zombie released a Lords of Salem book that actually fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie, and since I loved the film so much I actually bought and read it, something I’ve never done to compliment a filmv- aside from Pan’s Labyrinth (which, holy shit, if you haven’t seen that movie, please do). Personally, this movie pleased me on such an emotional and aesthetic level that I didn’t care if the plot didn’t pan out, but reading the book was an enjoyable way to get the entire backstory that explained some of the random bits and bobs that popped up in the film without real explanation.
One reason I love Lords of Salem is because it’s about witches. And like one of my other favorite films, the 2018 version of Suspiria, these are not pleasant witches to deal with, which is fine by me – while I dislike the idea that witches represent a means to denigrate powerful women, I also don’t mind them showing up on screen as badass bitches who take revenge over those who’ve wronged them. So, there’s that.
We have two types of witches here – wild, wooly hags of the past dancing around fires and casting spells (as well as getting burned at the stake when their enemy, John Hawthorne, finally captures and condemns them), and seemingly benign, cheerful women in midlife who take a particular liking to the film’s protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne (that last name turns out to be significant).
Now let’s talk about Heidi. Rob Zombie has a stable of actors he uses in his movies, and his wife Sheri Moon Zombie always plays a part onscreen. Her acting range isn’t great, and her character takes center stage here; while another actress may have provided more depth to the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part as it seems apparent Zombie wrote this script to showcase her. In fact, I read somewhere that Lords of Salem is “a love letter to his wife,” and I have to agree – the role of Heidi plays to Sheri Moon’s strengths, which are an uncanny ability to radiate California-sunshine sweetness in even the most sadistic of roles (such as Baby Firefly), and to project a disarming sense of innocence in a woman over 40 (she was 42 or 43 when this was made) that always makes the audience root for her no matter how psychotic her character may be. Plus, I must admit that I have a massive crush on the woman, and even though the “ugh, another Rob Zombie movie with his wife in it” attitude out there is strong, I for one am always down to see her onscreen. She is gorgeous and also close to my age – she just turned fifty – and she’s all natural, which is obviously rare. In fact, her Instagram reveals her to be pretty much the sweet-natured, animal-loving, healthy-living California girl that she looks like in most of Zombie’s movies – even though they try hard to disguise that quality here.
Heidi Hawthorne is massively tattooed, dreadlocked, and bespectacled – all adornments Sheri Moon Zombie lacks in real life. She is still model-tall and rail-thin, with a great ass – don’t judge me, Rob makes sure we get a good glimpse of her derriere at least once in every film. In fact, the first shot we get of Heidi is when she’s asleep face down naked on her bed, as the camera slowly pans up from foot to fingers. It’s a lovely shot, and my guess is that even now, at age fifty, Sheri can still pull it off.
She’s also fairly normal here, in spite of her alternative looks, which Heidi gets away with because she’s one of three hosts of one of those kooky morning radio shows where they play very little music and create a lot of annoying banter between them. She wakes up like the rest of us, most likely – jarred by the sound of the alarm, shuffling to the bathroom and heaving a weary sigh as she looks at her tired face in the mirror. What we soon learn is that she’s also recently gotten clean, although the movie gives little insight into what extent her addiction had over her, and only provides a tiny glimpse at what her drug of choice had been (there’s one scene of her smoking crack towards the end of the film, after everything’s gone of the rails and she’s essentially given up all hope). This is one area where the book does a better job than the film at describing the extent to which Heidi’s addiction affected her co-workers and the pretty big risk both guys took by fighting to keep her on; her crack addiction almost tanked their morning show entirely at some point in the recent past, so when it appears she’s fallen off the wagon, the level of anger her co-workers show makes a lot more sense with that context. In the movie, one of the DJs in particular comes off like an unsympathetic dick, but once you realize he basically promised the powers-that-be that she’d stay clean, it makes more sense.
The problem is, Heidi does stay clean, for most of the film, and only turns to crack once her life has fallen apart, and she has no idea why. Things start to go off the rails fairly quickly, when Heidi receives a weird record from a band called “The Lords” that is sent directly to her with no return address. Soon, she’s putting the record on the old turntable and giving it a spin, and immediately falls into a trance where she’s transported back to those crusty witches of yore we already saw in the movie’s opening.
Meg Foster plays Margaret Morgan, the badass head of the coven that gets roasted by what turns out to be Heidi’s great-great something or other grandfather – the connection isn’t made until later because Heidi doesn’t use her real name on the air, she goes by the perfectly cheesy Heidi LeRoq. But I digress. Meg Foster is as badass as her character, and she is hella wild in this role. Her voice is gravelly, she still has those ice-blue eyes that made her famous, and she hams it up at every opportunity. So as I said, Heidi hears the music of The Lords and immediately trances into a scene of Margaret Morgan spitting on a newborn baby and screeching about how the coven has failed to birth what I can only assume would be the son of Satan.
The music, by the way, is singularly freaky, and could not better represent what might be some ancient music played by witches using human bones and organs as instruments. The real clip of it is only 35 seconds long, but some twisted person on YouTube actually looped it out to 11 minutes, which would make anyone insane. It’s worth a quick listen though, because it’s oddly effective.
So the skinny is this: when John Hawthorne burned Margaret and her coven members at the stake (in a scene that is horrifying in its accuracy), ol’ Meg put a curse on his entire family line, culminating in eventually using some distant relative of his to be the bearer of the devil-baby they were never able to produce. Enter Heidi Hawthorne.
And that’s basically it. Since Heidi’s on the radio, her team decides to play The Lords’ trippy tune on air, and it sends out a sort of clarion call to all the women of Salem who are direct descendants of witch-burners from times past. It’s clear that not only Heidi is being affected every time the music plays, as we get scenes of other women all over town who are frozen in place whenever it sounds, but clearly Heidi is getting the worst of it. This is another area where the book goes into much more detail than the film, making it far clearer just what’s going on. The music was originally made by Margaret’s coven, and it’s been lying in wait for Heidi Hawthorne herself to get prepped and ready for the miraculous birth. The other women are being called to join in the ritual and ultimately sacrifice themselves as punishment for the forefathers’ sins.
