MARCH 30, 2015
After screwing up my schedule, I found myself with 2+ hours to kill before my actual work shift started today, and thus opted to head next door to Citywalk - specifically the AMC theater there - to watch something with my sudden surplus of free time (since moving last fall, going home wasn't a sound option - with the AM traffic, by the time I'd get there I'd only have about 20 minutes or so before having to drive back). I was going to see The Gunman, since it'll probably be gone by this weekend, but then I spied Nightlight, a horror film I never even heard of, let alone knew was currently playing theatrically. Obviously I wasn't going to let this random opportunity pass me by. Unfortunately, maybe I should have done just that.
I have no idea why Lionsgate opted to put this one out in a few theaters when so many of their acquisitions were relegated to DVD; the found footage "sub-genre" (more on that later, though I'll be repeating myself from other reviews) is dead, and there isn't anyone particularly recognizable in the cast, so I assume it had to be a contractual obligation type thing (it's also on VOD already, or at least Amazon). I was actually surprised someone else was in the theater with me; granted I'm not as immersed in this stuff as I used to be, but I would like to think I wouldn't completely miss a theatrical release - however minor - from a major studio. If it hadn't been for my scheduling snafu it might have passed my by entirely, and since the movie sucked I started wondering how many others like it I had missed in the past two post-HMAD years (or at least, the past 10 months, since Will was born). And also if those theoretical movies were any good.
A few things about the movie were admirable/novel, so I'll get those out of the way. For starters, this is the rare POV movie to be set entirely at night (and outside, save for the bookends and a piece of the climax). Blair Witch Project actually spent the majority of its scenes in the sunlit hours, but this one goes full force - even the brief introduction to our heroine and the film's narrative (a game of "Nightlight" in the woods) occurs when it's already dark out (it has to be this way for the film's "camera" to work - I'll get to that). I don't envy anyone who has to spend night after night in the woods shooting a movie, so kudos to the cast and crew for giving themselves this obstacle for the sake of sticking out a bit from its competition. Also, it doesn't dilly dally when it comes to the action - the first of our five idio-, er, heroes is killed at the 20 or 25 minute mark (thanks, ONE other guy there, for preventing me from being able to pull out my phone to check), which might be a record for this kind of thing since usually anything major like that is confined to the final act. There's a good reason for the usual slow burn - you don't want the audience asking "Why are they still filming" before they've gotten completely on board with the movie and thus were willing to go along with its fuzzy logic, but this movie avoids that since... well, again, I'll get to that.
But that's about all I can say that's positive; otherwise the movie is basically a disaster, with almost nothing working, and failing to engage on an even basic level. Since so little time is spent on setting up who anyone is before they're running around in the dark woods (and dodging trains for extra "Oh they're idiots" measure), it's nearly impossible to really care much about who lives or dies; even their immediate situation isn't compelling since they seemingly exist in a void. There's nothing that establishes how far the woods are from the populated part of town, or if any of the characters have friends/family who might notice they are missing - these are the sort of things we have apparently taken for granted in other movies. I half expected some twist that they were all dead or this was an alien planet or something, ANYTHING to justify the movie's bizarre disconnect from reality.
Which is odd, because it starts and ends with Ethan, a teen making a video that, when combined, add up to a suicide note - grounding this in an uncomfortable and yet very identifiable situation. In the first video he talks about how he tried to kill himself already, but that he will ask a girl he likes to the homecoming dance because he thinks that will cure his depression. In the second, it's after he was rejected, and he's about to go finish the job. It's sad, but here's the thing - the girl in question is Robin, our heroine, and except for a photo on a keychain they both have, we never see them together. It's not supposed to be a twist that he's talking about Robin, because not long after Ethan's introduction where he explains the keychain's significance (seriously, like, 3-4 minutes), we see that she has hers as well. In fact it's a badly inserted bit where she drops the keys just to make sure we see them clearly when she/the 'camera' lowers to pick them up, so they GO OUT OF THEIR WAY to make sure we understand the connection before they've even gone into the woods. This renders her later confession - coupled with Ethan's absence from the story - dramatically inert, because any halfway intelligent viewer will already have figured out what happened: she said no, and now his death will be the thing that literally haunts her in these supposedly ghost-filled woods. Yet the movie stops cold for her to explain that she rejected him, as if this would be some mind-blowing reveal to us (and then shows us Ethan's reaction at the very end, offering no new information and merely dragging out the ending). And with Ethan only present in these two brief moments, he can't possibly make for a good antagonist - it might as well be the ghost of any of the random other bodies buried out there (we see dozens of crosses in the woods throughout the film). And again, without ever seeing them together or even knowing much about their history, it's baffling that writer/directors Bryan Woods and Scott Beck opted to hinge the entire film on her guilt and his "revenge".
