[A series of daily updates on screenings at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. For more follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter @GeoffBerkshire.]
Thirteen years have passed since “The Blair Witch Project” took Sundance by storm and introduced “found footage” horror to the mainstream. Now the technique is all the rage, from “Paranormal Activity” to “The Devil Inside” to next week’s superhero adventure “Chronicle.” Keeping up with the times, Sundance has found another tweak on the genre in “V/H/S”—a six-part anthology that’s undeniably uneven but considerably more spirited and ambitious than we’ve seen from Hollywood lately.
The directors all have low budget horror credits on their resumes but it’s surprising who succeeds and who stumbles in the short format. Adam Wingard—the filmmaker behind the excellent upcoming horror/thriller “You’re Next”—contributes the weakest material with the framing device for the other self-contained segments. Wingard’s set-up follows a group of sleazebags who post crazy videos online involving vandalism, assault and robbery, and are asked by an anonymous “fan” to break in to a mysterious house and find a top secret videocassette. It proves to be a surprisingly dangerous task, but exists mostly to string together the more compelling material on the videotapes they discover.
First up is “Amateur Night” from director David Bruckner (“The Signal”). Initially too similar to what we’ve already seen, the tale of sleazy frat boys looking to make their own porn tape takes a wild turn when one of the guys meets an inexplicably clingy girl (Hannah Fierman) at a club. What happens when they all check into a motel sets a tone of dark humor and blood-soaked thrills for the rest of the film.
Next is the tedious “Second Honeymoon” from Ti West (“The House of the Devil”) starring Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal as a couple whose dull chatter overshadows a slowly developing threat to their relationship. It’s followed by the rushed but energetic slasher homage “Tuesday the 17th,” featuring four young people targeted for slaughter at an idyllic lakeside retreat. Writer-director Glenn McQuaid (“I Sell the Dead”) also introduces what could become the film’s signature villain: a psychopath who only appears on camera as a glitched-out blur, representing one of the cleverest uses of the lo-fi format.
The hilarious and unnerving “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” comes from overexposed mumblecore icon Swanberg, who proves far less self-indulgent than usual with a restricted running time. Constructed out of web cam chats between a spooked young woman (Helen Rogers) and her long distance boyfriend (Daniel Kaufmann), the story is both goofy and intense.
And finally, “10/31/98” is the work of filmmaking collective Radio Silence who produce, write, direct, edit and star in the visually mischievous adventure of four guys who get more than they bargained for at a haunted house party on Halloween.
Each segment offers up its own strengths and weaknesses, but the cumulative effect is an unusually pleasurable and inspired cut above the genre norm.
Quick hits on more Sundance 2012 titles:
- “Black Rock”: An entry in Sundance’s Park City at Midnight section alongside “V/H/S,” this thriller directed by and starring Katie Aselton (who made her directorial debut on the solid low-budget relationship drama “The Freebie” and co-stars on FX’s “The League”) doesn’t do much to elevate routine material. Three friends (Aselton, Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth) take a trip to a remote island to get away from their problems and mend some fractured bonds. But the retreat soon becomes a nightmare when three military vets (Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson) crash their wilderness slumber party. With little to add to either the outdoor thriller or gender war genres, “Black Rock” simply proves Aselton can execute a film with lovely cinematography and stage some enjoyably brutal fight scenes—especially the bloody brawl of a climax.
- “Room 237”: A surefire future cult favorite with cinephiles, Rodney Ascher’s amusing and resourceful documentary cobbles together multiple theories regarding just what legendary director Stanley Kubrick was intending when he made 1980’s Stephen King adaptation “The Shining.” A commentary on the Holocaust? An exercise in subliminal sexual messaging? A confession of guilt over faking the 1969 moon landing? The interpretations range from the oddly compelling to the ludicrously inane. Ascher allows these “Shining” scholars to share their thoughts in their own words, but the film’s visuals are exclusively made up of pre-existing clips. All of Kubrick’s films are included in the mix, along with key selections from other referenced work including “Schindler’s List,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the 1997 TV miniseries version of “The Shining.”
As the interviewees lay out arguments built on the tiniest details, Kubrick’s famous perfectionism, OCD-approach to filmmaking, and reluctance to explain his own work adds an undercurrent of credibility to hidden “clues” that might otherwise be dismissed as continuity errors or meaningless minutia. Ascher’s portrait of obsessive analysis of visual information will play like catnip for critics—who are likely to praise the film disproportionately to its interest to the average moviegoer. But even casual movie fans should find something of interest in the engaging if slightly repetitive “Room 237.” That is assuming the liberal use of copyrighted material (dubbed “fair use” in the end credits) doesn’t prevent a theatrical, home video or online release.
Check out the full collection of 2012 Sundance Film Festival diaries