Saturday 13 September 2014

Found (2012)

Director: Scott Schirmer
Stars: Gavin Brown, Ethan Philbeck, Phyllis Munro, Louie Lawless, Alex Kogin, Angela Denton and Shane Beasley
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Scott Schirmer deserves a lot of respect and not all of it is due to the fact that he made this feature for as low a budget as $8,000. More is because he adapted it to the screen from a self-published horror novella in collaboration with its author, but most is because, two years earlier, he took the effort to write a review of that novella at Amazon. It's Found by Kentucky writer Todd Rigney, who published it himself back in 2004 to 'the deafening sound of crickets'. Well, one of those crickets was Schirmer, who explains in his review that he found it 'quite by accident' and 'could not put it down'. He appreciated 'the bleakest, most disturbing scenarios you're like to read', but also the 'provocative themes and beautiful ambiguities'. It's a meaningful review, one that ably highlights just how deeply he was drawn into the piece. 'I've read the book three times now,' he says, 'and new layers keep unfolding before me.' Schirmer had made a couple of long short films already, but it's not difficult to see that he felt compelled to adapt this to the screen.

I haven't read Rigney's novella (though I really should remedy that fact soon), but Schirmer's adaptation is magnetic from the very first line. 'My brother keeps a human head in his closet,' narrates a twelve year old boy called Marty and that's about as engaging as any movie can start out. Marty is our protagonist, a kid who's being dragged into the adult world whether he likes it or not. He doesn't want to grow up, given that he's been told it'll mean that he won't enjoy horror movies and comic books any more, but he'd sure like to get past the bullying at school. The catch is that he's a curious youngster who wonders about the world and explores it by learning other people's secrets. Mum's are old love letters from some guy called Danny, while Dad's are porn mags in the garage. And, most shocking to us but initially just another adult weirdness to Marty, his older brother Steve keeps severed heads in the bowling ball bag in his closet, a new one every few days. Marty found that out by accident too but can't leave it alone.

Whatever you're imagining the film to be based on that paragraph, you're probably wrong. This isn't a horror comedy, for a start, a juvenile take on 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. It's not a sick and twisted flick that crosses boundaries just to make us grin. It's not even a fast paced gorefest where Steve works his grisly way through the neighbourhood like an insane Batman and Marty signs up to be his Robin. Really, it's a coming of age flick, one that eschews every bit of John Hughes cuteness because it's telling the opposite story. You know all those movies where the kid hero makes it through one adult thing and suddenly is set for life because he gets it? This isn't that, not remotely. Here, growing up is a slow, traumatising process, where everyone is against you in one way or another and nobody gets what you're going through. Gavin Brown, debuting here as Marty, isn't a great actor in the traditional sense but he nails the tone of his role completely and we're with him all the way, as coming of age moves steadily into disturbing horror.
Marty's a relatively normal kid on the surface, one major reason why he's such a powerful lead character, but there are warning signs throughout. He's a quiet kid who only has one real friend, David, with whom he draws violent comic books. One of his pictures upset his teacher a year earlier, so he's clearly on that invisible watchlist. His teachers wouldn't like that he watches horror movies too, often borrowed from his big brother, but then all the best kids do. He wants to be accepted, but finds that following the rules don't seem to help. 'I get good grades and I do what people ask me to,' he pronounces early in the film. 'They should just leave me alone.' Of course, they don't. He's picked on at school by Marcus Sanders, a bigger kid, and his stooge. Marcus punches him in the stomach one day in the bathroom and only gets a couple of Saturday detentions for it. Marty doesn't have the courage to fight back and his mum pulls him out of school for a couple of days to get over it. You can imagine how well that works.

Marty is rarely off screen and his character is built meticulously, enough that everyone watching is going to recognise something of him in themselves. Even though he's polite, talented and far from stupid, he's not getting anywhere in a social setting because he's quiet, awkward and a little nerdy. His parents aren't much help. Dad seems to care, but he's a bigot with a temper. When he hears about Marcus Sanders, he focuses on the kid's black skin rather than what he did. Mum seems to care, but she's overprotective and babies him. So it's big brother Steve who he looks up to. Steve is quite a few years older and notably cool to someone like Marty. Just look at the posters on his bedroom wall: of bands like Iron Maiden and Venom and movies like The Astro-Zombies, The Deadly Spawn and Wild Zero. There's even a 27x40 of The Taint, one of the more telling ones in this story. The catch of course is that Steve, the cool big brother, the only one who understands him, is also a serial killer. How's that for a tough realisation?

