Once The Blair Witch Project cemented itself in history as the most influential found-footage film, it became easy for future found-footage films to be nothing more than derivative.  

The subgenre has come a long way since its progenitor, Cannibal Holocaust, with flicks such as [REC], V/H/S, and the Paranormal Activity franchise. However, the movies that try to fit the injudicious-twenty-somethings-seeking-a-paranormal-thrill mold seem to be still trying to find their own creative edge.

Due to the cheap and distinctive way found-footage films allow the audience to connect to its protagonists, I find them enjoyable despite the formula. Though 1ST SUMMONING (directed by Raymond Wood and written by Chris Piner) is no Willow Creek (a must watch!) it still tries to make its own mark while attempting to produce a shinier, techier, but ultimately less spooky Blair Witch.

Four student filmmakers- Leslie (Hayley Lovitt), Mark (Teddy Cole), Ryan (Brook Todd), and Ace (Ace Harney)- set out to make a film about the enigmatic Arkansas local legend of an occult in an isolated warehouse.  Not everyone is equally invested, however, as the mastermind behind the endeavor, Mark, leads the way paying no mind to the hesitations of the others.

The film is different from its predecessors as everyone is equipped with a camera and the audience lives vicariously through the characters by jumping back and forth from different perspectives. The kids pile onto a bus and head to Harrison, Arkansas where they interview the locals about the legend in preparation for October 6th, the day the warehouse shut down years ago and demonic happenings began. Legend says that at midnight on the 6th of October, if you recite a chant you may be granted a wish but at your own peril. Rumor has it that a man had sacrificed his three kids in exchange for his wife’s health and our protagonists are determined to reenact this ritual.

Teddy Cole in 1ST SUMMONING

The filmmakers are tipped off to Pastor Youngblood (Jason MacDonald), a sinister local favorite who might have insight into the Satanic rituals at the warehouse. We spend a solid chunk of the movie watching as the filmmakers investigate this man, which for a 90-minute movie is both its strength and weakness. MacDonald does a great job portraying Youngblood as a chilling antagonist where his glossy eyes that never blink and sleight of foot give us the best scare in the movie. However, for a 90- minute flick, focusing on just the build-up before they reach the warehouse arguably took away from the full potential of the final showdown.  

A big plotline follows the relationships between the token lady, Leslie, and her ex, Ryan, and boyfriend, Mark.  Their relationships are captured with distant hidden cameras, mainly by Ace, that makes dialogue hard to hear but still creates an organic bystander view into their lives. However, the time and focus on their relationships would be more worthwhile if there was a rekindling or some epiphany for them in the end.

Which brings us to the main event- the warehouse. Maybe movies such as Grave Encounters or yes, even The Blair Witch Project, made me appreciate spending the majority of the time on location. 1ST SUMMONING, however, seems to run out of time when we finally get to the warehouse and further wastes it by just having stretched out fluff scenes of the kids checking out each room instead of just reigning it in and getting to the point- we are on a 90-minute schedule after all.

These scenes would be totally fine if more time was allotted or at least better used.  Once the mayhem ensues, the occultists only have so much time for their mere haunted-house-grade frights until we get to our harrowing conclusion. If there was more time for the final act, the 1st Summoning would definitely have benefited from having the relationships develop further in the face of evil and furthermore allow Mark, our falling leader, to show scary nuanced signs of possibly turning on his friends and thus creating a more powerful ending.

1ST SUMMONING was a welcomed surprise. Even though it is far from being a stand out horror film, it was still quite enjoyable. Ultimately, I just wish there were better rhythm and use of time. So, for what it’s worth, check it out.

1ST SUMMONING is now available in select theaters and VOD.

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