found footage

They’re Inside

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An aspiring filmmaker and her estranged sister travel to a remote cabin with a small film crew. The plan is to make an emotional film about an experience the filmmaker had with her husband. Not long after settling in, strange things begin to happen. What starts as noises during the night quickly escalates as two deranged killers have other plans for the film crew.

They’re Inside is directed by John-Paul Panelli, making his feature film debut with this film. Panelli also co-wrote the film with Schuyler Brumley, also in his feature-film debut. The film begins with a delightful cold opening. It shows a man on New Years Eve attempting to record what the audience can assume is his YouTube channel. As he goes through different takes trying to film the perfect video, unexpected visitors crash his video. Honestly, this opening is my favorite part of the film. It not only gives an interesting look behind the scenes at recording the perfect video, but it also uses some great framing to build tension.

From there the film goes to the two sisters reconnecting as they attempt to film a movie in a remote cabin with a small group of actors and crew. As small happenings lead to larger scares and growing paranoia, the group eventually realizes they are being watched by people with murderous intentions. To add some interest and mystery to the plot, the filmmakers interspersed clips of animals on the hunt and of the lead actress. It is unclear when or where these clips of the actress take place and it makes the viewer question her level of involvement in all that is happening. These elements make it unclear what is truly happening and keeps the audience guessing right up to the fairly unique climax of the film.

While They’re Inside has a great cold opening and interesting plot points that are unexpected, the film feels like many films that came before it. Home invasion films featuring creepy mask-wearing psychopaths are quite common. While this idea has been done time and time again with varying degrees of success, this film falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The crew behind They’re Inside do make an attempt to bring something different with the various surprises thrown into the mix. This makes an otherwise forgettable film stand out in the viewers’ mind, especially with how the filmmakers chose to end the film.

In general, the performances in They’re Inside are very well done. Karli Hall (Being Charlie, The Hollow Point) stars as the aspiring director, Robin. What makes her performance stand out is the uncertainty she builds around her character. Along with the small scenes cut into the film, Hall’s performance forces the audience to question whether or not Robin is somehow involved with the horror inflicted on her friends. Amanda Kathleen Ward (Fate) plays Robin’s estranged sister, Cody. Ward’s performance becomes more compelling as the plot progresses and Cody’s paranoia intensifies. As the events intensify, it seems as though Cody’s sanity might completely unravel. The rest of the cast also deliver great performances including Sascha Ghafoor (Rift, The Wedding Invitation), Chelsea D. Miller (Big Time Rush, Spaceman), and Jake Ferree (The Baxters, Loop).

They’re Inside makes attempts at creating a unique home invasion and found footage mash-up, but it doesn’t have quite enough to truly stand out. Panelli and Brumley create compelling and complex characters while also adding interesting elements to their film I haven’t seen before. On top of that, the film is helped by compelling performances from the cast. The opening of the film and the end are the standout moments, but what happens in-between doesn’t do enough to break away from other successful films in the subgenre. There are moments that will be memorable, but as a whole They’re Inside is a film that will fade from peoples’ minds by the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Hell House LLC

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Five years ago several people were killed in a haunted house attraction due to an unknown malfunction. The dead included many patrons as well as most of the crew. Now a documentary team is trying to put the pieces together and discover the truth of what happened that night. When a survivor of that night comes forward with new information the documentary crew decides to go back to the site of the haunted attraction. They soon discover some doors are better left closed.

Hell House LLC seems like it would be just another found footage film. While is doesn’t reinvent the subgenre, it definitely excels at it. The plot is interesting, focusing on a group of friends who build haunted house attractions for Halloween every year. This year the hotel they choose for their attraction has a very dark history. Over time things become more bizarre, leading to the disastrous opening night. This is entertaining enough, but what makes Hell House LLC stand out is the characters, the logic, and the subtle scares (most of which I will discuss later). What I will say now is that one of the most difficult things for a fount footage film to achieve is a reason for the characters to keep filming, even when things have gone horribly wrong. The filmmakers do an excellent job, for the most part, of logically explaining to the audience why the footage continues past when many people would stop. There is only one scene that leaves me with more questions than answers, but it doesn’t disrupt the filming logic.