Steve is played by Ethan Philbeck in his only film role and he does a powerful job, especially as he was a last minute replacement for another actor who had to drop out after his family objected to the picture. It's surprising thinking back on the film afterwards at how little he's really in it and how far it revolves around Marty. Even scenes about Steve are often shown from Marty's perspective, even if he's in another room at the time. One of the most telling early scenes has Steve argue with his dad upstairs, while Marty and his mum silently mirror that argument over the dining room table. To Marty, what's being argued about isn't important, just the fact that they're arguing again. Another scene later on does precisely the same thing and turns out to be even more brutally disturbing because we can't see what's happening. We're focused instead on Marty's face, his horror at what's going down and his frustration at being unable to stop it. The best scene in the film may be the tense one that has us stuck under a bed with Marty.
There are a number of themes here that delve much deeper than most horror movies attempt. Bullying is the first obvious one, but that isn't just restricted to Marcus Sanders and the responses that are raised to deal with him. Scenes late in the movie suggest that Marty's dad is a bully too, which perhaps highlights why Marty's the way he is and even why Steve's the way he is. Certainly another theme explores the way that horror movies influence people, a subject close to the heart of anyone who grew up in the UK during the video nasty era. Steve's most overt influence is a fictional (at the time) horror movie called Headless, which he appears to be reenacting, but did it and other movies turn him into who he is? I noticed that he has a copy of Snuff in his VHS collection, which did what Headless did back in the seventies, with a major furore around its supposedly real act of murder, which of course was no such thing. David Alton and other campaigners against video nasties always screamed about copycats, which Steve could well be.

There's a hint at homophobia, but it's only a hint. While Marty has nothing to do with girls throughout, his bullies spread rumours that he's gay and he certainly has hero worship for his big brother, there's no real evidence that he really is gay and Marcus Sanders is committing a hate crime. He's just a bully, throwing out whatever crap is likely to cause impact. There's more of a hint at racism though, as Steve's collection of human heads are predominantly of black women. Whether or not Headless (or Snuff) influenced Steve to do what he does, we're clearly led to wonder if his father's bigotry influenced him too, because surely that's where his racism comes from, even if he doesn't realise it. Perhaps the Daily Mail could campaign against parents as well as horror movies. At this point, we even wonder if Steve's sexualised violence is sourced from Headless, from Dad or some strange conflation of them. As we see this household entirely from Marty's perspective, we know that we're not being told everything and that there's history there.

And, of course, as we wonder about Steve and what really turned him into what he's become, we wonder if we're going to watch Marty going through the same transition. He's bullied already, as Steve may have been earlier in his life. He watches the same movies, perhaps at an even younger age. He's already seen Headless, for example, and he overlays his brother's face onto the perpetrator in his mind. He's gradually being alienated from all authority figures (parents, teachers, pastors) except for Steve, his serial killer of a big brother. He starts the film with one friend and ends it without any. If he isn't sexually frustrated yet, he'll surely get there soon, whether he's gay or not. Even without the final scenes which he appropriately interprets as his life becoming a horror movie, he's being screwed up every which way and we can't help but wonder what he'll become. Will he become Steve in the sequel? Will he take the Lovecraftian way out and go completely insane? Or will he just grow up, if this is all traumatising metaphor for coming of age?
I first saw Found as a festival screener and I was impressed but not bowled over. It was clearly a capable film, even before I realised how minimal its budget, and it obviously had a lot to say, but it wasn't difficult to bring my own expectations to the table and realise how different this was. It's much slower than horror films tend to be, even down to the music, which varies in style from ambient to noise but rarely ramps up from tracks that include the word 'soothing' in their titles. While it was banned in Australia for 'prolonged and detailed depictions of sexualised violence', that's mostly restricted to Headless, the film within a film, and it's far from the most disturbing material, much of which isn't seen but conjured up in our own minds from what Marty has to go through. Watching Found again to review, I realised that it had stayed strongly with me from a couple of years ago, so opened up this time round for me to explore more of its admirable depth and realise just how powerful this story is.

And, unlike those Australian censors who couldn't see past the surface, it's the depth that endows it with its power, not the faux snuff antics of the guy in the mask in Headless, which incidentally is being made into a feature of its own by Arthur Cullipher, the head of the Found effects team. What's disturbing is the realisation that Marty is so thoroughly everyday but enduring so much as he travels through the rites of passage that lead us to adulthood that we start to wonder why everyone doesn't go completely insane when they hit puberty. Suddenly we wonder what's going on next door and next door from them. We ask ourselves how we would react to the apparently minor events that lead up to more major ones, all those little details that we denigrate as minor because we've forgotten how worldchanging they are to a twelve year old. We even put on Steve's shoes as Marty muses about his caring, protective big brother and says, 'Why do there have to be two Steves?' If that isn't real coming of age, I'm not sure what is.

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