The found footage sub-genre can be pretty hit or miss. Many of these stories turn out to be misfired attempts at the “slow-burn effect”; slowly paced with no real payoff at the end. For some audiences, the thrill and immersion of first-person POV offer enough to captivate and engage viewers, whether the plot is interesting or not.
The first notable found footage film horrified audiences in 1980 when Ruggero Deodato released his infamous and controversial film CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. Some films cannot be unseen and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is one of those films. As disturbing as the film is, it is an important part of film history and the horror genre because Deodato showed us things we had never seen before and brought to the table a brand new style of filmmaking that would later be further explored and reimagined. The next big name in found footage arrived in 1999, when THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT, written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, surprised audiences with a viral marketing campaign leading up to the film’s release. THEBLAIR WITCH PROJECT is a perfect example of an effective slow-burn that leaves audiences unsettled and wanting more. Almost a decade later, the found footage sub-genre was reimagined yet again: the setting was moved from the rugged outdoors into a suburban home when Oren Peli and Blumhouse teamed up to make PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. While these films are all examples of the found footage sub-genre, not all attempts find the same success.
Found footage films gave horror a much-needed jolt at the box office, but I often find that they don’t have the same impact upon repeated viewings. Found footage films by definition are implying through camera technique and directorial choices that “what you’re seeing really happened”; it’s a little harder to suspend disbelief a second time around after having seen behind the curtain.
Writer and director Matthew Sconce offers a new take on found footage with his recent film ALTAR. I was cautiously optimistic going in because so many of these films fall into genre tropes and lack their own unique voice, but I was hoping ALTAR would give me something more. Although the film managed to surprise me once or twice, it ultimately did not exceed expectations. The film opens on a newlywed couple celebrating a holiday wedding. After being eerily warned not to go out into the snowy night, the couple foolishly embarks on a hike where they encounter what seems to be a cult gathered around some sort of altar. The couple is spotted by the cult and killed right away. The gruesome scene is followed by a quick smash-cut to the title card. This is one instance where I believe ALTAR did briefly break the mold, delivering not one, but two kills within the first ten minutes. As I said earlier, many found footage films try for the slow-burn effect and don’t deliver any action until at least halfway through, so I was pleasantly surprised with Sconce’s choice to bring on the blood early on.
The story picks up about six months later, as a group of friends embark on a journey through the forests of Central California on their way to a college reunion. One of the lead characters, Maisy, brings her awkward younger brother, Bo, who brings his video camera and decides to document the whole trip (because of course he does). On the road, the group of six friends banter and reminisce about their college days, until their car unexpectedly breaks down (because of course it does). While they check under the hood to try and find the problem, they are approached by an ominous and intimidating stranger who introduces himself as Ripper and leaves them with a cryptic warning (say it with me: BECAUSE OF COURSE HE DOES).
This series of events felt so predictable and left me saying, “Oh, of course that would happen,” over and over again. After they get their car running again, they encounter a friendly couple of campers, Dave and Stephanie (and their small dog, Pickles), who offer to help them setup camp nearby. When the sun goes down, the group gathers around the campfire to roast marshmallows with their new friends before deciding to venture out into the woods. They had out, and after hiking a ways into the woods, they discover the same mysterious altar we saw in the film’s opening. After discussing what they had seen, they head back to camp and turn in for the night. In the morning, they wake to find their car keys are missing and the only thing left of Dave and Stephanie is a bloodied tend and their dog, Pickles (who is alive and well, thank goodness!). After attempting to leave with no avail, they are faced with the harsh realities that they must stay another night in the woods. Two of the guys in the group offer to take turns keeping watch and the rest of the group drifts off to sleep. Soon after, the moment we’ve been waiting for arrives as members of the group are picked off by unknown (and not so unknown) forces.
I was hoping for some great payoff, but in the end I was left feeling confused and unsure about what went down in the finale. I would have liked some explanation regarding what purpose the titular altar served. The poor storytelling was not helped by the dull performances, which I learned upon further research were mostly improved around a script outline. Although I was not a big fan of the film and the style of the performances, it had one thing going for it: the characters had chemistry. The director, Matthew Sconce, had the cast take a road trip together where they traveled six hours north, from Southern California up to the filming location. During the trip, the actors were able to bond and build backstories for their characters, which translated to great onscreen chemistry. However, I never felt any kind of connection to the characters and frankly didn’t really care what happened to them. I wish the onscreen chemistry had better informed the performances, making the characters more likable and easier to connect with.
I am disappointed that ALTAR didn’t have anything new to say, but I’m not giving up on found footage. As long as these films keep getting made, eventually we will see another great flm that follows in the footsteps of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and maybe even invigorate found footage as a whole.
ALTAR is now available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, Playstation Network, and Hulu