Compact in terms of programming and scale, the Slamdance Film Festival offers a refreshing grassroots alternative to the Sundance Film Festival‘s glamour. This year’s program includes several markedly similar attempts to tell fictional stories within a documentary framework. These aren’t lighthearted mockumentaries of the Christopher Guest variety: YouTube generation filmmakers have adapted the style as a non-ironic storytelling device–and when the tactic works, it’s stunning.
“Paranormal Activity” makes a strong case for this approach. Despite its miniscule production values and somewhat rudimentary concept, this intelligently paced ghost story creates a stripped-down intensity that the horror genre often sorely lacks. Israeli-born director Oren Peli uses a technique reminiscent of “The Blair Witch Project,” but it really suggests a DIY take on “Poltergeist.” Shot on digital video and edited like found footage, the movie tracks the efforts of a young couple (Katie Featherson and Micah Sloat) to record a menacing supernatural presence haunting their home at night. Peli generates suspense with nuanced cues that suit the material (plenty of things go bump in the night). Like any great thriller, anticipation trumps excess. “When I watch a movie with a lot of editing tricks and loud sound effects–these kind of things make you jump, but they don’t stay with you,” Peli said last week shortly before the premiere of his film. “The ones that don’t show a lot of things always scare me.”
Consider Peli’s alternative to the genre’s typically simplistic shocks in light of the Slamdance documentary “Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story,” which tracks the bizarre efforts of the prolific genre filmmaker to break the fourth wall of the horror filmgoing experience. Castle, whose stature as the producer of “Rosemary’s Baby” became overwhelmed by the prolificacies of Roman Polanski, succeeded as a performance artist–but the camp value of his gimmicks cheapened his reputation. (In one interview, John Waters tenderly recalls the flimsy skeleton drifting over a bemused crowd during “House on Haunted Hill“). Castle’s legacy is illuminating when juxtaposed with the icy power of “Paranormal Activity,” where the illusion of real danger engenders a greater terror than any given mass market ploy.
The other Slamdance movies to combine documentary formalism with fabricated narratives are more conventional, but in both cases the morality of documentary filmmaking plays a central role. “Fix,” a raunchy comedy with the gritty energy of “Go” and the speedy wit of “Arrested Development,” centers on the rushed daylong experience of Milo (Tao Ruspoli, also the director) and his friend Bella (Olivia Wilde), during which they transport Milo’s raucous brother Leo (Shawn Andrews) from jail to rehab and capture the whole thing on camera. “I was looking for a story that would allow me to gradually transition to narrative filmmaking using the language I had learned making documentaries,” explains Ruspoli about his feature debut. Whatever the language, “Fix” has a magnificent visual panache, glimmering with the neon hues of Beverly Hills. The talented cast of emerging professionals (Wilde was recently cast alongside Jack Black in “Year One“) compensate for a simplistic quest-based plot.
A simplistic treatment works directly against the heavy-handed conceits of “The Project,” Slamdance’s third phony doc. Its immediately cumbersome premise finds a trio of edgy film school grads trying to capture ghetto life in downtown Brooklyn while struggling with obnoxious white guilt. First of all, the idea such a large amount of violent gang wars would take place in the tame Fort Green streets is fairly intangible. Geographical quibbles aside, “The Project” suffers from a major tonal imbalance. Ryan Piotrowicz has an ear for amusing hipster cynicism, and his principle subjects are good for a few yucks, but the bleak, unsettlingly violent conclusion lacks imagination and feels emotionally vacant. A bold, misguided project itself, “The Project” needs no candid camera to reveal its characters’ flaws.
With disparate productions lining up to take a crack at the same imitation of non-fiction, definite standards have started to form–and filmmakers need to think long and hard before deciding if their chosen story suits the method. At a relevant point in “Fix,” one of the frustrated protagonists puts his friend to the test. “When are you gonna stop living you life like it’s one fucking documentary?” he asks. As home video continues to encroach on mainstream entertainment (and “Cloverfield” dominates the box office), let’s hope someone answers that question soon.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.