Review: Mockingbird

Bryan Bernito first hit the scene in 2008 with the tension-filled home invasion film The Strangers. That taught, suspenseful piece of psychological terror left me scared to be home alone, distrusting of any and all persons unknown and eagerly anticipating his follow-up.

That follow-up comes in the form of Mockingbird, a film that is such a departure from The Strangers that it’s practically impossible to believe that they came from the same artist. But the credits and IMDB assure me that it’s true, so I guess I have to believe it. I sat down to Mockingbird with high hopes, but what follows, while an interesting premise, failed to deliver what I believe Bertino to be capable of.
The film follows three separate stories – a married couple (Tom and Emmy, played by Todd Stashwick and Audrey Marie Anderson), a student (Beth, played by Alexandra Lydon), and Leonard (Barak Hardley), an unemployed, but entertaining loser living with his mom are each given a video camera, which shows up, gift-wrapped, on their front steps. They all figure it was the result of applying to some sort of a sweepstakes or contest, and are initially excited by the mysterious gift.

The couple and the student are instructed to keep filming, and as the evening goes on, the “contest” (we all know it’s not a contest) becomes more and more sinister – videotapes containing threatening imagery appear, the phone lines are cut, and the presence of unseen intruders makes itself known outside the houses. Constantly monitored and with little hope of escape, panic sets in as the characters struggle to understand and piece together exactly what is happening to them. Interspersed with these scenes is Leonard’s story – his instructions set him on more of a scavenger hunt, instructing him to don a creepy clown costume and participate in various stunts all over the city.

As much as the premise sets up an interesting possibility for the story, it fails to make good on the potential, and ultimately, Mockingbird is terribly disappointing. It tries to present a new angle in found footage storytelling, but winds up collapsing under its own weight. The three separate storylines could work if they were similar in tone. Unfortunately, two are grim and the third (Leonard the Loveable Loser) functions more as a piece of comic relief throughout most of the film. It makes it terribly difficult to maintain any appreciable amount of tension from scene to scene. There are some very suspenseful moments as the couple and Beth are trapped in their respective houses by unseen intruders who can see their every move, but when we’re cutting away every few minutes to check in with the hijinks of Leonard the Happy Clown, it’s impossible to stay in the moment, and any tension that has been building is subsequently deflated.

And Leonard is one of the more interesting characters in the film. He’s a genuinely fun character to spend time around, but throughout the first part of the film, you wonder why exactly he is a part of the story, when the other two stories are clearly more interesting. And though the film doesn’t necessarily telegraph the ending, you do start to understand how the three branches will be converging in the final act. This does lead to a bit of dramatic tension as you wait for the inevitable conclusion, but again, jumping back and forth causes it to dissipate when it should be gradually building.

All in all, Mockingbird was an interesting experiment that ultimately failed. Incorporating the found footage aspect as part of a game from the mind of a twisted assailant is an interesting way to set up the events and to provide a reason for the characters to continue filming the events when any rational person would turn the camera off. But sadly, the execution was rather poor and the film failed to find its intended rhythm. I was so excited to see what else Bernito could bring to the table, and I will happily wait for his next offering.

Review: VHS:Viral

 V/H/S: Viral is the third and final film in the horror anthology franchise. The premise of the series has been to bring together a group of up and coming horror directors and instruct them each to complete a short film in the found-footage style. Ti West, Eduardo Sanchez, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, along with others, have all participated across the series, and part three brings several new directors into the fold.

Nacho Vigalondo, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorehead, Gregg Bishop and Marcel Sarmiento all contribute stories to this new entry. Stories about an evil magician, about strange parallel worlds, about a mysterious disease that seems to be spreading through viral videos, and about a group of teenagers who head to Tijuana for a day of partying and skating, only to find something much more terrifying (insert obligatory donkey show joke here).

In any anthology piece, there are moments that are better than others, and segments that stand out in the mind of the viewer more than their counterparts, and V/H/S: Viral is no different. There is plenty to like here, but pound for pound, this is definitely the weakest film in the series. There are some creative moments, but overall, this film just doesn’t have the strength of its predecessors.

