Sunday 14 February 2010

Evil Things (2009)

Director: Dominic Perez
Stars: Laurel Casillo, Morgan Hooper, Ryan Maslyn, Elyssa Mersdorf and Torrey Weiss

Evil Things is a low budget independent horror movie made possible by the economic downturn. Investment banker Dominic Perez had wanted to make a movie for a long while, but only actually did so when the bank he worked for restructured and his position went away. Luckily he had three months of notice to put to use in writing and financing his film, which he wrote and directed. So here's the official proof: good things can come from bad times.

It's a brave film, based on a few intriguing cinematic devices that get used now and again in film with highly variable results. The first is the concept of the film as record, this being not just our feature film but an item of FBI evidence, as reinforced by the clever design of the DVD label and the opening shot of the film, a notch up on the usual found footage logic. The second is the the fact that almost the entire film is shot from the perspective of the video camera owned by one of the principal characters.

Now this point of view concept in particular is a difficult one to really pull off. It worked pretty well for half of Humphrey Bogart's Dark Passage, because of the force of his personality, but far less well in Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake, for example. Both these were Hollywood films with large budgets and experienced crews and the camerawork is not designed to be realistic. The realism came later, with films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, obvious influences here because they combine both the key concepts in use, but with the realism comes deliberately shaky camerawork.

And here's where I have a problem. While I love the concept from a theoretical standpoint and acknowledge how useful a tool it is to the independent filmmaker to slash the budget and give the film in your face realism, it tends to give me motion sickness. It really doesn't help the enjoyment factor of the film when I tend to end up having to stop watching and listen instead. Given the rise in popular culture of reality TV and the decreasing cost and increasing availability of affordable handheld cameras, I'm sure we're going to see it a lot more often which will increase sales of Ibruprofen for me and trips to the bathroom for my better half. Unfortunately this means that Evil Things has a downside for me through no fault of its own. Luckily it has much to make up for it.

The fictional budding filmmaker that real life budding filmmaker Dominic Perez creates is Leo Pugliese. He's one of a group of four friends who go to Grand Central Station to pick up a fifth, then head out for a weekend in the middle of nowhere. It's Miriam's 21st birthday, you see, and her Aunt Gail has this very large country house that will be conveniently empty. We're not sure precisely where this is, but it's in dangerous country: very rural, very snowy and where there's believably next to no cellphone service.

And on the icy roads, a large van starts stalking them: it tailgates them, it overtakes them then stops in front of them on a blind bend, it follows them and reappears every time they think it's gone. This van doesn't look particularly sinister, except through context. We're watching FBI evidence, after all, which speaks to the mass disappearance of our five friends, and someone has delivered this video record anonymously to FBI headquarters. Quite why they did this is one of the questions I'm still pondering.

As the film runs on and they successfully arrive at Aunt Gail's house to drink the evening away, we begin to forget about the van and wonder if it was just there for shock and suspense value like certain other scenes in the film. This is reinforced in the morning when everyone is hung over and not wanting to do anything, because Mark nonetheless drags them all out into the woods to go see some cave paintings or some such, only to get them all notably lost. The van does reappear though, as soon after they make it back to the house, they discover a videotape that has been left for them, showing the true horror that the van represents.

It would be easy to dismiss this film and not just because its title is pointlessly generic. There's really nothing new anywhere in the film, though to be fair I'm not sure that all its disparate elements have ever been put together in one place the way they are here. At heart there's hardly any plot to speak of: five kids get terrorised in an isolated location and that's about it, which hardly elevates it above its competition, competition that trumps it on experience, budget and time to film. It takes us a long while to escalate the fear to its inevitable conclusion, which of course is by default never in doubt. There are also a number of questions left unanswered, some of which smack of plot holes.

But somehow there's a charm to this one. The banter is realistic and rarely gets boring even through the long scenes to build up the tension. Most importantly it never gets annoyingly dumb, which is highly refreshing in a genre full of annoyingly dumb character decisions. We don't want to slap any of these characters and we don't find ourselves rooting for the villain of the piece just to shut up the people we're supposed to care for. They feel like real people not stereotypes. The fear scenes are very well handled, Laurel Casillo and Torrey Weiss especially realistic in their reactions. The infrared scene at the end is very well done indeed, as the pinnacle of a solid climax to all this long buildup.

Most of all I highly respect the decision to not give us an answer. This story is open ended not because Dominic Perez wants to make a sequel but because the concept was about what he describes on the film's excellent website as 'the innate fear of the unknown or the unknowable'. It's about showing us that something's out there, something that we can't see and something that we have precisely no background information on. All we know is it's there and it's freaking us the hell out. Perez isn't introducing a new franchise villain here, so there will be no resin models or Hallowe'en masks coming out of this film. What he gives us is that abiding fear that all those cuddly, reliable and apparently invulnerable franchise monsters don't. That's refreshing and all respect to him for it.

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