Monday, November 17, 2014

Kill Them. Kill Them All (Please)

Like so many forgettable slashers made in the mid-80s or low budget zombie indies filmed in backyards during the '90s, Crowsnest is yet another product of its trendy time. In this case, the fad is found footage, and like many a slasher or undead feast, it's a little lazy, a little scary, and ultimately, a passable if unmemorable under-90 minute stream on Instant Watch.

Quick Plot: Meet The Worst People In the World. 

Okay, perhaps that was harsh. These pretty young people aren't Nazis, as far as we can see. They're just Awful.
Capital A. Because when you get five giggling twentysomethings stuffed in the driver's parents' car in a haze of pot smoke and wine coolers--WINE COOLERS--there's really no other appropriate punctuation.

We'll get back to Just How Much I Hate These People later, but to run through the story is simple, especially if you've seen any of the myriad of found footage horror made this century. Justin just got a high tech video camera (which allows him the line "Thousand time zoom, bro!") and has naturally decided to test it out chronicling his trip to pal Kirk's cottage along with respective girlfriends Brooke and Amanda. Tagging along is Amanda's god-fearing fifth wheel little sister Danielle.

Because 25 year-olds with wealthy parents and apparently no other interests in life are awesome, Kirk takes the gang on a diversion to score some half priced beer at an off-the-beaten-track abandoned mining town he found online. Though we don't see their interaction with what we assume is a Cabin In the Woods-style harbinger (he's quoted and everything), we know enough to expect very bad things to happen to these fairly bad people.

The challenge I had in watching Crowsnest is that as a horror movie, it's fairly decent. There are a few outstanding jumps executed shockingly well. The lack of a soundtrack (something the occasional found footage film decides to use to disastrous effect) means sudden actions have that realistic come-from-nowhere effect that sleeker studio releases often fail at. With the lights out, this could prove to genuinely scare some viewers.

The flip side is that Crowsnest falls victim to the three major dooming tricks of found footage:

1. Unlikable characters
I truly thought, and I'd love to hear validation on this, that the characters were intentionally being set up to be horrid. Perhaps director Brenton Spencer was going for a Hostel-ish trick of creating bratty leads so that we almost think we want terrible things to happen to them, before realizing even the smarmiest white college boy doesn't deserve THAT. There's a chance that was indeed the plan. It's hard to imagine writer John Sheppard could have had his male characters trading lines like "when the river runs red, take the dirt road instead" to get a laugh. All five of Crowsnest's characters are spoiled, irresponsible, whiny, screechy, and not anywhere near as charming as they think they are. No, they don't deserve foot amputations, but wouldn't it work better as a film if they, I don't know, also didn't deserve a lesser toe amputation?

2. Shake your cam-cam-camera
Movies like REC get the best of both worlds: they can maintain the immediacy of handheld horror while their setup allows them to display professional camerawork because the characters filming are in the industry. Crowsnest never makes any excuses for its characters wobbly filming. That's fine as an idea, but watching a camera bob back and forth for 80 minutes isn't anyone's idea of a good time.

3. Put the f*cking camera down
The Last Exorcism was presented as an earnest documentary. They wouldn't give up easily. Night vision made the cameras in Grave Encounters a necessary tool just as much as it was for our entertainment. Crowsnest doesn't have that luxury. There is nothing useful about lugging around a video camera when all of your energy should be utilized escaping multiple homicidal maniacs. 

High Points
As mentioned earlier, Crowsnest does an excellent job on multiple counts in delivering out-of-nowhere scares

Low Points
Too bad I was rooting for those scares to prove fatal to all five of our maybe protagonists

Lessons Learned
When not drinking the wine coolers generally served at middle school parties, sexy girls always hog all the beer

Getting your head cut off really hurts

The best way to jump start a broken down vehicle is to be rear-ended

No, you don't have to go back for the camera. You never, ever, have to go back for the camera

Fans of found footage horror will actually find a few decent scares in Crowsnest. On the other hand, any viewer who prickles at seeing yet another batch of vacant pretty people do stupid things and pay for it might find the film insufferable. It's less than 90 minutes and streaming on Instant Watch, so the gamble is yours.


