Back in 1999, along with a confederate (Daniel Myrick), Eduardo Sanchez incorporated a somewhat creaky aesthetic to their horror film “The Blair Witch Project,” using an updated version of the faux documentary approach that gave us everything from “Cannibal Holocaust” to “Zelig,” adapting it to today’s technologically attuned climate (and throwing in liberal helpings of pre-millennial dread). They helped create the viable found footage genre, a point-of-view style that is frequently used today (two of this year’s most buzzed-about hits, “Project X” and “Chronicle,” employ this device). Now, more than a decade later, Sanchez is attempting to reclaim the genre he helped kick-start (sort of), with “Lovely Molly,” but instead of some new blast of fresh air, the film is a charmingly old fashioned tale of ghosts (both real and imagined) and the way that pain from the past can possess us, no matter how far removed we are from it we are.
The way that “Lovely Molly” starts out really makes you believe that Sanchez is going to try and reclaim his status as King of Found Footage (or at least Granddad of Found Footage), as we watch a happy couple – Molly (Gretchen Lodge, with her “Rosemary’s Baby“-by-way-of-Walmart bob) and Tim (Johnny Lewis) – get married. The occasion is almost suspiciously sunny, all beaming family and friends and the whole world ahead of them. After the wedding they move into Molly’s family farmhouse, a rambling old estate nestled deep in the woods (it’s never stated explicitly but they seem to be somewhere in the “Winter’s Bone” south). At some point the style abruptly shifts to a more traditional approach, which gives us greater insight into Molly’s character (Tim is a truck driver and spends much of the movie away). We watch as she works her crappy job as a custodian at a local mall, and gain insight into her experiences in the house through occasional found footage interludes where she tape records a confessional or uses the night vision option to peer inside the creepy basement (Is that some occult symbol down there? Is their house built on top of a Hellmouth?)
As the movie progresses, it takes on overtones of “Repulsion,” as we watch Molly grow more and more insane, distancing herself from her sister Hannah (Alexandra Holden) and getting fired from her job at the mall. Molly is also a recovering addict and, wouldn’t you know it, her slip into psychosis and the possible haunting of the house leads her to start using. Three different tracts swirl within the house – her mental collapse, the possible haunting (she hears her father, who we assume was a Not Very Nice Man), and something even spookier and more supernatural – a kind of demonic possession. For the most part Sanchez keeps the balls in the air, although sometimes he lets one drop and the movie either seems to halt altogether, or tumble away from him.
It’s really Lodge’s movie, though, and she commits to the character — so mousy and serene early in the movie and so terrifying and feral later on — with gusto. This is a role that would have scared a lot of people off – it’s emotionally, psychologically, and physically raw – but she seems more than up to the challenge. She makes you, if not completely understand what Molly’s going through, than at least put yourself in her position. She’s alone, she’s scared, she’s paranoid, and she’s an addict. Where would that lead her? In that way, “Lovely Molly” is another kind of POV movie, it’s just that, instead of looking through a character’s camera, we’re coming at everything from their soul. It’s impressively focused in that regard, a perfect melding of filmmaker and actress, and in a time when a distinct approach is sorely missing in most mainstream films, it’s welcome and refreshing. You go with Molly on this journey, even when it goes to some sometimes shockingly dark places.
“Lovely Molly” really is an old fashioned horror movie, much more straightlaced and buttoned-down than “The Blair Witch Project.” It’s reminiscent not only of paranoid shockers like “Repulsion” but also of the kind of creaky haunted house movies like “The Changeling,” sometimes coming across as a low rent “The Exorcist” (there’s even a morally dubious priest) or “Poltergeist.” But it’s a testament to the film’s funhouse power that it doesn’t ever feel like it’s tipping its hat too much to these earlier films, as most modern horror movies have become an obnoxious list of call-backs and references, with very little original content. “Lovely Molly” has enough to make it feel new.
But “Lovely Molly” needed a little more oomph, a little more sizzle, and, most importantly, a little more humor, to sustain itself. A more recent movie that “Lovely Molly” will remind you of is “Black Swan,” although that film was unafraid to thread the needle, walking that fine line between high art and extreme kitsch. The result of that tonal high wire act was a movie at once hilariously funny and deeply, profoundly unsettling. “Lovely Molly” just aims for the profoundly unsettling and without that component of humor, doesn’t quite succeed. It will scare you alright, but it won’t stick with you. Maybe if it had that little bit of humor (and delineated its threads of malevolence), it would have. [B]