So the rest of the movie is just Heidi slowly being driven into a state of submission and weakness, having terrible dreams and horrific experiences, and becoming more and more despondent as her life falls apart due to forces she doesn’t understand. Throughout the movie there are some stunning visual sequences that represent this descent, and the way Zombie cuts between the slow, sad decline of Heidi and the manic, fiery rage of the ancient witches as they gradually come together is effectively dreadful. It is all manipulated, of course, by the sweet-on-the-surface landlord named Lacey who dotes on Heidi alongside her kooky “sisters” who are actually modern-day members of the same coven, come to escort Heidi to her devilish demise. As Heidi spirals downward, they tighten their grip, feeding her powerful tea and guiding her into mysterious rooms in the boardinghouse Lacey owns, where fantastical scenes play out rather incomprehensively but beautifully. I’m still not clear what actually happens to Heidi in some of these scenes, but what they lack in explication they make up for in mood.
Things get a bit murky as Heidi hurtles towards her inevitable end; there’s a scene that may be the impregnation, by a group of bizarre faceless “doctors,” or it could be another scene where she appears to be connected by umbilical cords to a squatty, grisly demon. There’s a scene where she’s strapped down and attacked by Margaret Morgan and her coven which may be the birth that kills her, and then some sort of resurrection, maybe?, that ends the film. None of it is clear, but it is compelling and fascinating to watch, so when the credits roll and a news radio reports that all the female descendants of the original Salem founders were found dead in an apparent suicide pact while Heidi Hawthorne has gone missing, I’m willing to accept it for the wild trip it all is. And then I watch it again.
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!
Crowsnest is a Canadian FF movie that was released in 2012 and directed by Brendan Spencer. It follows a group of friends on a road trip who encounter some seriously bad action along the way. Yeah, yeah, I know. But stay with me.
SPOLIERS BELOW! Do not continue if you don’t want to know.
Reason for filming: Dude’s got a new camera! Let’s film everything! Let’s go on a road trip and film everything!
What’s the horror: Psycho killers
Does the dog die? No pets in this one, but some mutilated animals in some pretty gruesome close-ups shots that are easy enough to look away from if you don’t want to see.
Gore factor: It is gory in parts – as in, we see a lot of gory human/animal parts – but it’s not the main focus of the film. Where it is used, it’s mostly used effectively. And again, there’s fair warning that it’s coming, so the more squeamish (like me) can look away and avoid it if needed.
Character quality: Less than zero. Terrible people for the most part. But it’s fun to watch them die.
Re-Watch Scale: Occasional re-watch, with limitations – there’s a good chunk of this film that I skip every time, and even though I always tell myself I’ll commit to watching the whole thing. I never do.
This is a weird review for me to write, because this film is SO uneven, in my opinion – the bad stuff is really, really bad, but the good stuff is really, really entertaining and fun. Fun enough that I am willing to endure the bad stuff I can’t skip, and to skip the first 20 minutes of awful every single time. There are sections of this movie I absolutely love, and it makes up for the aspects of it that I hate, but overall it does make me wish for a better movie than this ended up being.
So yes, the setup for this movie is really typical stuff – we start out with a twentysomething dude firing up a new camera and immediately expositing how much he wants to record sex stuff with it, and trying to film females in the apartment across the street while they change clothes, etc. Then, in rapid succession, we get a lot of typical, annoying young-dude details that a lot of FF films like to throw in when using this premise, and that never fail to irritate the shit out of me – filming friends partying, trying to get a girlfriend to agree to have sex on camera, lying that the camera is turned off while they fool around in the hopes he can secretly film himself and his girlfriend having sex, getting yelled at by friends who get sick of being filmed. A very stereotypical start to a FF film that I usually hate, unless it has some good character work that makes up for it. This movie does not. I will admit here that I have NEVER watched the first 20 minutes of this film. I try, but I can’t even get past the first scene before I not only don’t care but want to rush ahead to the section where these assholes get killed.
Things don’t get much better when the camera transitions to daytime and the gang is loading up the car for a road trip. It’s more of the same; lots of people getting annoyed the dude is filming and the dude continuing to film. The conversation between the five friends (three females, two males) is grating, and no one comes off as likeable or entertaining here at all. Immediately conflict arises through the silliest plot device I’ve ever heard: there’s no beer in the cooler because the driver, Kirk, knows a place on the way to his family’s cottage where “you can get beer half-price.” I’m sorry – what? In my entire life I’ve never heard the phrase “half-price beer” uttered, and I’ve swallowed a lot of beer over the years. Who says such a thing? “Cheap beer” I’ve heard, yes, and even “dollar beer” as in “hey, Emo’s has dollar beer night on Wednesdays” (and yes, Houstonians, I just dated myself) – but “half-price”? Like you might say about buying, I don’t know, socks or hair products? It’s just so weird and not believable at all; if cost is an issue you buy some Natural Light or some other garbage beer that’s rock bottom cost and get your drink on. No one drives far out of their way in the middle of nowhere for something called “half-price beer.” And what kind of beer is half-price? All of it? One particular brand? Is this a special sale that ends at some point, or is that the focus of this country store? And is it really worth listening to your whiny buddy boy Justin rant and rail against the lack of beer for an hour and a half just to get to it? No, it is not. And yet, Kirk persists.
