Tuesday 17 September 2013

[Fright Fest Feature] Rediscovering Found Footage

Over the years I had grown increasingly tired of the "found footage" sub genre of horror. Most will be familiar with the format; a team of investigators or film makers venture into some remote part of the world to look into a grisly event and disappear. Sometime later however their recording equipment is found intact complete with footage which is extracted, edited and presented to cinema audiences worldwide. What makes these films popular is the inference they are true stories and executed properly, contain a gritty realism as seen from the players' point of view drawing audiences into the unfolding scary events. It is an interesting format that works well but unfortunately has seen that market become somewhat over-saturated  Fright Fest features a bevy of such found footage films which seem to have breathed new life into the format.

Principally, found footage films such as Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust, are popular with studios as they are relatively cheap to make. It is usually best to feature unknown actors as more famous ones will increase the budget and take away any realistic element.  The actors can be included in the technical process and given cameras to film their own scenes as they did with Blair Witch. From a creative point of view however found footage films give scope for the actors to improvise and the filmmakers to create a real sense of atmosphere using a wide array of filming techniques. However with so many such films on the market it has been a case of there being more bad films than good, leaving many fans a little jaded. 

This year's Fright Fest screenings featured a number of found footage films that have challenged the audience perceptions of this sadly over used format. Titles that have impressed Fright Festers include Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek about a couple who hope to catch sight of the infamous Big Foot, and Paranormal Diaries; Clophill, a film investigating witchcraft and satanic rituals. Here is a look at a selection of found footage films featured at Fright Fest.

The Dyatlov Pass Incident

Sitting in the wrong seat having sauntered in just as the movie started, where I expected disappointment I was pleasantly surprised, the best of which was the joy of watching a Renny Harlin film on the big screen again. As timely as my train journey into the big city all the cliches arrived on cue; the true story backdrop, five young camera wielding investigators, interviews with the yokels and a last hurrah before venturing out into the snow covered treacherous mountains, perhaps never to be seen again.

Watch enough found footage films and these aspects creep in and make you feel as if you are essentially watching the same film over again. However Harlin has plenty to work with in Vikram Weet's intriguing script. Despite the film quality being a little too crisp for "found footage" there is no absence of tension or atmosphere. The reveal at the end might leave some viewers disappointed but with a conservative running time, and some decent performances, Dyatlov Pass set a fair standard for raised expectations of what was to follow. 

Frankenstein's Army

Reading the synopsis of this wonderfully entertaining and eerie production that really pushes the boundaries of creativity, it is fair to say that the "real" story element was bundled up and thrown out of the window. The story again has the usual elements; a rag tag group (this time Russian soldiers) venturing into the wilderness in search of another rag tag group who have gone missing. Yes there is a filmmaker who accompanies them but if you are wondering why a Russian filmmaker during World War II is armed with a seemingly modern day camera, this is dealt with quite comically in the film. 

During the height of World War II, a team of Russian soldiers venture into enemy held territory in search of their comrades who went missing. Accompanying them is a filmmaker with orders to record the journey as part of a propaganda film. Their investigation leads them to a compound where Hitler had commissioned a certain mad scientist to build him the ultimate army. Dutch director Richard Raaphorst's film was entertaining and engaging on many fronts mainly the tensions between the soldiers as the film progresses, the setting and genuine sense of atmosphere and of course the wonderfully macabre creations that unleash some creative and bloody mayhem.  

The Conspiracy

Christopher MacBride's entry into the found footage cinematic battle draws the viewer into a world that many tend to dismiss but still can't help but be fascinated with; the world of the conspiracy theory. From Area 51 to the September 11 attacks the conspiracy theorist with a hazy combination of wild eyed paranoia and logical scientific examination has helped cast shadows of doubt on much of what goes on around the world. All the trademarks of found footage are there, investigators in search of a missing person delving into sinister goings on, hidden cameras and a terrifying revelation to the point of cheesy cliche. However it works eerily well in its execution and treatment of the subject matter. 

Where The Conspiracy works is in its documentary format giving a high level of authenticity that is lacking from many other films of this type. Using this eerie realistic feel, MacBride introduces the conspiracy theory elements in great detail and whether you believe in them or not, many of such theories have an air of truth and convincingness to make one stop and think. Unlike so many other found footage films, its scares do not lie in the supernatural but in the far more terrifying reality of greed and power. The ultimate reveal is a little far fetched but all in all The Conspiracy has tension and and atmosphere to boot and is almost a guaranteed conversation starter about the existence of secret societies and whether or not conspiracy theorists might just be right after all.  

v/h/s/ 2

Horror anthologies are back with a vengeance with some of the biggest names from independent cinema contributing a segment which combined launch an all out war on the human senses. The rapper story is that of two private investigators hired to search for a woman's missing son. They arrive at his apartment and find a pile of videotapes with a recorded instruction to play them in a specific order. As each horrifying segment is viewed the grisly nature of the young man's disappearance is revealed. 