However, their screenwriting lapses are nothing compared to their utter failure at selling their novel idea properly. While it LOOKS like a found footage movie, there IS no camera - we see everything from the "POV" of a flashlight! There is no "why are they still filming?" thinking, because they're not! They're just holding out a light to see in the dark. But, admirably goofy as that is, it never really comes across very well, because apart from the 2.35 widescreen image that no consumer camera or cell phone would be shooting at, it just looks and plays out like every other found footage movie ever (and it's set in the woods, so Blair Witch will never NOT be on your mind - even BEFORE they build a scare around someone standing awkwardly facing a wall). Some of these movies have the problem that you forget you're seeing it through someone's camera, this has the unique (but equally bothersome) issue where you forget that you're NOT. Every single found footage movie that had an exterior scene at night (with the camera's light turned on) looks exactly like all of this footage, and it baffles me that they didn't beat us over the head early on that there was no camera in the woods - especially when their goddamn movie BEGINS WITH A KID TALKING INTO A VIDEO CAMERA! I guarantee you half the eventual audience won't even realize that his is the only actual camera (unless they notice the lack of people yelling "Stop filming and help us!" or whatever); the only thing they really do to try to establish the difference between it and Found Footage Movie #452 is an early scene where Robin turns her flashlight on herself while she's using her cell phone, but all that does is explain that she's not using her cell phone to film, not that she DOESN'T have a traditional camera.
And it doesn't even matter, because whether it's a camera or a flashlight we're seeing things through, it suffers from a lot of the same problems as any other found footage movie does, namely that it's too easy to forget whose POV we're seeing. If I followed its poorly explained backstory correctly, it is Ethan's flashlight that we see everything through (I wish we could say that the flashlight was the only source of evil, but we see occasional ghost monster things), so we get awkward things like our heroine switching flashlights with her would-be love interest, for no reason other than to make sure we see him wandering around and (spoiler) getting killed, before Robin finds the light again later. Perhaps if ALL of their flashlights had this magical POV ability, the directors would be able to easily reinforce that there were no cameras, simply by having a conversation between two characters cut back and forth, allowing us to see flashlights but nothing else in their hands.
So why paint yourself into a corner with such a weirdo plot device, forcing you to make your movie even sillier by working in excuses to change the POV? There is never any justification for the flashlight being the thing we see the movie's events through, beyond maybe five seconds of "Huh, that's new." Take any major found footage film (it's OK to compare, I think, since they're nearly indistinguishable) - Blair, Paranormal Activity, Rec, etc - and you can quickly explain why the camera is there: Heather was making a documentary, Micah bought it to capture footage of the ghost, Angela was shooting her TV show (and keeping it on for potential legal action later), etc. In a good POV movie, the camera and how it's used is just as essential as any of the main actors and how they act, how well they know their lines, etc. I don't know if the movie would be any good if shot traditionally since the central relationship that drives most of its action is left almost completely to our imaginations, but I DO know that their remarkably poor grasp on how to use a POV properly in this kind of movie makes it even worse.
I wasn't surprised to learn that the film was finished in 2013 (via the credits' copyright date; it was actually shot in 2012). That was when these movies were all the rage thanks to the still mammoth PA series (when this film was shot, we were between PA3 - the biggest sequel - and PA4, the one that was the beginning of the end), Chronicle, Last Exorcism... even Devil Inside, as much as folks hated it because of its ending, was a huge hit that helped green-light any number of other found footage horror flicks. But it also had another side effect that I recall filmmaker pals telling me about: studios and financiers were insisting that movies that were written as traditional narratives be converted into found footage style. But like 3D (itself killed by misapplication), the POV technique HAS to be part of the initial design, otherwise it's a disaster - it'd be like insisting that your normal New York-set romantic comedy be changed to take place in outer space without making any further changes to the script. The problem was that producers (and some just plain bad filmmakers) were treating an aesthetic like a sub-genre: what used to be a demand for slasher films was now a demand for "found footage". But even if you have no idea what you're doing, a slasher movie can still succeed if you have a few good kills, probably a bit of nudity, and a mask a kid will want for Halloween. Found footage takes a little more finesse; since you're working with a huge handicap to tell your story, it has to be something that justifies its existence within the narrative - something that can't quite be done if you're taking a regular script and adding "____'S POV" to all of the scene changes. If I had to guess, I'd assume these guys ran into that sort of demand, and didn't want to be "another" camera movie, so they came up with this flashlight idea. Or maybe they did have the idea first, but failed to A. recognize that the audience would have trouble knowing the difference or B. ask themselves WHY it should be a flashlight's POV beyond "it'll look funky!".
Try to imagine Blair Witch as a traditionally shot movie - it probably wouldn't be as effective. Why? Because the movie was designed from the ground up as something we see/don't see through the eyes of our heroes (mainly Heather), and with Heather herself holding the camera it put us in her head, letting us feel her frustration, her panicked scans across the trees to see what might be out there, etc. Or moving away from FF, think about Memento - did you ever watch the "in order" version of the movie on the special edition? If so, you probably quickly discovered that it was pretty goddamn boring - because it was a story that was meant to be seen backwards, so we would feel what Leonard felt every 10 minutes (i.e. not knowing what just happened). I can keep going, but I think the point is clear: be it a camera or a flashlight, using the POV aesthetic is a tool, and like any tool it should only be wielded by people who know how to use it. These guys either don't, or were forced to use it by someone calling the shots 3 years ago when the "sub-genre" was at its peak of popularity. Either way, it probably wouldn't work even with an otherwise well-constructed story, so it CERTAINLY doesn't work in a muddled, half-baked one like this. Sorry, but "Found Flashlight" isn't likely to take off anytime soon, even if it is a relief to watch this sort of thing without wondering who found and edited all the footage into a nice narrative for us.
What say you?