Well it’s been at least two days since I last watched a found footage movie so it’s about time we had another one. But wait! What’s this? has a twist. While it starts off as a full on FFM, with struggling writer James and his mate taking experimental drugs on camera, as soon as the prologue is out of the way the format is abandoned… And yet at the same time isn’t.
We meet our protagonist Anne (Katia Winter), and there is much wobbly hand held camera work as she narrates her plan to continue James’s project and find out what this drug was all about. But if that’s the case, then where is the introduction of the camera person? It never happens. Anne never once talks to camera of to the person behind it. And no one else acknowledges the camera’s existence either. To them there is no camera and yet the camera like it is in a found footage movie and looks the same as it did when James and his buddy were pissing about. There’s loads of running in fear and ‘pull aways’ when something shocking lurches out of the darkness, but it’s not a character in the movie. So this is not a found footage movie at all. It’s just shot like one, which has two immediate effects:
1) It captures that raw immediacy and feeling of “being there” that the best of the found footage movies have.
2) It looks like shit.
Is this the way cheap horror movies are going now? I think the found footage ones have the right, no, the need to have a home video/amateur feel to them. It is at the very core of their aesthetic storytelling. But the rest of the genre? Using this filming technique to tell the tale just reeks of a lack of basic technical skills in visual cinema. That’s not to say doesn’t have some nice imagery occasionally, and it’s not that it isn’t lit pretty well, because for a lot of it, it is. Also, if this was a straight up found footage job, it would be a solid effort, with clever framing to help with some of the jump scares. But it’s as if the film makers want to have their cake and eat it, which I just don’t think is acceptable.
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the film, a lot. It has a good and creepy plot for one thing. Using the real history of the 1960s experiments conducted on unsuspecting volunteers in the US and adding a horror-tinged Lovecraftian theme into the mix is a good idea. It’s basically Jacob’s Ladder and Lovecraft’s From Beyond merged into one. Don’t worry if you have no idea about H.P. Lovecraft’s short story (although, are you crazy?), one of the characters in the film describes it in full for you. They did say it was written in 1930 though, when anyone worth their Cthulhu-blessed soul knows that is was 1920.
Most of the film is set over one night as Anne, after taking this reality altering drug, goes from one deserted terrifying place to the next as she tries to find out the mystery behind the drug experiments. This is a bit of a stretch. I know there is a tradition for characters to do the exact opposite of what they should do in life-threatening situations, but when Anne runs out screaming from a not-abandoned-enough estate, the last thing she should do is jump in the car and drive straight to the abandoned underground mountain lair where the original experiments took place. But there she goes…
Fortunately, Anne is not alone. In her quest to find answers her first port of call is gonzo journalist, arch drug taker and gun enthusiast, Thomas Blackburn. There is not even the slightest attempt to pretend this isn’t meant to be Hunter S. Thompson. He wears that crazy flower pot hat, those aviator glasses and even his house looks identical to the one seen in photos of Thompson’s. He’s a larger than life character in a film pretending to be life-like. It’s lucky he’s played by Ted “put the lotion in the basket” Levine, who is one of those great character actors who will put his all into whatever project he’s working on. He staggers drunkenly, sparks up a spliff mid fright and fondles the ladies like his life depends on it. I’m pretty sure he had an absolute whale of a time making this.
Katia Winter is good as the lead, but maybe not the most believable journalist in the world, but the more she gets in over her head the better she gets. Her small frame and clipped British accent is a great counter to Levine’s boorish all American legend. In fact they make quite a fun double act, and that’s lucky because the vast majority of the film is just them two running around in the night. Being followed by a camera. Not that the camera is actually there.
Having the film set basically over one night and in the dark means there are a lot of good, maybe too many, jump scares. At least they all turn out to be something genuinely nasty and not just a cat or a dumb jock pissing about. Also there’s some very unsettling radio signals they follow, something that’s always freaked me out since I was a kid when I used to pick up weird noises on an old AM radio. I was convinced they were messages from the undead… But back to the film: The tone is generally very serious and yet the two leads keep a lightness of touch to their performances that makes the film much more fun and entertaining than it should be. And considering the found footage genre really has run itself into a cold, dark corner, this film is a nice surprise. Not that this is a found footage movie though… or is it?
No, it’s not.