Once again, I skip most of the driving section (except for the ‘half price beer’ conversation, which always makes me laugh) because it’s not worth watching. It sets up nothing beyond ‘gonna go party at a cabin in the woods’ and establishes pretty stereotypical character types (party girl, girlfriend, prude girl sister of party girl, party boy boyfriend, stubborn idiot boy/jilted ex). You may be wondering why I even kept watching at this point, and that’s a good question: I saw some trailers for this movie before watching it, so I knew there was going to be a decent payoff eventually, and the trailer left enough to the imagination to keep me watching. Once the group burns out on fighting with each over exactly how lost they are and whose fault it is that they got lost (newsflash – it’s Kirk’s) they stumble across a strange, dilapidated clump of buildings surrounded by tumbleweeds and dust. It sort of looks like a rejected set from Westworld. It’s not clear if this is the infamous “half price beer” store Kirk’s been searching for, or if it is indeed a random hellscape where the gang ends up after getting themselves terribly turned around, but for what it’s worth there appears to be some sort of store that’s operating there, along with a bunch of nothing else happening in these nasty old buildings.
This is a good place to start watching, though, because we get a nice dose of creepy in the form of a very The Ring-ish little girl who jump scares into the camera frame as whoever is manning it at the moment spins around (various people will man the camera throughout the film – the reasons for doing this are never believable, but that’s the case in most FF so I’m fine with it). It’s a nice, creepy moment that heightens the tension in an already creepy scene, so I’m pleased. Of course, the camera pans away from creepy girl for a moment and then flashes back, only to find said girl has vanished. It’s another standard moment for a movie like this, but I am at least pleased no one tries to get her to take her top off or slam back seven shots in a row. I’ll take it.
By the way, when the dudes get back in the car from whatever general store they ventured into, it turns out they did, in fact, get their half-price beer, and I am sorely disappointed to see that it is not a six-pack of white cans with HALF PRICE BEER in block lettering on the side – well maybe it is, but no one holds a can up to the camera, so it’s the same as if it isn’t. What we do see is that they also got a general sense of unease and a creeped-out conversation from some weird dude inside who stared at them and offered a stern warning to “turn around now,” a warning that the girls, of course, blow off as the guys just trying to mess with them. Someone always has to get warned in setups like this, or at least get a general sense of the willies (which prude girl, whose name is Danielle, takes care of), while someone else has to insist none of it is real and that it’s all an elaborate prank. Soon, it’s gloomy and drizzling rain, and Justin mutters something about needing to “drain the lizard” (I kid you not), and the gang pulls over on the side of the road so the reptile-draining can commence.
It’s at this moment – approximately 28 minutes in – when this movie FINALLY kicks it into high gear. Danielle is being all “this is all a bad idea I have bad feelings” and her sister Amanda (aka Party Girl) is all “aw poor widdle baby are you scared why not come out into the middle of the road like me and spin in circles wheeeeeee” and then WHAM! A huge-ass beige and brown RV literally comes out of nowhere, blares its horn, and almost runs Amanda over. It’s a GREAT jump scare, and while I admittedly am easily impressed and not an expert at all about what is an effective effect and what isn’t, I am impressed by how convincing this moment is. It’s completely unexpected, and makes little sense based on the glimpses of foreboding we’ve gotten up to this point that leads us to believe something supernatural is going to happen (a group of millennials in the woods and all). It’s unclear at this point if this is just another harbinger of doom and gloom to come, or the actual cause of all the anticipated horror. After the moment slams the viewer into another dimension much as it slams Danielle into the ground and we all recover, everyone is understandably freaked out, while Kirk is understandably pissed that some RV just tried to make roadkill out of one of his friends.
Oh – speaking of roadkill, I forgot to mention that right before the group gets to Creepy Ghost Town they encounter some pretty nasty looking roadkill on the side of road, and of course Kirk and Justin get out to film it. It’s gross. It appears to be an animal that has been not only skinned, but somehow turned inside-out. If you must see it, start watching a little before the half-price ghost town scene.
And this next bit is I think why this aspect of the movie can still freak me out, because I would have done exactly what Kirk does next. He goes after the RV at full speed, demanding comeuppance for almost turning one of his friends into the human equivalent of a deflated tire. I mean, it was clearly intentional and could have been avoided. I’ve rolled this around in my mind a million times, and there’s just no way I could let someone get away with this either, so I can’t blame Kirk for getting in the car and going after the driver of that thing. Problem is, of course, that this RV is HUGE, like, even more so than the typical RV. It’s tricked out somehow, and really long, and there’s something not normal about it. But again – even if it was a weird, tricked-out, long-ass RV, I’d be hard-pressed not to follow it and do something about the fact that the driver tried to kill my friend. Plus, it’s an RV, so surely the driver is some older couple who is too senile to be on the road or something, right? I mean, something along those lines has to be the explanation. It should be easy enough to catch up to it and do – something. Who knows what one should do at that point, but again, you don’t just let some asshole try to kill your friend and then just get away. Or maybe that’s just me.
Perhaps it’s this that makes the film, at this point, a thrill rush. I can relate to what Kirk does, which makes what happens in reaction to his actions even more terrifying, because it could actually happen to me. Kirk gets everyone back into the car and takes off after the RV, chasing it down a seriously isolated, backwoods gravel country road with nothing else around. The girls, understandably, are upset and just want Kirk to stop, but Justin and Kirk are insistent that they get close enough to the truck to get the license plate number and then they will call it a day. Again – not unreasonable at all. They come around a curve in the road, spot the truck, and give chase.
So now they’re on a dirt road, it’s raining, and as they gain on the RV it suddenly slams on the brakes, sending Kirk and Co. into a slippery skid. Then it guns the gas, spins its wheels, and takes off again – surprisingly fast for a recreationary vehicle, I might add. The guys still didn’t get the license plate number, so while they sit there in the middle of the road trying to decide what they should do, the RV can be seen through their front window, some distance away, hitting its brakes again, and then – turning around. And then – charging straight at the gang’s car, gaining speed. For a moment or two, Kirk hesitates, hoping for the thing to get close enough to catch the license plate number, but then the RV blares its horn again, and the kids figure out that this thing ain’t stoppin’, and it has a heck of a lot of get-up-and-go for a twenty-ton vehicle.