I had the opportunity to watch this film twice in a very short period of time. The first time I watched it on a streaming service per a recommendation. The second time I watched it after receiving an email from the filmmakers with a screener for the extended director’s cut version. When watching the director’s cut I expected the aforementioned scene to be extended and further explained, but sadly it was not. It strongly hints that there is something more going on beyond what is shown to the audience, but we never get to learn what that is. While both versions of the film are great, I would recommend the extended director’s cut as it provides more character development and shows a bit more of what happened on opening night.

The most important thing I want to say is, despite watching the film two times in roughly two weeks, I was terrified during both viewings. A statement from writer/director Stephen Cognetti said, “My intent for Hell House LLC was to produce a slow burn of subtle, yet building scares. I have never been a fan of jump scares or music aided scares. My favorite type of scares in horror has always been the little things caught in the background that the protagonists are not immediately aware of. I worked to embody these sensibilities in Hell House LLC.” I too prefer the subtle scares in horror films. I can say that Cognetti skillfully achieves his goal, resulting in a truly frightening film. He creates the kind of subtle scares that stick with audiences long after the film has ended.

In a found footage film it is important the characters come across as compelling, and the characters must also have great chemistry. Nothing can ruin a found footage film more quickly than an unlikable cast. Hell House LLC has a cast of characters that are very well acted, and the chemistry between them feels very genuine. While the entire cast is fantastic, there are two standout performances for me. The first is Ryan Jennifer (I’d Kill For You) as the lone female of the group, Sara. Jones perfectly conveys trying to be one of the boys, experiencing fear, and balancing that fear with trying to be supportive of the team. Gore Abrams (Let Me Make You a Martyr) also stands out as Paul. Paul is a bit of a typical stereotype often found in modern horror films; the somewhat perverted friend with a heart of gold. What makes Abrams’ performance so memorable is how genuinely funny and enjoyable his character is. Even while his character is the focus of many scares, Abrams still manages to do or say something that delivers a laugh. Honorable mention goes to the remaining actors who made up the Hell House team; Danny Bellini (The Drifter), Jared Hacker (Pact), and Adam Schneider (Dark Skies).

If you enjoy quality found footage, and find subtle scares to be the most terrifying, then Hell House LLC is the film for you. It is the perfect Halloween horror flick to watch with a group if you want a good scare. There are only a few minor details that could be altered to get rid of one or two unanswered questions. Hell House LLC has compelling characters, chilling scares, and a simple yet interesting story. As someone who has seen this film more than once I can also say the scares hold up on second viewing. If my review has convinced you to see the film, I would suggest putting in the extra effort to see the director’s cut. This film will likely become an annual Halloween must-watch.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Nightlight

Covington Woods is known for being a place where people venture to commit suicide. Robin (Shelby Young) recently lost her best friend who killed himself in these woods. Despite that, she still decides to go into the woods at night with a group of the popular kids to drink, tell scary stories about the forest, and play flightlight games. Everything starts out innocently enough, but strange things begin to happen that the friends can’t explain. There is something evil waiting for them in the dark depths of the forest, and it’s out for blood.

When I first heard about this film it seemed like a scary concept. Found footage films generally scare me quite a bit, and most towns have at least one area that is known for suicides. This film definitely had intense moments and a few good jump scares. Sadly, I felt more disappointment than anything after finishing the film, and there are many aspects that took away from what could have been a really scary story.

The acting was quite disappointing. The only performance that didn’t feel forced and unnatural came from Mitch Hewer (Skins). The only downside to his performance was that there were multiple occasions where his English accent came through. It wasn’t just a word or two where he lost the American accent; it was full sentences where he went from sounding like the average American teen to an Englishman trying to hide his accent. The other three leads gave such lackluster performances that I found myself not caring about the well-being of their characters. Shelby Young (Days of Our Lives) I found particularly annoying. This was likely due not only to her acting being unconvincing, but her character also just did so many idiotic things throughout the film. That likely has more to do with the writing, but it still bothered me.

One thing that made me dislike the movie the most was how it made it unclear what the source of the evil was. In the beginning, when the teens are telling scary stories, they talk about people being possessed in the woods and what to do (or not to do) in order to avoid the evil spirits that lurk in the forest. These stories, and some of the events later in the film, lead me to believe that the evil in the forest is some kind of demonic presence. Later, it is implied that maybe Robin’s friend who had killed himself in those woods was doing this to the teens in order to punish them. Robin even addresses the evil as Ethan (her friend who committed suicide) many times. The film goes back and forth between implying the source is demonic and the source is Ethan. At the end of the film it felt like that question was never really answered. Personally, I fell like it makes so much more sense that there is a demonic presence making everything happen instead of Ethan. Maybe the filmmakers meant for you to interpret it how you see it, but it just came across as confused.

