The idea that there are no new ideas is an old idea, but a true one; there are no new ideas. For confirmation, look no further than the state of horror movies–remakes and a bunch of found-footage clones (in which the camera is part of the story, characters are doing the filming and the movie is supposedly assembled from what they shot) abound. The last notable major horror release was a reboot of Evil Dead, and the only standing franchise that provides a serious box office threat is Paranormal Activity. There were no real horror remakes to be found at the Tribeca Film Festival, but almost half of TFF's horror features (three movies out of eight) are found footage. All three account for the staleness of the subgenre, attempting to cut what is now a seemingly endless loop of POV clichés on top of tropes that date back even further. (Would you like a jump scare? OK, here are two dozen.) However, only one of them truly transcends the format's trappings.
Karl Mueller's Mr. Jones looks better than virtually any POV horror that has come before it, as protagonist Scott is a filmmaker who's out to make the most beautiful documentary ever. He and his wife Penny retreat to nature to make a movie about...something, when they realize someone else is in the middle of nowhere with them. "What if you came to the woods to find solitude only to find out that you weren't really alone?" asks Scott in dreamy voiceover, making eloquent the premise/potential tagline for, say, half of the horror movies that have been made post-Friday the 13th. The presence turns out to be Mr. Jones, a Banksy-like art figure who trolls around in a papier-mâché mask that looks like a 6th grader's attempt to render Munch's The Scream into 3D.
Mr. Jones is known in the art world for his scarecrows, which he sends to random people. This intrigues Penny, a photographer with an eye as sophisticated as Scott's, so they stick around and film this monster, attempting to get close to him and rifling through his house and creations for the sake of their art. As far as horror-movie motivation goes, that's new. Soon they realize that Mr. Jones' scarecrows "get inside your mind and they explode," and that is exactly what happens to this film, as Penny and Scott's paranoia and hallucinations seep into the found footage. The entire conceit is rendered useless as the movie attempts to illustrate what it's like to be caught up in Mr. Jones' disorienting nightmare. Which Penny is the real Penny? Who's filming them from behind? Why isn't it light out at 8 am? Why doesn't Mr. Jones just fucking kill them already and put us all out of our misery?
You can sniff out the influences of most of these movies within the first 10 minutes. Mr. Jones' ominous bone and wood sculptures suggest that someone's taken their love of being scared by the pile of twigs from the Blair Witch Project too far. Meanwhile, Richard Raaphorst's Frankenstein's Army, billed in the Tribeca literature as "the wild steampunk Nazi found-footage zombie mad scientist film you've always wanted," has the exact same trajectory of the found-footage portion of Cannibal Holocaust – a bunch of brutes laugh and pillage and then get handed their asses by far stronger forces. In this case, it's a bunch of Russian World War II soldiers in Germany who stumble up on a lab full of truly inventive half-zombie-half-machines. One has a propeller for a head. Another has hooks for hands. Another walks like a monkey on all fours since his front two are giant serrated blades. In rapid, video-game succession, each distinct monster trots out, scares the soldier whose devotion to capturing it all suggests that he is decades ahead in his ideals (well, either that or this has no business being found-footage horror), and then either kills the dwindling group of Russians or gets killed or retreats. This happens over and over and over, and though the resolution is amusing (when we finally meet with the mad genius responsible for these atrocities, he reveals that he wants to create peace by grafting one hemisphere of a Nazi brain to one of a communist brain), this is like watching a first-person shooter and never getting to play.
Josh Waller's Raze is not a found-footage movie, but it is very much like a video game, itself. This one's more Mortal Combat than Call of Duty, as a bunch of abducted women are forced to fight each other to the death with their bare hands in the film's Battle Royale-meets-The Big Dollhouse setup. Death Proof's Zoe Bell plays the protagonist, and her hulking agility is arresting, but overall, the bare-bones brutality of this movie made me feel like I was getting my head banged against a wall, like one of the weaker fighters in this movie. Or maybe it was like getting my face smeared on a wall slowly, which also happens.
Raze collects a lot of women together and has them do stuff, but it has little to say about them except, "Isn't it awesome that some girls fight like dudes?" More sensitive and thoughtful is Marina de Van's Dark Touch. It's a British, pre-period Carrie, the story of a young girl who can move things with her mind when her emotions intensify. Neve is repeatedly abused by her parents and one day, she destroys them, her house and her baby brother. Yet, she remains haunted — Marie Missy Keating telegraphs this in her mostly silent performance via full eyes weighed down by fear. She looks haggard for a prepubescent child. The bland kindness of the adults she encounters – her social worker, her foster family – only emphasizes her discomfort. De Van does a lot with a little here – the scene of a "dolly party" in which Neve's peers pull apart baby dolls and Neve's mind-controlled fire causes them to melt is one of the most original hallucinations I saw in the entire festival – though the plot hinges on the stupidity of the adults and the resolution is predictable.
Child abuse is avenged in a more traditional way in the Israeli Big Bad Wolves by directors Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales: A father hunts down the man suspected of killing his daughter with help from the cop who found him (and then beat the shit out of him in a video that went viral on YouTube, sorry, Vid2cool). The father resolves to torture the alleged molester in the exact same way his daughter was tortured, except not for the sex stuff because, ew gay. It's Last House on the Left (and/or I Spit on Your Grave) meets Hostel with a twist of Silence of the Lambs. Fingers are broken, toenails are pulled, a chest is barbecued with a blowtorch. Torture tedium sets in during the second half, but everything leading up to it is funny (well, as funny as a movie about dead little girls can be without being a spoof) and ushered along with a camera that is always creeping, often from behind. I didn't quite buy all of its philosophy (sometimes a dude getting the life squeezed out of him is just a dude getting the life squeezed out of him and not a mediation on, I don't know, the nature of guilt and the Jew-Muslim divide), but its brain is certainly in the right place.