A word or two about that horn – I don’t know if there is anything special about it, so perhaps it’s purely the connection to threat and death that makes it so menacing. Or maybe there’s some special sound effect that adds to the menace, I don’t know. But it works. It’s a significant sound that portends death every time we hear it, and it heightens tension every time. It’s a very deep sound, more like a foghorn on a lighthouse than one on a RV (for reference, some friends of mine had an RV growing up, and its horn played “Dixieland,” so there you go).
A great chase ensues, wherein Kirk and Co. have to skeedaddle in reverse for a while, with the cab of the RV coming ever closer and blaring its horn. Also, only one headlight is working on the thing, which – I don’t know, it’s an interesting detail that hints again how something is not quite right about this vehicle. It’s been through some things. Or more likely, it’s put other people through some things quite similar to what it’s putting our protagonists through right now. Another nice detail we see is that the car Kirk’s driving has its license plate resting on the dashboard of the car. The license plate on the RV still can’t be seen, which is unusual, and it turns out something’s not quite right with the placement of the one on Kirk’s car, either. It works to connect the two vehicles together, as if from this point forward, they can’t, or won’t, stay separated.
Kirk should be able to get away from this thing, but even after he manages to spin the car around it keeps gaining. Soon it’s ramming them from behind, blaring that deep, creepy horn, one headlight winking through the back window. This is the scene I saw in the previews, and when watching it for the first time it still wasn’t clear to me if this was the entire threat the gang would face, or if they would actually make it to the cabin and other madness would ensue. I like that it kept me guessing.
After a few more rams into the back of Kirk’s car, the RV just – disappears. Kirk thinks he’s outrun it, and is overly proud of his accomplishment. “He can’t catch us going up a hill!” he keeps shouting, which is not a very catchy victory chant, to be honest. Kirk’s pumped, but Danielle is about to puke from all the jostling of the car, and eventually the girls convince Kirk to pull over so she can get it all out. The screaming and fighting between the team here is a bit much to take, so I can’t say I blame her; there’s going to be a lot of that as the show goes on. Screaming, not puking. But there’s more of that to come, too. Finally Kirk is shouted into pulling over, at which point he confirms his total douchiness by whining about scratches and dents on his parent’s car while Danielle loses her lunch on the other side of the road (I hate movie puke, by the way, so rest assured you don’t see it here). The contrast between the sensitivity the girls can be seen showing to each other in the background of the shot and the way Justin and Kirk act like macho dicks in the foreground is a nice juxtaposition that actually does provide us a little twinge or two of sympathy for the women. Especially with what comes next.
They pile back in after some more asshattery from Kirk, and things seem to be calming down – but soon Danielle needs to puke again, so Kirk pulls over and she rushes out, leaning down and getting sick right against the side of car this time (you still don’t see it) . Kirk starts bitching about her getting puke on her car, and the girls try to act concerned while also giggling about the whole thing – an understandable release of adrenaline and tension. Then WHAM! With a blast of the horn the RV slashes past, completely flattening Danielle as she is puking on the side of the road. We hear the crunch of her bones as blood splatters up across the side windows of the car. And just like that, it goes quiet, leaving the rest of the gang, and the audience, in shock. Did that really just happen? Is that Danielle’s blood on the windows? Is she dead? Holy shit!
Well, Danielle is not dead, and she also is surprisingly intact given the situation, but whatever. I’m going to assume this low-budget production just didn’t have the capacity to make her look actually maimed so they went with internal injuries in spite of the external blood that sploshed all over the car. A minor quibble. They drag Danielle back into the car and hurry on up the road, more shouting ensuing over what they should do – keep driving to find a hospital, or pull over and try to find a location where they can get cell service to call an ambulance (oh yeah, as is the case in just about any FF movie, no one has cell service now that they need it). In the end, it doesn’t matter. Danielle crosses over pretty soon, and now we know what the real threat is gonna be in this movie. It’s that creepy-ass RV, and whoever – or whatever – is its driver. We have no idea who is behind this, because along with the lack of license plates, the unbelievable speed, and the extended-cab length of that spooky thing, are some seriously tinted windows that render visibility into it impossible. Who knows who’s behind that wheel. It could be anything. And it’s clear now that it’s stalking them.
I really found this to be a neat twist on the friends-in-the-woods found footage sub-genre. No witches or paranormal activity. Just brief, quick hits from some psychos in a massive van. It takes the term road trip to a different level – not a higher level, necessarily, but at least a different one – and I like it.
Eventually they decide to pull over and see if they can walk to higher elevation via some roadside hills and get their cell phones to work – as usual, not everyone is in agreement with this plan and everyone’s shouting and cursing it all out, but once again I actually am in agreement with Kirk’s choice, which rather disturbs me since he’s such a dick. But they’re in real trouble, one of them is now dead, and it’s obvious that driving around is not optimal, as it’s what has gotten them to this place to begin with. So trying to find cell service seems logical. But Amanda refuses to leave her dead sister alone in the car, and after screaming at her shockingly doesn’t work, the rest of the group leave her there while they wander off into the woods and hike up high to try using their phones.
I’m sure you can guess what happens next – no cell service can be found, and soon enough we hear that RV horn again, the screech of tires, and Amanda’s screams. Weirdly, the gang is shocked when they run back to the car and find both the living and the dead body gone, which shouldn’t be a shock at all given what they heard. But shocked they are, and now they’re completely panicked. I guess I should mention that somewhere in the midst of all this a fight breaks out among Brooke (the girlfriend of Justin), Justin, and Kirk that ends up revealing how Brooke and Kirk used to sleep together or something, which upsets Justin and leads to him stalking off heartbroken with the camera, but honestly who cares. There’s absolutely nothing that’s been established that would lead the audience to care about any of this, and it comes across as merely a device to separate the three. Since Kirk is the protagonist who owns the car, and Brooke is obviously his One That Got Away, it’s pretty clear who’s going to get the horn next, and at the moment, he’s all alone in the woods, and he’s got the camera.
