Friday 28 January 2011

Eyes in the Dark (2010)

Director: Bjorn Anderson
Stars: Wayne Bastrup, Melissa Goad, John Symonds, Maureen Francisco, Telisa Steen, Melinda Ausserer, Jason Robinson and Paul Eenhoorn
We may be coming up on a whole new era in Forteana. The X Files told us that the truth is out there, the Internet gave us opportunity to start looking and now Wikileaks has the potential to actually hand us the details. While we may never quite get treated to a leaked document that identifies the precise crate in the precise warehouse that the Ark of the Covenant is currently languishing in, I'm intrigued to see what the next decade or so brings us in uncovered cover ups, demystified mysteries and explained conspiracies. It might even bring us a real life equivalent of this, the second feature from Bjorn Anderson, whose imagination shows in his choice of subject matter for his debut: a mediaeval war movie from 2009 called Warrior's End, hardly the usual starting point for a new filmmaker. He fills the same roles here, as writer, producer and director, but this is a more traditional horror movie, albeit following relatively new traditions.

It's a handheld found footage movie, always an engaging choice for the low budget filmmaker because it doesn't cost much. This one set Anderson back a mere $5,000, most of that going on cabin rental and food supplies for the cast and crew. Such a microbudget generally means two things: the film is going to look like crap but it's going to look awesome for the money. After all, the quality level you should expect from Avatar with its $237m budget should be 47,400 times higher than Eyes in the Dark. There are no 3D blue aliens here but frankly I'd rather watch this, even though I tend to hate handheld movies because they give me motion sickness. For $5,000, it's astounding. Ignoring the budget, it's still pretty good, not least because it doesn't fall for the problems that most handheld movies fall for every damn time. In fact it seems to make a point of not falling for any of them and it's refreshing to see such a carefully crafted microbudget film.

The most obvious success is that it's internally consistent. So many found footage films revolve around a camera that's discovered somewhere that magically contains footage edited together from multiple tapes, often from multiple cameras, with all the boring bits conveniently removed. Eyes in the Dark opens with us using a gloriously old school terminal to login to a classified FBI database where we review several pieces of video evidence. Someone has found this footage, arranged it according to logical context and archived it so hackers like us can sneak our way in to watch. I love this conceit right down to the clicking sound of the keyboard. Anderson is also careful to keep the size of the frame consistent with the source recording device, whether that's a cell phone, trusty old videotape or even a TV news camera, thus ensuring that the story neatly expands to fill the screen, as the bulk of it was shot on a pair of Sony digital HD cameras.

We're in the Cascades, a particularly beautiful mountain range that stretches 700 miles from British Columbia down to northern California. In particular we're east of Seattle, in country that I've visited and can attest fits this material well. I remember looking down from a remote bridge on I-90 at what seemed like vast swathes of forest and feeling my imagination itch for release. Anderson's chief inspiration for the story was a nightmare but I'm utterly unsurprised that he set it in this landscape. The central section of the film involves the usual bunch of college kids going into the woods to have a good time but the inevitable frivolity of these scenes is contrasted well with more serious footage shown beforehand. The depth that this gives the story is what stayed with me long after watching it. Unlike other handheld microbudget movies like Four Leaf Clover, House Swap or even Evil Things, this is much more than just kids and a camera.
How much more is slowly revealed, as with all the best monster movies. The cell phone evidence that we see first has nothing but a panicked man and a strange noise to set the mood. The video taken by a pair of missing research biologists adds both depth and tension, not least because of the mostly serious tone taken, but it only drops hints at what is hiding in these woods. They're in the Cascades to study deer migratory patterns but they don't find the evidence they expect, just scat or the odd carcass or skeleton. They do hear something on the second night, something big that ends up coming too close. A local news station reports that eight students lost in the woods have been officially updated from missing persons to murder victims, but this is confiscated film so we can be sure that story has been suppressed. All this means that by the time we see video recovered from a social networking site for missing persons, we have rare context to go on.

The main section is the weakest, but that's inevitable in a story like this because there are just so many other horror movies about college kids finding themselves in danger in the woods. At least Anderson avoids most of the standard clichés and somehow manages to ensure that these kids don't come close to the usual levels of annoying. The idiocy level is appropriate: they aren't the brightest kids in the world but they're far from the most stupid too. They just do dumb things because they're kids. Sure, they wander over to the mysterious caves after the local ranger asks them not to; they try to stick together when the eyes in the dark show up, only to fail miserably; and they're generally dismissive of anything they can't drink; but they're hardly average spring breakers and this is no Hollywood frat comedy. If you want an endless parade of naked breasts and conveniently shot lesbian makeout sessions you want a different film.

Technically the sound and lighting are flaky but believably so. After all, we're watching handheld footage shot by a college kid called Josh, who plans to liveblog through the last party of the year, which he and six friends will enjoy at the Cascades Ski Lodge. Most of the actors have a few films behind them and they're all capable without anyone standing out. The characterisations are not the deepest I've ever seen but compared to its obvious competitors, this is Oscar worthy writing. I applauded every time a cliché is hauled out only to be deflated. Even before Anderson delivers on the title, we discover that cell phones work in the woods, even at the most crucial moments; kids can both ask for and take directions when they get lost; and when characters rewind the tape we're watching, it actually stops playing. There's even one point where the camera stays on when it shouldn't, but as we prepare to get annoyed, the characters notice and switch it off.

While the biggest success of the film is the writing, the attention given to the suspenseful build up, the background and the internal consistency of the story and its presentation, the biggest failure may lie with the writing too. Some may complain about the monsters, which are kept at a distance for the most part and only come closer for the chaotic finalé, but I'd suggest that they would be missing the point. The film is called Eyes in the Dark not Big Hungry Monsters in Your Face, after all. Suffice it to say that these things are big, furry and dangerous and look vaguely like the Crites from Critters. However when the film ends, we still don't know much about them and I wanted to know a lot more. Anders, the Aussie caretaker at the ski lodge, tells them about Indian legends that speak to ancient spirits coming down from the mountains but we're never given any real explanations. Nobody explains why this whole episode is being suppressed either.

I don't know if Anderson left that for a sequel. Usually I'd say that I'd hope not, because found footage films have the most definite endings in all of horror and when sequels are made they tend to be painful. There is the potential for an utterly different sequel though, something that takes the material as a starting point for something new, in the way that James Cameron took the claustrophobic sexual horror of Alien and turned it into a military science fiction action movie with Aliens. The entire setup here oozes cover up and conspiracy theory, but never addresses why. A sequel could alternate between a hacker viewing this footage then heading out into the Cascades to investigate with an official but secret operation to take care of the eyes in the dark without ever letting on that it even exists. It wouldn't even have to be handheld, as this picture would serve only as the questions that it would answer. The truth is still out there, right?


Unknown said...

Hal, where did you get a copy of this film? It sounds pretty good.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

To me, the fact that it's a handheld found footage movie and I still liked it speaks volumes. Everyone and their dog are making these things nowadays because they cost so little, but the catch is that most of them suck. The worst film festival submissions I sit through tend to be handheld films.

I did appreciate Cloverfield though it gave me motion sickness. Colin was a textbook in what to do with no money. This shines in the way it was put together. Evil Things has a lot of problems but its heart was in the right place.

Outside of those I can't think of another handheld movie I liked. In particular, Four Leaf Clover may be the most annoying film I've ever seen in my entire life, a true antithesis to this film.

How did I get a copy? I was sent one by the filmmakers to review. Here's the official website. They're on Facebook also. The film has screened at a number of festivals but I don't believe it'll be available on DVD until later this year.