Preservation (2014)

DECEMBER 15, 2017


As a big fan of Chris Denham's previous film Home Movie (an HMAD book entry, even!), I spent a while looking forward to what he did next. But post-daily HMADing I lost track of a lot of those one-time guys that impressed me, and therefore somehow I didn't even realize his next film was not only on Netflix, but a couple years old at this point. Doh! Of course, if the film was better it probably would have been on my radar, so I chalk up my being late to the party more to the fact that no one had thought to recommend it or even mention it to me (though once I found it I think I remembered Sam from Shudder saying something about watching it ages ago) than me just being out of the loop. Still, it's no fun to be reminded once again that I can't keep up as well as I used to - why is this forgettable movie making me feel old? Screw you, Preservation!

To be fair it's not a "bad" movie by any means - it just didn't do anything I hadn't already seen in other movies, and again - my input isn't as exhaustive as it used to be, so someone who IS keeping abreast of all the films that pop up on Netflix and its peers might even find less to be surprised about here. The best surprise happens in the first few minutes, when we see a pair of brothers driving off to the woods, talking about their dad and letting us know how different they are (one brother is into silly internet videos, the other doesn't even own a phone!). They're talking for a few minutes before we discover someone else is in the car with them: the wife of the cell phone-loving brother, played by Wrenn Schmidt, who I liked a lot on Outcast and was happy to see showing up earlier than expected. Given the brothers' subtly dysfunctional dynamic I was thinking maybe Schmidt would be playing someone they met up with in the woods and perhaps fought over while they battled whatever terror awaited them, which might give the film some interesting angles (i.e. one brother letting the other come into harm's way to better his chances of getting together with this lovely woman), but nah. Like most of the movie that followed, nothing about the dynamic is either novel or even integral to the narrative, because even my 3 year old could tell you who'd be the first to die and who'd be the only survivor out of this trio.

Ah, but the killers might be unique, right? Wrong again, and I'll have to spoil their nature so skip this paragraph if you want to be surprised. At first our obligatory woodsman murderers wear masks that conceal their identity, with Denham choosing his angles carefully so as not to give anything away. But near the end of the second he lets us in on the secret - the trio of killers are actually teenagers, DUN DUN DUN! For casual horror fans this might be mindblowing, but a lot of us have seen Ils (Them), and therefore we've already seen this movie set in a house instead of the woods. We've also seen Eden Lake (which was in the woods to boot), which never tried to hide the nature of our heroes' tormentors, and also had the inspired twist on Last House on the Left's third act to add some more flavor. Here, the killers are teens and... well, that's about it. Nothing else really changes once our character(s) discover this. Even when it comes to fighting back, there isn't any debate or even much hesitation. In fact, the two most excessively violent acts against the killers occur after the hero in question has realized how young the antagonists are, with any delay being more of a "Can I kill this person?" kind of thing rather than a "Can I kill this CHILD?" one (which perhaps would have had more ambiguity if the character hadn't already dismissed the idea of hunting earlier in the film). And when you add in standard self-defense protocol, there really isn't anything shocking about it - it's just another mild-mannered vacationer being driven to kill a woods-dwelling psychopath in order to survive.

It doesn't help much that all three characters are fairly stupid. The brother is a war vet who can figure out how many attackers there are and what direction they came from/where they are headed from the way the grass and branches on the ground are bent, and can make a weapon out of found materials within seconds - i.e. a badass who can handle himself. Yet at his first opportunity he inexplicably turns his back to his attacker after subduing him with a few hits, opening himself up to what could have been an easily preventable attack. His brother and sister-in-law both do the same thing in other scenes (and every time, they pay for it) but at least they could chalk it up to being naive in such situations - how the hell did this guy survive the war if he is capable of making such a rookie mistake? It would have been way more interesting/exciting if he did everything exactly right and managed to get killed anyway, to suggest that even a trained soldier couldn't survive these dudes let alone our yuppie other heroes, but when he is taken out primarily because he's a dumbass, it doesn't really do much of anything except give the movie one less character to worry about. It also quickly kills the chance that he snapped and is doing this himself, which his brother believes is indeed the case - even if it wasn't actually believable (to me anyway) they could have milked the idea for a while, rather than kill him off almost as soon as the idea was introduced.