The whole boy/girl/ex-boy conflict isn’t the only old trope the movie trots out at this point. While more wandering around the forest ensues, we get the first of what will be three – yes THREE – Blair-Witch style camera confessions. Two come from Justin and one comes from Kirk towards the end of the film, and I hate every single one of them. Both Justin and Kirk film themselves summarizing what has happened up to this point, in case the cops find the camera after they’ve died, and honestly – do we need TWO scenes of characters explaining to the camera all the action we’ve already seen? No, we do not. We do not even need one, much less two of these, and I also don’t need to see either one of these dudes tell their loved ones goodbye. But, there’s enough other good stuff happening now that I sit through it, so I don’t miss anything. And what I don’t want to miss is how the movie ups the stakes some point soon after Justin cries into the camera. Because we’re about to find out just what’s up with that goddamn motor vehicle, and it’s pretty badass.
Justin stumbles about alone until he crawls into a clearing and sees the RV sitting there, right the fuck in front of him. It’s pretty jarring, and Justin seems extremely exposed. He manages to hunker down behind some brush, and I tell you I’ve never in my life had an RV infuse me with fear, but this thing is damn menace. It’s freaky and seems to have a mind of its own. It’s a monster, is what it is, and I fully believe in it as an evil force at this point. I don’t even know if there is a driver inside of it. It has a creepy life all its own.
The RV is still and quiet and appears to be empty, so Justin, in a moment of what I can only assume is complete insanity, decides to approach it and try to get the license plate captured on camera (yes, this is the point at which all of my own instincts to defend my friends would have escaped me, replaced with self-preservation and an I’m sure they’re already dead level of selfishness. No more heroics for me). The closer he gets, the higher the tension, as his camera focuses on the side door of the camper, where we all expect something to burst forth at any moment. Nothing does, but there is blood visible on the underside of the door, and Justin follows a path of more blood to the back of the car, where the lack of license plate is confirmed. Where it should be is nothing but duct tape – a nice touch that gives us some quick insight to what is going on inside. Whatever is doing this is human, is very real, and has an intentional plan here that he or she intends to execute with whatever scant resources at their disposal. We can picture the sort of person who slathers duct tape over their license plates before heading out to commit murder, and it ain’t pretty. It’s someone who plans – but not too much or too carefully. Someone not afraid to get messy.
We’re about to get more information about just who that person, or who those people, are, because soon enough Justin hears footsteps approaching, as he’s hanging around in back of the RV like a spare tire. Under the vehicle he goes, continuing to film so we can see two sets of very human legs walk up to the car – clad in baggy pants and wearing heavy hiking boots. Something about just this glimpse of them fills the audience with dread: Oh shit, we think. Hicks.
It shouldn’t be a surprise given the backwoods location, but it kind of is. Two heavy-set figures who are clearly men are the ones who own and drive this beast. Who’ve already killed one friend and possibly a second by now. They stand close as if in discussion for a moment, then stomp off in different directions, with gaits that seem slightly bow-legged and heavy. We see more of one than the other as he walks away; he’s wearing baggy jeans and a dark plaid flannel, and he walks like he spends a lot of time stomping through muck. What the fuck. Why are they doing what they’re doing? What’s the end game here? It’s puzzling and unclear. It’s weird, and more than a little unsatisfying. They don’t have pointed tails poking out of their jeans, or cloven feet. What exactly is going on?
Once they’re gone, Justin crawls out from under the RV and decides to take a peek inside. The interior of the RV is completely dark, so the old gotta use my night vision camera canard comes into play. What we see via green light is pretty nasty: plastic-lined floors, buckets of bones and blood, knives and saws, and wait – is that a human foot? I think that’s a foot. It goes by pretty quickly, but we get the point. These dudes don’t just drive around generating roadkill. They do things with it. Bloody things. Ew.
The camera pans up to a human leg with a sawed-off foot we can only assume is the one we just panned by on the RV floor. It sounds awful but to be honest, it isn’t that bad. Again, I doubt these guys had the budget for real gore, so it’s serviceable at best. But we get the point, and I for one can have my imagination fill in the rest. Yep – we’re in Texas Chainsaw territory. Justin pans up, and it turns out the leg is attached to a body, and the body – is Amanda! She’s covered in blood and unconscious, but Justin’s proximity wakes her up. I have to say, as much as I didn’t like any of these characters up to this point in the film, both Justin and Amanda do a good job of being terrified and desperate in this scene. Amanda in particular sounds appropriately out of her mind with fright. She can’t see in the dark so she doesn’t know who it is that’s entered the camper, and it takes a while for Justin to calm her down enough to identify himself. He tries to keep her quiet, but she’s way past that by now and can’t control herself. It’s clear her cries are going to draw the murderers back to the RV at some point, and the tension here is real. She’s tied down, and Justin can’t untie the knots to get her out. Her panicked, desperate tears are very effective here; she knows there’s no way out, and she is terrified.
