I’m going to say something that hurts me very deeply. You know how stubbing your toe produces the world’s worst imaginable pain for about 10 seconds? This is kind of like that. Only I’m publishing it online, which means that pain will linger for as long as this Internet thing remains live, which in turn depends on what kind of apocalypse will ultimately bring us down (zombie invasion means the pain stops; Pulse-like computer ghosting screws me big time). Closing my eyes. Biting hard on a stick so as to save my tongue. Bracing self…
I. Was. Wrong.
Between my cries of pain, allow me to explain: for the last few years of writing about horror, I’ve displayed something of a snooty attitude when it came to found footage. Oh great, I’d sarcastically say to my cats whenever a shaky cam screener arrived in my mailbox. Another poorly filmed home video about stuff we can’t see attacking people I don’t like stumbling through improvisational dialogue when they should know to put that bulky camera down and save their dull butts already. Just what I want in my cinema!
Except, well, then I would watch low budget indies like Skew, The Feed, Meadowoods, Grave Encounters, and now, Megan Is Missing only to realize that just like those previously overdone subgenres of zombies and slashers, a found footage film is not a gimmick when handled right. Michael Goi’s movie is certainly assembled as one—told entirely through ‘found’ video chats, newsreels, interviews and the like—but when viewed in its entirety, this is a new kind of horror done right.
Quick Plot: Megan is a promiscuous too-old-for-her-age 14-year-old who has that icky habit of wasting weekends trading oral sex to jerks for a few pot hits. Her best friend Amy, on the other hand, is an insecure mouse of a girl who keeps trying to fit in, despite a lower tolerance for alcohol and slightly higher standards when it comes to men. Both, however, are charmed by the mysterious “Skateboard Dude” they meet in a chatroom. Possibly named Josh, this Internet entity boasts a Brad Pitt-ish profile picture and the kind of game that makes even a hardened pessimist like Megan agree to meet him behind—not inside—a nearby diner.
Naturally, Megan winds up a missing person. Security footage catches her being led away by a faceless man. Amy comes forward with information about her cyber romance, only to…well, let’s just say one should never trust a one-sided webcam conversation.
Initially, Megan Is Missing feels like a direct horror adaptation of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen told through found footage. The girls come off as crass, selfish twits who certainly don’t warrant a 90 minute film, especially with the kind of teenspeak and forced sluttiness that makes any potential parent pray for male offspring. Thankfully, writer/director Michael Goi proves to be incredibly clever in how his nightmare unfolds.
It begins when Megan, in a rare moment of utter unguarded honesty, tells Amy’s new birthday camera about her tragic past: as a child, Megan was sexually abused by her stepfather. Such a statement changes the way we view this character, who had—just two scenes earlier—recapped a sexual encounter with a much older Kevin Spacey lookalike camp counselor with creepy ambivalence and minor pride. It’s a fascinating character portrait process: Goi throws the misbehaving teen delinquent-in the-making at us only to carefully fill in the blanks to reveal a hurt soul in hiding.
Watching Megan Is Missing reminded me an awful lot of Catfish, for obvious reasons (people on the Internet aren’t necessarily who they pretend to be) and more subtle ones. Catfish, the pseudo-documentary juggernaut of 2011, was most interesting for how (MINOR SPOILER) its main subject created an alternate identity through social media. In Megan Is Missing, the entire film is assembled from webchats, video diaries, and ‘news’ programs that masquerade as justice finding journalism but end up being nothing more than headline juicing sleaze. Rarely are our characters honest, but their false faces seem to reveal even more truth.
To the ladies in the readership here at the Doll’s House: remember being 14? I hope not. There’s no worse age for a female than those tricky middle school years of, in the words of Britney Spears, being not a girl, not yet a woman. You WANT to seem like a grownup who smokes, drinks, and flirts like the pretty faces shown in magazines. But it generally takes you far too long to realize those things aren’t actually fun when you're not yet ready. Yes, one day you will have good sex with people who respect you, know your taste in cocktail or wine, and if you’re lucky, live in a city where smoking is banned indoors but when you’re an awkward 8th grader desperately hoping black light decorated basements will make your braces less conspicuous, life is not so clear cut.
Amy and Megan are the kind of girls who need to believe it gets better, but who can say that with any believability? They’re pretty, seemingly wealthy, and ultimately, incredibly unhappy. In Amy’s case, it’s because she’s trying so hard to fit into a mold she’s not yet made for. For Megan, the scars run deeper. This is a girl who knows that men will always be attracted to her, and though she also knows most are scum, she still wants more than anything for the right one to come along. It’s easy to see a teenager go meet a stranger in a non-public place and roll your eyes at her stupidity, but everything Goi has thus far captured showed that this is ABSOLUTELY the way an emotionally battered girl like Megan would go about landing her alleged Prince Charming.
I don’t want to spoil Megan Is Missing, as I’m far more concerned with recommending it. This is not a perfect film, but much like the similarly themed (and even more chilling) Lake Mungo, Megan Is Missing is a scary, thoughtful, and surprisingly deep exercise in using the trend of ‘found footage’ to tell a thoroughly frightening tale.
The nature of found footage is rarely kind to actors (see Low Points), but leads Rachel Quinn and Amber Perkins take on what I imagine is a huge challenge and succeed in creating realistic, flawed, and ultimately, sympathetic young teenagers (despite being much older in real life age, thankfully)
Though Megan Is Missing has a mostly serious tone, there’s an eerily funny sequence involving a ‘making-of’ clip for the reenactment of Megan’s abduction. The fact that this bit of black comedy is immediately followed by the film’s second most haunting image is even more noteworthy, as if the film—like the media—wants to glamorize the Lifetime movie-of-the-week material before a taste of realism shockingly brings us back to the fact that there are actual young lives at stake
It’s hard to tell if some of the supporting cast members are actively shaky or if it’s the nature of found footage making their characters overact. While I could easily defend the occasionally grating performances on the grounds of “they’re teenagers acting for the camera,” it doesn’t make it any easier on the viewers’ eyes and ears
Virgins don’t know how to wear makeup
In case you forgot, being 14 really sucks
Never trust a camp counselor that looks like Kevin Spacey. Or a computer friend with a vague resemblance to a young Brad Pitt. Come to think of it, don’t ever, if you value your life, put your faith in any man who reminds you of a cast member in Se7en. (You probably already suspected as much about R. Lee Ermey and Leland Orser clones, but I would add Morgan Freeman to your no-date list, impeccable narration skills be damned)
I queued up Megan Is Missing right before it left Instant Watch, but I would definitely encourage a rental for almost any horror fan. In no way is this a typical slasher or even found footage flick, but once you get past the “are these girls really that annoying?” feeling of the opening, Megan Is Missing proves to be a fascinating, unique, and genuinely scary little indie. I’m excited to see what Michael Goi delivers next, and what’s far more shocking is that I’m in no way dreading the next round of found footage horror to pop up in genre circles. Megan Is Missing is a prime example of a filmmaker using unconventional tools to capture a different aspect of its story, and that's how it should be done.