  1. Emily!
    I read this review with interest because it is a found footage film.
    Being an aspiring filmmaker (and having worked in to a small degree on some local films, many of them horror) it seems any particular genre holds a fascination for me, simply as a creative challenge.
    And with found footage, that particular genre seems to have definite good points and bad points.
    For me, the real challenge (as you pointed out) is justifying the constant use of the camera. Related to that, is trying to tell the story without always being able to tell it as you would in a "traditionally" told story-- I know a friend who shot a found footage film and at the point where we're down to one survivor who is trying to escape a creature in the woods (and conveniently, he's the cameraman), and after a harrowing night alone in the dark, we then have some shots establishing morning to show that nighttime has passed. Why would a distraught victim take the time to shoot establishing footage??

    But, with CROWSNEST, it's great to know that they actually achieved some effective scares, which isn't something you can take for granted in any horror film!

    You bring up an excellent point about having unlikable characters across the board and why that should be deliberately necessary in this film (with an excellent observation about HOSTEL specifically manipulating the audience's emotions by using an unlikable cast, so that there's some arguable design for the characters behaving that way in that film).
    You also bring up a good point about the use of music and that this film wisely does not. Yeah, if it's found footage, why should there be music?
    Speaking of this horror sub-genre specifically, I'm thinking you can work some tension with the limitations of what information you're getting from the footage. If there's a jump in action, obviously the cameraman stopped shooting for a period of time. On the surface, that seems a story-telling liability, but perhaps it can offer the director a way to withhold important information and manipulate the audience to guess what's going on, perhaps incorrectly. Somewhat similar to a red herring in a mystery. Also, I know it sounds cool to try and make an entire film shot as if it were found footage, but only if you're clever enough to pull it off.
    I liked CLOVERFIELD, but they sort of establish in the beginning of that movie that footage was just one piece of evidence from that event. What if it's established that there's multiple perspectives of the same event? And cut these different views together? Hypothetically, if they did a CLOVERFIELD 2, that would be something interesting to see, a patchwork of different civilian footage of the same event, much like 9/11 was viewed, a historical event which arguably is an "inspiration" for the presentation of CLOVERFIELD.
    Anyway, excellent review of the film and also discussion of the genre itself!
    Well, perhaps someday I'll get my shit together and put a found footage flick together of my own and you can tell me how I did. :)

  2. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. Found footage is a fascinating style. When it works, it gives the audience that immediate perspective that can really be terrifying. When it fails, it can make for a genuinely unpleasant, unwatchable viewing experience.

    Crowsnest definitely makes use of the starkness that comes from a lack of 'editing.' The jump scares work because they occur exactly as they would in real life. You're hanging out when BAM! something horrifying happens. One of my biggest issues with standard horror films is how they channel the scares with their soundtrack and staging. That's an advantage that found footage films SHOULD have (although the occasional one will try to layer in an unnecessary soundtrack, usually to wasteful effect).

    Another great thing about found footage is that it really does give less-established filmmakers an opportunity to put out some product. You don't necessarily need the budget and filming permits to create an effective film. There are definitely some strong ones out there. If you're interested, I would recommend checking out Grave Encounters, Skew, Devil's Pass, My Little Eye,and Meadowwoods to see a variety of styles (and budgets).

    Also, as far as the 'multiple perspectives' thing goes, take a look at how The Bay and Meghan Is Missing handle it. They're very different films (The Bay is directed by Barry Levinson, for goodness sake!) but I found that both made outstanding use of their multiple found footage sources. Definitely high marks for the genre.

    And one of these days, get that shit together! I'll be waiting.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! Other than THE BAY and MEGAN IS MISSING, I haven't really heard of the other ones.
      BTW, my friend's movie is THE LEGEND OF SIX FINGERS. His first feature was SNOW SHARK: ANCIENT SNOW BEAST.