Then the movie ups the stakes a bit more. Justin hears something in the back of the RV and sneaks off to investigate. He pulls back a curtain to reveal – Ring-Girl from Creepy Westworld! Who the girls saw for a brief moment back in Half-Price Beer land! That’s right, she calls these insane car stalkers daddy, apparently, and they reward her by feeding her body parts. At the moment, she’s chowing down on what appears to be one of Danielle’s hands. When the kid sees Justin – and in the green light she looks downright demonic – she freaks out and goes in for the kill, scratching at him and screaming while Justin tries to keep things quiet so as not to alert the murderers. He ends up killing her, which gets Amanda, who still can’t see, started up again. Justin’s instincts kick in, and he now knows there’s nothing he can do – he can stay with Amanda and face the same fate when the hicks return, or he can bail out now and save his own ass, knowing Amanda is a lost cause anyway. It’s a pretty harrowing moment, as Amanda knows better than to believe Justin’s promises to return – the terror, shock, and outrage in her screams as he leaves is haunting, so once again – well-done here, Party Girl. And also, so long – we barely knew you.
From that point on, it’s a matter of time before Justin becomes the cannibals’ next meal. Sure enough, the screaming has brought them back, and they follow Justin into the nearby forest. There’s a great shot of one of the men as he walks right past Justin, who is crouched behind a tree – he’s wearing a face mask, and it’s significant that not once do we see either killer’s face throughout the whole movie. It ties them more closely to the ubiquitous RV they command; all three hulking, faceless, and utterly evil.
Masked killer leaves the perimeter, but it doesn’t matter – killer number two has spotted Justin, and as he grabs him by the feet and drags him away, mask-faced killer picks up the camera – of course – and films a tasty little close-up of number two slicing through Justin’s throat and lopping off his head. But again, it’s actually not all that awful, unless sound effects get you gagging.
So now we know everything, all mysteries have been resolved, and all that’s left is to finish off Kirk and Brooke, his ex. The fact that they clearly still love each other is evident in these last scenes, but to be honest I don’t care. They’re still annoying and I have no investment in either one of them. But we get a few more great scares as they stumble around in a desperate attempt to escape their fate. After finding Justin’s camera and doing something not enough protagonists do in these films – which is to playback the footage that’s been taken, thank you very much – they too understand what’s happened, and they are understandably beside themselves. Their friends are dead, and they’re lost in the forest with the killers still out there. More stumbling around ensues, until they make it to a road – a road! – which gets their hopes up at first, until the goddamn RV comes rumbling up and stops to deposit something off to the side. Brooke wants to move on, but of course Kirk has to go up and see what it is they left behind, and of course he has to take his camera with him, and it’s pretty clear that Justin got the same skinned and turned inside-out treatment that roadkill got that they spotted back in the film’s beginning, and it’s pretty gross. The ex barfs too, and we see it this time, so yeah for me this is an averting-of-the-eyes scene. It’s also clear, at least to me, that the RV killers knew Kirk and Brooke were nearby, and dumped Justin’s remains on the side of the road as a warning.
More wandering and weeping commences, and just when that starts to get old we get another great scare. The RV makes another appearance, stopping directly in front of where Brooke and Kirk are hiding behind some trees. After several tense seconds of hearing Kirk whisper, “they don’t know we’re here…they don’t know we’re here…” the RV door opens, two beer guts rush out (but again, we do not see their faces) and they tear off after them so fast Brooke and Kirk barely have time to register what’s happening. It’s pretty impressive as a jump scare, as the RV door opens fairly slowly in comparison to how quickly the two fly out. And at this point there’s no denying that somehow they know where Kirk and Brooke are, as much as Kirk may have stated otherwise.
There’s a pretty big scuffle, but the two manage to break free, only to discover that in the tussle one of the killers actually severed Kirk’s hand so badly that it eventually just – slides off. It’s pretty nasty, but a nice touch. To me, the best part is how Kirk reacts to losing his hand almost exactly like he did in the beginning, when he sees how much damage the RV did to the back of his parent’s car. It’s as if his hand and the car’s blinker light are interchangeable and deserving of the same level of rage. I guess the loss of the hand does make it impossible for him to use hand signals to indicate which way he’s going to turn until he gets his taillight replaced, so fair point, Kirk.
They find the car. They try to start it, but the engine won’t turn. They cry. They admit they love each other (I think, I don’t remember much about this part because I don’t care, but I assume this is what they do). Kirk is losing hope, Brooke tells him to buck up. We see the RV pull into the road far behind them. The car still doesn’t start. The two aren’t aware the RV is approaching. To be fair, Kirk is going on about how jealous he was of Justin and how much he wanted to kill him for dating Brooke or something like that, so I can’t blame anything that pulls up behind them for wanting to give ’em a good slam, because seriously shut up, Kirk. You and your half-assed half-priced beer are the worst. The RV crashes into them, which sends them careening down a hill or something, which doesn’t matter because we get camera static and then we see Brooke driving on an actual road and who knows how all that went down. But Kirk, with his one good hand I guess, grabs the camera and flips it around to reveal that the RV has also skidded off the road behind them and appears to be stuck, and whatever miracle occurred to turn the tables on them has Kirk getting all cocky again like in his “they can’t beat me up a hill!” days, which everyone should take as a bad sign.
For some reason Brooke eventually stops the car, which immediately dies and won’t start again. No worries, because now she has cell service and can use her phone – she calls 9-1-1 and stirs Kirk out of his near-death-due-to-blood-loss stupor long enough to grab the camera so he can zoom in on a distant road sign, so they can communicate their location to the police. Route 48. They’re on Route 48! A location! Yaaaaaaay!
Except no, because just as Kirk swings the camera around to film the unbridled joy on Brooke’s beautiful face, well, the RV’s right there, and with one last blast of its horn, it smashes Kirk, his one good hand, and his beloved ex into oblivion. The end. It’s a nice little last blast of surprise, and I like it.