Of all the found footage PoV (point of view) style films featured at Fright Fest v/h/s 2 is by far the most entertaining for light scares and lots of laughter, with Safe Haven, co-directed by The Raid's Gareth Evans being the star player. Dispensing with all the authentic documentary style with a story bogged down with facts, v/h/s 2 is out thrill from start to finish and succeeds. All the stories are told from a variety of recorded PoV films ranging from a prosthetic eye enabling its wearer to see dead people to a helmet cam of a zombie cyclist. The array of well known indie directors including Evans, Adam Wingard (You're Next) and the found footage master Eduardo Sanchez (Blair Witch Project) each bring their own brand of suspense and humour to their individual segments all linked together with the engaging underlining story. This is the perfect example of taking a familiar format and having lots of fun with it and still able to conjure the scares.

I can honestly say the Fright Fest has restored my faith in the found footage genre although there is still a barrage of awful titles to trawl before you get the to good stuff. Still, it just goes to show that a familiar formula can still be tinkered with to create something that is imaginative, filled with scares and humour aplenty. 

Sunday 1 September 2013

[Fright Fest Special] On Tender Hooks

Stars; Kate Shenton, Tam Smith, Ana Loco, Damien Lloyd-Davies, Charlyne Chiappone
Written and Directed by; Kate Shenton

WARNING!!!! If you have a sensitive constitution perhaps you should not read this review. 

Fly on the wall documentary by a young filmmaker who spent a year following and talking to people who engage in human suspension, an activity that involves piercing themselves with hooks and suspending in mid air. Starting in London before moving onto Rio, Croatia, and Oslo in Norway, the film shines a light on the people and their reasoning behind as well as feelings about this mind blowing, innovating and largely misunderstood past time.

Body piercing, tattoos, and extreme body modifications always leave most people in a state of awe and disbelief - "why on earth would anybody do that to themselves?" and "they must have a screw loose" are typical reactions. Whilst these are tolerated within certain boundaries, human suspension is sure to be the limit to what many consider an acceptable practice. Yet Kate Shenton's frank and emotional documentary looks to cast an enlightening spotlight on the practice, its very strict safety protocols and the motivations of those who week after week keep coming back for more indulging in some outlandish displays which are jaw droppingly creative.

When you think of human suspension by meat hooks pierced through the skin attached to a custom made harness it is hard to imagine it involving anything other than just hanging in mid air and bearing the strain and pain that must surely accompany something so gruelling. However what Kate Shenton's film reveals are acts of suspension that defy conventional human imagination. Hooks penetrating various parts of the body with positions ranging from the lotus position to mid air splits, stationary suspension to acrobatic swings that would put to shame the most daredevilish of trapeze artists, the art of human suspension (and yes it is an art) provides a challenge for those who practice it as well as even the most hardened of onlookers.

The film also focuses, in shocking detail, the piercing techniques involved, including the different types of hooks used as well as the care and attention that goes into constructing the high tensity harness, rigorously tested and maintained for safety to ensure trust and well being of participants. What will challenge those who feel this is a highly dangerous (and done incorrectly it can be) and disturbing past time, is the care that goes into making sure the suspenders are "hooked" up. From the anatomical knowledge of the piercers to ensure no vital areas of the body are caught, to the very sanitary conditions of the work areas that would rival any operating theatre, for what is seemingly a very dangerous activity, safety and well being of suspenders is an absolutely priority. Some aspects, such as the hook piercing are not as painful as one might believe, and whilst some experience pain and discomfort, many under the endorphin and adrenaline rush, are swinging away like children from a climbing frame.

Where the documentary really excels is in capturing the stories of the people involved, and the sheer rush of joy suspenders get from an activity the mere thought of would have others squirming in their seats. The thought of suspending oneself from sharp meat hooks might seem painful yet watching these participants perform an array of mind boggling suspensions with nothing but smiles and laughter is guaranteed to challenge those perceptions. The suspenders themselves are colourful yet very happy and open minded individuals, even more well adjusted than perhaps "society" would like us to believe, after all what sane person would do this to themselves? It is this sort of preconceived notion of what is acceptable also reveals that some suspenders are vilified by their families and the legal system. The story of Ana who is currently fighting for legal custody of her child, is particularly heartbreaking, and during a Q&A afterwards Kate revealed that the majority of suspenders and piercers face similar harassment, and that this mostly targets women.

On Tender Hooks is a frank yet touching examination of a group of people who for a variety of reasons choose to take up human suspension from spiritual fulfilment to the endorphin-fuelled rush that challenges the limits of the human body and soul. By leaving the floor open for the subjects of the film to do most of the talking, and choosing largely to stay behind the camera Kate has captured the real sense of community amongst the suspenders. These are happy and content individuals who seek fulfilment through extreme yet very safe methods in a trusting environment, no different to say any form of extreme sports or physical activities such as mountain climbing or potholing. Kate's connection with the community not to mention a finale that reveals her taking research into a subject matter to new heights (pun intended) that have given her a unique understanding of it all, powerfully comes across in the film.

Human suspension, like anything else, is not for everyone and neither the filmmaker nor its practitioners are looking to convert more people to participate. On Tender Hooks however should leave everyone with a better understanding and appreciation for this bizarre practice and even a little fondness for these colourful individuals whose only wish is to be left to their own devices (again pun intended), free from judgement and vilification.

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