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

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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!

Found Footage Fave: Crowsnest (SPOILERS!)

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.

Found Footage Fave – Home Movie (SPOILERS!)

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.