As I said at the beginning, I really wish the entirety of this movie was as good as the RV scenes. As it is, though, it’s a really erratic watch – scenes of utter annoyance and boredom running up against some fun and thrilling killer car and cannibal backwoods bastards moments. It’s easy to get a bit of movie whiplash from the whole thing, with the unevenness of the tone and the way attention to the stupid camera bogs things down from time to time. Especially in the confessional scenes that bring everything to a crawl right when tension should be at its highest. And to be honest, all of these characters are god-awful. Danielle is some weird sort of teenage Emo social ignoramus, and it’s unclear why the obviously going for ho party girl Amanda brings this Eeyore of a sister along, except to foreshadow doom and gloom. Kirk is literally the worst – just unappealing, pushy, rude, and all kinds of selfish. His admissions of love for Brooke in that final scene make me want to slap him with own severed hand. Shut up, Kirk. Brooke and Justin are just kind of there, really – neither offensive nor interesting, except for Justin’s annoying insistence on keeping the cam running, so I guess they made a nice couple? Who knows and who cares. The only thing that matters in the end is whether or not they cooked up nice and tender for Ring-Girl and her two daddies, so there you go. Crowsnest. Check it out.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Don’t scroll if you don’t want to know.
Home Movie was released in 2008 and was directed by Christopher Denham. It’s the story of the Poe family – parents David and Claire, and twins Jack and Emily – who have moved to the semi-isolation of the woods in upstate New York to live the good life. However, as a compilation of home movies reveals, there is more to their decision to leave the city than meets the eye, and as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, David and Claire try with an alarming lack of effectiveness (and, truth be told, logic) to bring the kids back from the brink.
Reason for filming: Mom buys a video camera to record her notes regarding her patients, but Dad just can’t resist staging happy fun-time films with the fam.
What’s the horror: Creepy kids, psycho killers
Does the dog die? Yes, and also the family cat. And some frogs. In other words, animal lovers beware.
Gore factor: Fairly low in my opinion, and I’m not big on gore myself. For me, as long as I have warning that it’s coming and I can decide on my own whether or not I want to witness it, I am good – and there were a few scenes where there wasn’t warning in this one, but they weren’t too visceral.
Re-watch scale: Regular rotation. As I mention below, I watched this one three times in a row the first day, and can easily see myself keeping this one in heavy rotation. It was an immediate favorite.
This is a slow burn home-grown horror film; in the end, there’s nothing supernatural happening here. Just two increasingly creepy kids paired with two increasingly stupid parents. Mom is a child psychologist and Dad is a pastor, and the irony is thick with these two – although pairing a psychologist’s clinical approach with a faith-based response explains some of this. Mom and Dad cannot agree on what they should do here, because their different belief/faith systems keep colliding. It’s hinted that this has been an issue in their marriage from the start, but up to this point has only been a meet-cute conflict until they’re in the clutch, at which point the cracks start to show and eventually break wide open. Keep that in mind kids – no matter how hot the pastor or the child psychologist is, you need to sit them down and flesh out how the two of you intend to raise kids before actually creating one or more with that person. Just sayin.
The cautionary tale continues, as what starts out as preferred isolation on the part of the twins progresses past sullenness (which we see right from the start – never do we see Emily and Jack even remotely happy) to menace. At each turn, Dad becomes more manic about putting on a happy face for the camera – dressing up in outfits for each holiday, mugging for the camera, and continuing to laugh and cajole no matter how little response he gets from his children or irritation he gets from Claire. Claire, too, appears as clueless as David for quite a while – it’s clear they enjoy each other’s company far more than they do their children, and they seem to assume that if they just mug, smile, and cuddle MORE these kids will come around. They do not. I can’t say I blame Emily and Jack for this, at least not for refusing to join in with what is obviously feigned happiness and enthusiasm – kids see right through that shit, and so does the audience.
Soon Dad is reduced to drinking too much, forcing the kids to pray at Thanksgiving dinner (which they respond to with coordinated bomb-drop attacks on forks, glasses, and eventually full plates of food) and finally seeing the light about the situation WAY before Mom the Child Psychologist does. The true motivation for the move to the country is revealed when David shouts at Claire that their relocation “didn’t work” – the kids were going downhill back in the city, it seems, and have not gone uphill by moving to the actual hills. In fact, they’ve been expelled from school and done some bad things to family pets by Christmas morning, and David has taken to calling them psychotic. He ain’t wrong, but boozing it up and screaming at Claire ain’t gonna fix a damn thing. Nevertheless, he persists.
Claire responds unsurprisingly, but rather unethically, by deciding she is going to “treat” her own children, rather than taking them to a neutral third party to figure out what’s up, which is what she should have done. The reasons for this are revealed in another fight between her and David – they’re both embarrassed and ashamed of the damage their kids have caused in the past, and may have even moved away to escape some of that attention. So, Mom would rather try and treat the children herself rather than admit to an outside party that her kids are fucked up. In fact, it’s likely both Claire and David are aware of how two fucked-up kids would damage their own careers – a fact we can suspect is not lost on the way-too-smart-for-their-own-good-and-anybody-else’s children.
Of course Claire’s “treatment” fails miserably, and although the medication she prescribes (which isn’t consistent with reality as psychologists can’t prescribe medication but whatever) chills the twins out for a bit, it isn’t long before Emily and Jack are up to their old antics again, this time taking the kid from school whom they chewed on in a bathroom before and upping the stakes by putting a trash bag over his head and tying him to a table (Mom and Dad, are you paying attention? Because there’s a thing called foreshadowing that you might want to ponder here).
After that little attempt at murder, Claire and David can hide no longer – cops are called, and the kids are busted for the little psychopaths they are. In another required-for-the-story-but-in-no-way-would-happen-in-real-life glitch, the cops decide to let the twins stay home with their folks one more night (yes, after attempting to suffocate a kid to death these two get one more night at home) before being hauled away for whatever fate awaits them – it isn’t clear what that is, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because OF COURSE the kids turn on their parents and wrap this all up once the coast is clear. Soon enough, Mom and Dad are the targets of the twins’ psychosis, and there’s enough rope and trash bags around to put an end to this saga in an unnerving final scene, replete with a callback to one of Dad’s bigger blunders – reading a bedtime story to his already creepy kids involving a dinosaur, paper bags worn over heads, and the eating of children. Oh, and Dad’s ridiculous let’s-show-my-disturbed-children-how-to-pick-a-lock-and-tie-a-tight-rope-knot-to-show-how-cool-I-am display works out well for neither parent here, either.