There is one slightly unique thing about it though: cell phones work! True, the hero's phone is only used for a different cliche (the workaholic whose phone will of course ring when his wife's already complaining about how he's always working), but at least the idea that they could call for help should the need arise gives it something. But most of the cell use is for something else: the killers use them to communicate even when standing right next to each other (yep, it's the horror movie version of a sight gag from Clueless, 20 years ago), letting us into their heads a bit as they never speak (with one pointed exception I won't spoil). It's through the phone that we see they're fans of a shooter game, giving us an entry-level "It's just a GAME to them!" motivation for their crimes and letting us know that they're not off-the-grid rednecks. I mean, it's fine, but I've seen it before in earlier movies, so I'm baffled that out of the entire crew no one told Denham that someone had beat him to the punch. Granted, horror movies have always borrowed liberally from one another, but the key is that they usually offer variations or tweaks that give it is own personality. The only time we get that here is in the final scene that briefly returns us to civilization, where most of these films end in the woods.

Obviously, I doubt Denham sat down and said "I'm going to do the same thing people have already done but add a short epilogue!", but I had to wonder (frequently) if he was aware of those other films (in particular Eden Lake, since this film has a port-a-potty scene that recalls that film's sewage moment). I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he hasn't, or otherwise he probably would have done more to distinguish his film from those (and no, adding a brother to the usual couple doesn't count). Even the (more) recent Killing Ground - which I did not care for - spent some time with the villains in their normal day to day life and also had the flashback structure to make up for its generic story (once again, people in the woods being murdered by locals), which is the sort of wrinkle(s) that could have benefited this film. I certainly don't need to be blown away by every choice in a horror film, but I would like something to remember about it in a few years (months?) if someone were to ask about it, especially when it comes from someone I know is capable of delivering. I can't see that happening here; my biggest takeaway is that the main guy was the lead "actor" in LA Noire and it was weird to see him in the flesh instead of the robotic Uncanny Valley version I'm used to (I know he was on Mad Men as well but I never watched it, so LA Noire is my main go-to for the guy. Deal with it!).

A filmmaker friend of mine frequently uses me as a sounding board about horror ideas, asking if this or that idea has been used in a movie, and I can't help but wonder if this should be standard protocol for the genre: ask around a bit and make sure you're treading new ground, and if you're not but really want to make that film, find ways to rise above the older competition. You don't need me to tell you that there are more horror films than any other genre, due to their "cheap to make" nature and, with all due respect, less discerning target audience making them easy to lead into profit. As a result, this means there are more copycats - intentional or not - and thus it's more likely that the great idea you have has been done before. There's no reason that a similar film can't be made, naturally, but again - it would be beneficial to everyone if the film had a few ideas of its own, especially in the survival sub-genre where the plots tend to be thin and the mortality rate is usually higher than slasher films (how often do you see two or three people get away from hardcore killers on a mountain range?), which makes them much less suspenseful than they ought to be as it seems like there's a rule that all but one of them has to die. I mean, look at the "Die Hard in a ______" sub-genre - the location changes, the villain's complicated plot changes, the stakes change, etc. There's room to make it your own, even if the basic concept is the same. With these kind of movies, the concept is pretty much all there is to it, reducing the ability to make it your own. Ironically, Home Movie STILL stands out as an anomaly in the found footage sub-genre, and maybe I was expecting too much here, thinking that he'd be able to really put a stamp on these films. Alas, it's watchable and well made (the scenery is gorgeous), but there was not a single point in the movie where I was wondering what might happen next. If you haven't seen the films I mentioned, I'd recommend starting with this stripped down version and then check those out, pretending they came later and wanted to improve on the basic idea.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. As a weird side note, Sean is Pornstache from Orange is the New Black.


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