And much of that could be due to the fact that at this point, found footage is simply running out of steam. It’s probably good that the series is coming to an end. It was a fun concept and was innovative for a time, but has really begun to falter. And with good reason. How many different ways can you possibly find to record a story from the first person perspective? Each film had a particularly creative segment that really pushed the boundaries of what found footage could be – Joe Swanberg’s Skype story in the first film, or Eduardo Sanchez’s zombie helmet cam from part II – but there isn’t a whole lot out there that hasn’t been done already. Here, Benson and Moorehead employed the use of a GoPro during a segment centering on a group of skateboarders, which offered an interesting view into the action. But overall, the concept seems to be tapped. Which isn’t to say it hasn’t been fun. I’ve loved the series and the way it has tried to stretch the boundaries of found footage, including the entries in this new film.

As the emphasis on creatively crafting found footage short seems to be dwindling, the emphasis on story has been kicked up a bit. Particularly stand out is Nacho Vigalondo’s “Parallel Monsters.” Here, the interesting component is in the story itself, rather than how it is being shot. It bridges horror and sci-fi and delivers a unique story that is not at all what we have come to expect from this series. But overall, it seems time for the franchise to be drawing to a close.

If you’re a fan of the series, this one is still worth checking out. And though the stories at hand aren’t necessarily something that fits well into the first person perspective, they are still fun concepts that are well-executed onscreen, even if you don’t totally buy how they are shot or where they came from.

Horrorella’s 31 Days of Halloween: 3:00AM

We made it! It’s October 31st and our month-long horror celebration is complete!

Today’s film is one that will definitely put a jump in your Halloween. “3:00AM” is a wonderful short that makes incredible use of its sound design. All too often in horror, sound is an abused element. It has the power to be a powerful building block for the execution of tension and effective scares. But we see time after time directors who just go the cheap route and throw in lazy jump scares rather than working to craft a truly scary situation.
In “3:00AM,” director Lee Matthews skillfully uses some pretty freaky sound design to add to a very unsettling atmosphere. The simple premise of a woman alone in a house in the middle of the night becomes something altogether terrifying when you layer in the various sound elements at play. 
Watch it loud – trust me, it’s worth it.

3:00AM from Lee Matthews on Vimeo.

Thanks for hanging out with me for short film funtimes over the past month! Happy Halloween!!!

Horrorella’s 31 Days of Halloween: Lights Out

Halloween is creeping closer and closer, and “Lights Out,” is guaranteed to get you in the proper mood. A friend recommend this one to me and even though I watched this with my lights on, it still scared the living piss out of me.

It employs a great use of suspense and really taps into every fear you have ever had about being home alone and what else could be lurking in the shadows. Pull the covers up right for this one, kids!

Lights Out – Who’s There Film Challenge (2013) from David F. Sandberg on Vimeo.

Horrorella’s 31 Days of Halloween: Game

Written and directed by Josh MacDonald, “Game” is a fun spin on hillbilly horror. It opens on three redneck cannibals chasing a woman through the woods as she attempts to escape. Particularly notable is the tension built over the first few minutes, as she attempts to stay quiet and hide in the woods, as well as the makeup effects that come into play in the later half of the film.

Game (short film directed by Josh MacDonald) from Angus Swantee on Vimeo.

This one is a lot of fun, playing with established tropes and delivering something completely unexpected at the same time.

Horrorella’s 31 Days of Halloween: Buried

This is a really short, really simple film, that manages to be quite effective in the little time it has. A simple premise that really raises more questions than it answers, “Buried” is a good exercise in setting tone and atmosphere. While the action onscreen is minimal, the soundtrack comprised of long, low tones, combined with the rhythmic sound of the man shoveling, create a suspenseful mood though very little is actually happening in the shot.

Buried from Ian Langenhuysen on Vimeo.

Horrorella’s 31 Days of Halloween: Paralyzed

Sleep Paralysis is some seriously fucked up shit. It is a known condition that affects thousands of people, and is seriously one of the most terrifying sounding experiences out there. Aaron Sims captures the phenomenon all too well in his short “Paralyzed.”

Check it out, Then we’ll talk.

PARALYZED from Aaron Sims on Vimeo.

Okay, now that we’re all suitably terrified, it’s time to realize just how close to true those 8 minutes were. Go check out the Wiki article.

Seriously – holy shit. I have known people who have suffered from this condition in the past, and it is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. I don’t know about you guys, but I am about two steps away from downing coffee grounds and diet coke like Patricia Arquette in Nightmare on Elm Street 3.