While the exact reason for the twins’ pathology is never even remotely explained, we do at least get a hint or two that it’s been going on for some time through the eventual exposition Dad provides during that fight with Mom. For me, that was enough. I don’t require too much of found footage films in this or many other regards, because of the suspension of belief required to enjoy the genre at all – the old why would people keep filming while being chased through the forest thing will rarely, if ever, be resolved satisfactorily, so allowing leeway is a requirement of the genre. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with FF horror that can throw a movie off-track, but for me it’s just about balance – what a movie lacks in logic CAN be made up for with good camera work, acting, or tension, for example; and good camera work can make up for a lack in logic. And while the reasons to continue filming are weak here, the tension this movie builds makes up for it.
And there’s something to be said for that final camera confession in which Claire and David engage – it’s questionable why they even feel the need to do this, as so far there has at least been the pretense that the movies they’ve made were for purely personal or work-related reasons. Why do they need, at this point, to sit down in front of the camera and discuss what’s happened that day, and what’s going to happen in the morning? And Dad’s weepy, pathetic breakdown over never being able to see his kids again rings more than a wee bit hollow – is he overacting for the camera in case it becomes evidence, and he wants to look like a compassionate loving father whose only concern has ever been for the well-being of his kids, rather than someone partially responsible by failing to pay proper attention to the situation? Claire acknowledges the bizarre folly of making this last home movie, as if even she has finally figured out what has at least possibly been part of David’s motivation all along – a cover-up for his own complicity in his kids’ crimes.
I personally found this to be one seriously dark, sinister film, and although it was clear from the beginning that the parents were going to end up being victimized by these kids – there was never ANY indication that these two had an ability to properly analyze the situation and act appropriately – the HOW that was going to happen kept me just enough in the dark to stay on the edge of my seat. And when the shit went down, damn, those kids were scary enough to make me feel for David and Claire who, while clueless, flawed, and even downright stupid, still didn’t deserve what they got in the end. And of course, it happened right when they’d finally come to see the light about their demon spawn, and consequences were about to take place. The end.
The actors who played the twins – I believe they are twins in real life – were so believably creepy that I kind of fear for their sanity and hope this movie didn’t scar them for life. I’m fairly sure it didn’t, since I was prompted to look them up on Google to see if they showed up in any news articles about psychotic murder sprees and came up blank in that regard – just IMDB pages and the like, with not a lot of credits for either one. That’s a shame, because they both knocked evil-kid psycho-babies out of the park here, and deserve more work. They were downright menacing from start to finish, with a particular blank stare and cold plotting precision in their affects that made their actions all the more chilling. They seemed, in other words, the epitome of dead inside, and that just ain’t something anyone expects to see in kids this young, actors or no.
It’s the kids’ completely blank affects contrasted by Mom and Dad’s downright childishness in the earliest film clips that sustain the movie’s slow burn. The more sullen and withdrawn Emily and Jack become, the more manic the parents behave, giggling like schoolchildren with forced oh aren’t they just the cutest little devils responses to the children’s escalating behaviors. Jack throws rocks at Dad’s head? Force him to rake leaves as punishment, then undo any level of authority that may have afforded you by turning it into an isn’t this funny let’s mug for the camera while you do it game that immediately provides Jack with the upper hand when he finds and caresses a huge dead bug and completely creeps you out so that you shut down the camera. Emily glares at you with pure hatred while hiding behind her homemade fence plastered with a “no parents allowed” sign and you demand, with ever-increasing ineffectiveness, that she come out from behind it? Playfully place her in a wheelbarrow and giggle while she refuses to acknowledge anything you say, keeps her eyes closed, and totally poses as a corpse complete with arms crossed over her chest while you behave as if this is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen – all while acknowledging that your child DOES THIS REGULARLY and you’ve reinforced it every single time. It’s clear neither Claire nor David has the ability to generate and maintain any sort of authority, and while this may not be the whole reason for the kids’ psychosis, it surely doesn’t help.
It’s no wonder that by the end of the movie, the kids have completely turned the tables on them. Pun intended, as the final act involves the twins commanding the videocamera, using all the pills Mom’s been pumping into them to drug her and Dad into a stupor, and using the lock-picking and knot-tying techniques Dad taught them to restrain them on the kitchen table with garbage bags over their heads. Meanwhile, Emily and Jack sit on either side with paper bags over their heads and knives in hand just like the dragon in Dad’s poor choice of a nighttime fairy tale. We don’t see them eat them like the dragon does in David’s titular tale since the camera cuts out before they do, but the movie has hinted enough that that’s likely to happen – when the twins are caught first biting each other, then later chomping down on some poor kid they trap in a school bathroom – to heavily imply Mom and Pop are about to get gnawed.
There are enough callbacks like this final visual reference to a story David read for them near the beginning of the film to make up for some the movie’s illogical moments, in my opinion – I don’t like it when a movie explains too much and leaves nothing to the imagination, and in thinking about and reviewing the film I am satisfied with the small attempts made to tie the film together in its entirety. Is it perfect? No, but few horror films are anyway, and perfection is boring. I think this one wraps up neatly enough, and ends on a sinister note that stayed with me long after viewing. In fact, I re-watched it right away and then a third time the same night, because this one had a lot of what I love about the genre: the feeling I am really watching found footage of some awful something, entertaining characters, decent acting, a building up of suspense that actually goes somewhere, a satisfying ending, and a desire to re-watch the film. This one had all of that in spades, and I highly recommend it.