The same could be said for Neil Jordan's newest vampire movie Byzantium, which acts a lot like his previous vampire movie, Interview with the Vampire, in that it tells an epic tale of a few vampires' trajectories through centuries that led to their contemporary ennui. The film, which is somewhat slow and more than a little redundant, wouldn't be watchable were it not for the performances of Saoirse Ronan and especially Gemma Arterton, who play a daughter-mother pair. Ronan's Eleanor is eternally 16 and a writer who cannot tell her life story as her vampirism would, you know, freak people out and potentially land a stake in her heart. When she finally does, after all those years of writing and throwing her work into the ocean, it's in an autobiographical essay assigned at school. "It's as though Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelly got together and made a strange little child," says a teacher. Yeah, and then Bran Stoker jerked off all over her.
Arterton's Clara is a whore, and I love the idea that her line of work is so difficult, you have to be immortal to make it sustainable. These vamps are fangless creatures whose thumbnails grow when they are aroused, like little pointed boners. They are rebels, consuming men for their money, status and blood, and fugitives from a board of male vampires ("the pointed nails of justice," as one hilariously describes them) who are pissed that Clara broke a rule that says women cannot turn men into vampires. Oh, they are turned, by the way, not by being bitten and brought this close to death in the normal way, but by being rowed out to a remote island, and being placed in a cave. Once the transition is complete, the islands waterfalls run red with blood. Jordan loves this imagery and uses it three times. It's cool, but not that cool.
The funniest horror movie I saw was Danny Mulheron's Fresh Meat, which is from New Zealand and accordingly zany. A bunch of crooks on the lam crash into a suburban house and attempt to hide in it, except what they encounter is a family of Maori cannibals (and their daughter who's just came back from boarding school only to learn about her family's new interest in eating humans). Sorry, they're not Maori cannibals, as the patriarch corrects at one point — "We're cannibals that just happen to be Maori."
Tables turn, high jinks ensue, a beating heart is ripped out of a chest, a dick gets bitten, the insult "fuck-knuckle" gets dropped. It's very much in the spirit of old Peter Jackson productions (Mulheron wrote bad-trip Muppet satire Meet the Feebles) with a twist of Russ Meyer, mostly because female crook Gigi (Kate Elliott) is channeling Tura Satana in her hair, eye makeup and ass-kicking. Her sexual tension with the family daughter Rina (Hanna Tevita) is as hot as it is hilarious (to get the pepper spray out of Gigi's eyes, Rina sensually pours milk all over her). This also features the best coming-out scene that I've ever watched. "Sometimes to save water, me and the other girls would shower together. It's no big deal," explains Rina. "How sweet," says her mother, who has far more deviant interests to pursue.
But it was V/H/S/2 that impressed me the most out of all of the horror films I watched at Tribeca. As with last year's first installment, all of the constraints placed on the directors of this anthology – minuscule budget, found-footage premise, about 20 minutes to tell their story – do not hinder but in face promote creativity. There is a distinct lack of bullshit as these stories get straight to their points, while adhering to the franchise's commitment to creativity within POV horror – this franchise is on a constant quest to find new excuses to get the cameras in the characters' hands (and sometimes implanted in their heads). In fact, the least original segment is the series' own framing segment, in which private investigators attempt to uncover the whereabouts of one of the kids from the first movie (in its own framing segment) and end up rifling through his collection of snuff-trade VHS tapes. That is more of the same, more or less, but the tapes scanned that comprise this anthology are not.
The first, Adam Wingard's "Clinical Trials," is filmed through the robotic eye of a guy who just got a transplant – he sees dead people. This is the weakest of the shorts. The second, "A Ride in the Park," by Blair Witch Project directors Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale, charts the turning of a human into a zombie via cameras attached to his bike and helmet. It's a weird mix of slapstick (he is stabbed in the eye, shot and run over) and heart (you see a flicker of consciousness as he looks at his zombified face in the reflection of a minivan window). The third, and best, is Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven," in which a documentary crew attempts to capture the practices of a cult. I don't want to give anything away, but this thing is bursting with invention and bursting, period — it involves spontaneous combustion. The final one, Jason Eisener's "Alien Abduction Slumber Party," features two groups of kids – one group of young teens, one group of older ones – who film themselves doing shitty things to each other like squirting piss out of water guns, interrupting sex. To get back at the latter, the older kids mount a camera to their dog's head to get footage of one of the younger kids jerking off. And then aliens invade. This is everything Super 8 didn't have the balls to be.
As with the last V/H/S, there are some format issues – what we see is way to clear to be coming from VHS the tapes the characters are watching (most of it looks HD, all of it is in the 16x9 aspect ratio). For a bit of "Safe Haven," we see the blinking RECORD notification and the battery meter, which is maddening because that is something you'd never see unless you were looking through the viewfinder of a camera – those notifications don't show up on footage ever. This stuff usually drives me crazy, but there is so much right about V/H/S/2 (especially "Safe Haven") that I found it easy to forgive. With one eye on the way things are, these short films also look to how things could be. No franchise cares more about the state of the genre, no franchise is more concerned with fixing it.