When it comes to the scares, this film did a fairly good job. As I said before, found footage films always tend to scare me just because it feels like you are seeing things from the point of view of the victims. On top of that, this film did a good job of doing the more subtle jump scares. This means it relied more on spooky noises and catching small glimpses of the evil. It is always so much scarier when you can’t see what it is that’s after you. There is really only one scene where you get a full view of the evil, and of course, that is one of the least-scary scenes in the entire film. I would go so far as to say the full view of the evil landed more on the cheesy side rather than scary.

Despite all the negative things I have said about the film, there are a few things that I enjoyed. I felt like it was an interesting idea, there were definitely times where I jumped, and it had a really cute dog in it named Kramer. There were just more parts that I didn’t enjoy that outweigh the good. The biggest disappoints were the acting and the tragically large plot holes. I can see this being more entertaining for teenage audiences, but if you are like me and need a bit more substance then you should probably skip this one.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/10

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

The Fleeges, Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily (Brit Shaw), recently moved into their dream home. While getting decorations out for the holidays, they find a strange video camera from the eighties along with some old tapes. The camera seems to be able to see things that cannot be seen with the naked eye. As the family starts filming their home with this special camera, and as they go through the old tapes, strange things begin to happen in their home. All of the activity seems to be centered around the daughter, Leila (Ivy George). Will the family be able to get rid of the evil in their house before it’s too late?

Before I begin my review of this film, I feel like I need to establish my feelings about the previous films. I absolutely loved Paranormal Activity 1-3. They scared me to death, and each film built upon the mythology more and more. On the other hand, I thought Paranormal Activity 4 was horrible. It was completely pointless, and there were multiple plot holes. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was decent (better than 4). It had a bit more humor than the previous films and it definitely built on the mythology some more. This installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise, while successful on rounding out the series, ended the films on a rather mediocre note.

What made the first three films so intense and terrifying was how the scares were presented. The scares started out very slow and subtle; so subtle that you may have missed something that happened the first time you watched it. The scares became bigger and bigger from there until the horrifying finales. This installment took a slightly different approach. With the use of the special video camera you can see the entity known as “Toby.” He starts out as transparent disturbances seen on the camera, but quickly gains a more opaque form. While it was very interesting to finally get an idea of what the legendary Toby looks like, actually seeing him also kind of ruined the effect. It is much more frightening to be stalked by something you can’t see. I also feel like they dove into the big jump scares too early in the film. The previous films built up the tension much more before using the jump scares. This installment almost entirely skipped building the tension. While the jump scares definitely scared me on multiple occasions, using them as the sole source of frightening viewers does not make a successful film.

The most successful aspect of this film was how it added to the mythology that has been building for 6 films. Warning: if you haven’t seen the previous films, then these might be spoilers. In the previous films we have learned that Toby is a demon (and not a ghost, so why is this film called Ghost Dimension?), a coven of witches called the Midwives orchestrated everything, and Katie and Kristi were chosen to be major parts of the Midwives’ evil plot. This film reveals more information. Not only do we learn more about what happened to Katie and Kristi as children after the third film, but we also learn the ultimate goal of the Midwives. Sequels are pointless unless they add something new to the story and help us to further understand the “why” behind the plot. In this regard, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension did an excellent job.

I have mixed feelings when it comes to the special effects in this film. For the most part, I generally enjoyed the way they showed Toby through the special video camera. I especially loved when they made it look as though he is made out of black liquid. It’s when Toby ends up looking like he is made out of black smoke that they lost me a bit. The filmmakers went from a look that was both stylish and unique to a look you would expect from a hokey ghost movie. They should have stuck with the more liquid look, which was much more original and terrifying than the smoke.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is an entertaining film with lots of good scares. It also had an interesting plot that brought a fitting end to the Paranormal Activity franchise. There is definitely room for improvement. The special effects were used a bit too much, and the film did not have the same intensity of the previous films. It may have been fine as a standalone film, but considering this film is the end of a series of films, it is impossible not to compare it to its predecessors. People who loved the earlier films will likely enjoy the story, but be disappointed that this film rushed into the big scares too quickly so that they almost became mundane by the end of the film.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10