Sunday, November 11, 2012

So Maybe the NYC MTA Isn't the Worst Institution In the World...

For better and worse, found footage horror has become to the 21st century what the slasher film was to the 1980s and, perhaps more specifically, what the zombie genre has always been to the aw shucks world of DIY indie filmmakers who didn't go to film school. Where enthusiastic wannabe auteurs used to wrangle their friends into undead makeup in the hopes of reaching rental shelves, the generation raised on The Blair Witch Project now uses shaky cam and night vision to make their cinematic dreams a reality. It's just as cheap and, I assume, far less messy.

Strangely enough, I'm also finding it far superior. Like any horror genre, found footage has its piles of duds, but when you compile a list of its offerings, the good far outweigh the bad. For every misguided Diary of the Dead, there's Megan Is Missing, Grave Encounters, and lower profile but still quite strong picks like Skew and The Feed. Even the most successful of the second wave has built itself a solid, if not great franchise in the Paranormal Activity series. 

Thusly do we enter 2011's The Tunnel, an Australian festival hit styled as a combination of Lake Mungo's talking heads documentary and Grave Encounters handheld night vision cinematography. 

Quick Plot: As Sydney faces a water shortage, the city officials propose a new plan that would recycle water currently trapped under the subway's tunnel system. The plan is suspiciously dropped, stirring the interest of go get'em TV journalist Natasha, who rounds up a small crew to head underground and find some answers.

What do they find? Why, a flourishing utopia inhabited by bulldog puppies and trees that grow peanut butter and chocolate of course!

Or an undefinable race of monster men who feed on homeless people and collect their eyeballs. Same difference.

Like the aforementioned Lake Mungo, The Tunnel takes a slightly different approach to the found footage style. From the beginning, we are introduced to our two assumed survivors, Nat and cameraman Steve (the very natural Steve Davis). Their one-on-one interviews are mixed in throughout the film to explain, react to, or preface the 'actual' footage we see from their cameras. Though the effect might take away a little something from a few scenes (it's hard to fear for the screaming Nat when we know she made it to the post-disaster interview), it generally helps to build tension or let it settle in an oddly personal place. Seeing how the unfortunate turn of events affected Nat and Steve is almost as scary as witnessing the horror for ourselves.

The Tunnel had been heavily hyped for me as one of the scariest new horror films of last year. While I wouldn’t put it on the same plain as some of my 2011 favorites like YellowBrickRoad, it does offer some excellent creepiness and more than one moment of genuine fright. The docu-style also helps to add something (somewhat) new, and despite my major gripe of a Low Note, this is one of the good ones.

High Notes
You have to give a hand to any film that sets itself in such a fertile horror location as the deep terrain below a city’s subway system  

As we’ve seen from some of the rougher found footage tales, acting to the camera isn’t always easy. It’s quite a relief that all The Tunnel’s actors deliver natural, but still interesting performances

Low Notes
I'm not sure if it's just the surly feminist in me looking for a fight or if this is a widespread problem in cinema, but ever since Heather Donahue led two pals into the uncharted Maryland wilderness, doesn't it feel like females with power-infused jobs starring in found footage horror are just designed to be responsible for the deaths of others? The Tunnel offers an added layer of icky sexism by having the male characters all insinuate that Nat got--and precariously kept--her position by sleeping with the boss. I don't mind some flawed characters, but there's something about the way the sole female in the film is portrayed and treated that just feels a little unnecessary in its meanness

Lessons Learned
Tunnels carry sound quite well

If you require the services of a 911 operator, you're better off not living in Australia

When it comes to human body parts, eyeballs make the best keepsakes

The Tunnel isn’t quite on the same level as something as weirdly haunting as Lake Mungo, but it’s another example of how a fresh approach at a seemingly played-out subgenre can still work. A sequel has been planned, and if director Carlo Ledesma comes back, I’d be happy to check it out. 

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