Almost 15 years since "The Blair Witch Project" pretended to document an ill-fated journey into the woods, its impact is felt more deeply than ever. The found footage horror genre technically pre-dated the digital filmmaking boom by nearly two decades (with 1980's "Cannibal Holocaust") but the age of user-generated footage, when everyone with a smartphone has one trigger finger ready to hit record, has made the device too ubiquitous for its own good. The all-too-easy visceral jolt known as the jump scare populates countless tales of hapless protagonists making dumb decisions that usually culminate in their doom (and also crops up in countless YouTube pranks). At best, the economical storytelling device catches viewers off-guard by sneaking shock value into an innocuous storytelling device; at worst, it's a lazy fallback used to rejuvenate formulaic narrative.
But "Afflicted" is moderately better than that. An uneven but effectively unnerving found footage horror entry opening this week about a pair of fun-loving vacationers who encounter dangerous, otherworldly forces, it illustrates the full cycle of evolution that the genre has endured since it first creeped us out.
Despite the breakout success of "Blair Witch," it wasn't until 2008 that found footage horror became fully co-opted by the mainstream. That year, the first "Paranormal Activity" movie screened at the Slamdance Film Festival and promptly secured a lucrative distribution deal with DreamWorks, immediately launching a franchise that has seen five installments to date; the very same week that "Paranormal Activity" screened, Matt Reeves' found footage monster movie "Cloverfield" dominated the box office. Both movies contained the usual blend of mockumentary ingredients with special effects that enhanced the dread predominantly because they looked so out of place in the shaky cam, homemade techniques.
Since then, the sequels to "Paranormal Activity" and the action-horror installment "Chronicle" have continued to capitalize on the prospects of using CGI in the context of found footage. This has led to a noticeable shift from the "Blair Witch" tactic of leaving the darkest events up to our imaginations. A genre once engineered to capitalize on implications suddenly had the ability to show it all — at least in projects that could afford the expense. If found footage initially represented the fear of the unknown creeping into the familiar, its migration to the studio realm with digital trickery removed the jittery sense of uncertainty.
More recently the device come full circle, creeping back into indie projects. The anthology horror project "V/H/S" and its sequel toyed with some innovative graphics work, but "Afflicted" — co-directed and starring Clif Prowse and Derek Lee — takes it to an even greater extreme. At first taking the form of a zippy online video, the plot involves young adult pals Clif (Clif Prowse), a filmmaker, and Derek (Derek Lee), a former IT guy slowly dying from a brain aneurysm and eager to live life to the fullest. With Cliff's remote cameras in tow, the duo gear up for a globe-spanning adventure, promising to document their every move. The aesthetics are cleverly structured to mimic their enthusiasm, with the introduction of their plan set to uplifting music and edited together with the ebullient first-person mode of address fit for a Kickstarter campaign. In that respect, it's something of a new media cautionary tale slotted into an older tradition: Fun-loving guys heedlessly strike forth on a reckless adventure; peril awaits.
Promising to bring their online viewers along for the adventure, the duo begin their journey in Paris — and that's when things get spooky. After a random hookup, Derek winds up in possession of bizarre supernatural powers. The specific nature of his situation would constitute a spoiler — but needless to say, you've seen countless protagonists endure it before, just not this way. While at first excited by his abrupt superhuman strength, Derek quickly learns about the darker aspects of his situation. While Cliff eagerly tries to help his ailing pal, they're both quickly forced to reckon with a scenario greater than either of them can handle.
The two actors performances are credible enough to legitimize the terror, only stumbling when they glare directly into the camera and profess their fears (a "Blair Witch" cliché that has run its course, the confessional moment is the worst example of overstatement). Derek's ensuing plight across the continent, in which he scales buildings and nimbly evades various countries' police forces, suggests "Cloverfield" by way of "American Werewolf in London," but lacks the same wry, self-deprecating humor of the John Landis classic. Instead, directors Proswe and Lee establishe a macabre scenario and then uses it as an excuse to run wild with the production values, piling up a series of impressive chase scenes and showdowns involving characters with the powers to scale buildings and hurl bodies across the room. It's a superficial delight to watch "Afflicted" gradually ramp up its effects work, and while the scares don't sink too deep, the movie offers surefire confirmation of found footage horror's latest stage.
Earlier this year, "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" also dealt with a character who comes to possess superhuman powers with grim results. Viewed alongside "Afflicted" and "Chronicle," there's no mistaking a trend involving attempts to turn this seemingly intimate device into a form of spectacle that's at once lo-fi and sleekly produced. While "Afflicted" suffers from noticeably campy and redundant sequences, its willingness to infuse the genre with the slick blockbuster attributes indicate how much the gimmick of found footage has changed.
As always, found footage creates the illusion of being closer to the mode of production than other, less transparent production methods, which makes it especially jarring when unearthly ingredients enter the mix. These days, when even certain YouTube videos are sweetened by special effects — sometimes, without letting viewers in on it — the use of these devices in the horror genre have a distinct topicality. None of these movies have achieved obtained masterful stature, and their shock tactics remain as elemental as ever. But there's no question that they reflect an encroaching fear of media's increasing instability by exploiting a vulnerability that's very much of the moment: the immediate sense of ease associated with home video content. When even the most routine, accessible sort of moving images can't be trusted, nothing is safe.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? CBS Films opens "Afflicted" in limited release and on video-on-demand platforms this weekend. It's unlikely to become a breakout hit but will almost certainly find a solid audience hooked by its genre on VOD.