Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Streaming Cellar: In Memorium (2005)

Every October, like most people, I watch a ton of horror movies. That in itself isn't very noteworthy- I always watch a ton of horror films- but in October I become a bit more focused in my viewing. I watch almost exclusively horror films, and I try to watch at least one a day. I also begin to theme my viewings, programming mini-marathons based around character, actor, or even country of origin. I make an effort to watch as many new-to-me titles as I can while also pulling out old favorites I haven't seen in a few years. I try to favor the new-to-me movies, and usually only sneak in a handful of rewatches. As much as I make it seems like I put a lot of thought into it, I'm actually just winging it, picking whatever I feel like watching on any given day.

Currently my horror binging is aided by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, frequent trips to the library, and a trial membership to Netflix's disc-by-mail service, which I signed up for in order to get some of the more hard-to-find titles on my watchlist. My Halloween season also starts a bit early these days\, as this marks my third year working at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, so I tend to start my Halloween viewing in mid-September, when I begin working at the Terror Tram attraction. Here's a partial list of what I've watched so far: The House on Sorority Row, Scanners II & III, The Witch (or, The VVitch), They're Watching, Cooties, The Editor, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Night of the Eagle (AKA Burn Witch Burn), The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, Deathwatch, The Eclipse, Open Grave, and Demeking the Sea Monster. As you can see, it's a fairly eclectic list of horror films, spanning several decades and genres. I try to experience as wide an array as possible of styles and types of films I might normally not gravitate towards.

It's this last part, a conscious widening of my film awareness, that leads me to today's film, and the topic I hope to continue. As anyone who uses a streaming service knows, it can sometimes be difficult to find something to watch, partially due to the overabundance of cheap looking knockoffs and movies that went straight to streaming. Netflix is full of low budget films no one has ever heard of, no-budget flicks that would have gone direct to video but now arrive unheralded on your recommendations list. This is usually the most common complaint I hear about such services, but as I've shown, my tastes are more omnivorous. I refuse to use the term indiscriminate, which is something I've frequently been accused of. It's not that I lack critical thought, or turn my brain off when watching certain films, it's just that I believe good movies- or at least interesting movies, which is pretty much the same thing in my eyes- can be found in surprising places.

I've decided, this Halloween and possibly beyond, to make a more concerted effort to watch some of these titles. Hence, The Streaming Cellar, where I dig into some of those questionable titles that always get recommended once you've finished binging on Stranger Things. I've been doing this occassionally already, but I'm going to be taking more chances this October. I haven't quite codified a list of guidelines for this project, and I'm mostly playing it by ear. I will, however, try to limit myself to lower budget films that have not had any national theatrical release (festival screenings and perfunctory one-week engagements are OK). I'll also be widening the scope to cover international films, as long as they haven't enjoyed a long theatrical run.

Today's film seemed to be an even bigger risk than usual, as not only was it a no-budget horror film shot digitally with a cast and crew of unknowns whose careers never took off, but it was also a found footage film. I actually enjoy a lot of found footage films, and often dig the theme park feeling that comes with a POV camera stumbling through chaos, but I also recognize that it's too often simply a gimmick used to generate cheap jump-scares without having to invest a lot of money or talent.

Also, they couldn't even spell the title correctly.

In Memorium (2005)
Currently streaming on: Amazon Prime

I'm going to deflate the suspense right up front and just tell you that I rather enjoyed In Memorium, despite its drawbacks. For one, this film came out in 2005, two years before Paranormal Activity (this film's most similar counterpart) jump-started the current craze for found footage that seems to finally be slowing down. Certainly In Memorium is not the first film that could be classified as found footage (not even close), and certainly there were a bunch of likeminded films being made at the same time, but the genre had not yet broken through to the mainstream to be recognized as an actual genre by most moviegoers. There was something charming, almost quaint, about going back and watching a found footage film before all of the genre's tropes had been so rigidly set in stone.

One thing I found oddly endearing was the manner in which In Memorium was filmed. The characters set up a bunch of motion-activated cameras, covering every possible angle in the house, and yes, the cameras are also inserted into the bathroom, leading to at least one genuinely amusing moment when they realize what this means for their daily habits. The cameras are all fairly visible and stick out from the wall in what is probably the biggest signifier that this movie is over a decade old. The wall mounted cameras also preclude the need for any shaky handheld camerawork (there is a tiny bit, but it's a pretty negligible amount), which is certainly going to be welcome news to many found footage detractors. It also gives a reasonable response to the frequently asked question of 'why do they keep filming?' In In Memorium, they keep filming because no one has removed the cameras yet.

The film also has another great improvement over most films in the genre; likable characters. One of my common complaints with found footage film is that the characters tend to skew towards the unlikable and unpleasant. I'm not sure if that's a conscious decision on the filmmakers' part, or possibly an attempt to try and distance the audience from characters that they'll have to watch suffer and die. Or possibly it's an an unconscious reaction on my part towards the type of person who reacts to tragedy befalling their friends or family by grabbing a camera rather than trying to help. Maybe that narcissism is just part and parcel of the character type.Think of the boyfriend in the first Paranormal Activity, who continues filming despite his girlfriend's obvious and growing distress.

The central couple in In Memorium are markedly more appealing, though the film does stack our sympathies in their favor by giving the boyfriend, Dennis (played by Erik McDowell), incurable cancer. It's this disease which has prompted the couple to install motion-activated cameras inside their rented home, to document Dennis' final months. If this sounds like a thin setup for a horror film, especially for a childless couple (at least Michael Keaton in My Life was filming his last days for his son's benefit, same for Mark Duplass in Creep), perhaps it would help to know that Dennis is an aspiring filmmaker, and his girlfriend, Lily (Johanna Watts), is an aspiring actress. Actually, writing that out, my description makes them sound just as narcissistic as the character types I was complaining about, but they come across as more likable than that.

The acting is solid for something of this budget, and though that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it really isn't. I've noticed that when most casual moviegoers complain about bad acting in low budget films, they're really talking about a matter of post production. Have you ever seen untouched behind the scenes footage of scenes being made? It turns everything into a high school drama class production. Great performances in films depend on a lot of things aside from just the performer. Obvious things like sound mixing, of course, but also less obvious aspects, like lighting, video quality, or color correction. Most low budget movies have to rely on a lot of ADR, and while blockbusters have the same issue, the larger budgeted films tend to have more resources and a larger team to make sure the dialogue is mixed properly into the scene. Similarly, your reaction to performances in movies depends on other contextual information, allowing you to buy into the film's reality more easily.

Putting aside the actual performances, I felt the two leads had a nice chemistry between them, and I enjoyed watching the two of them exist together. I like horror movies where the leads are likable and get along, because having concern for the welfare of the main characters is something most horror films tend to neglect. One of my favorite horror films in recent memory, Ti West's The Innkeepers, affected me so strongly because I liked both of the leads and I didn't want to see anything bad happen to them. Something similar happened to me while watching this film, though I should probably stress that on a much more minor scale than The Innkeepers. There's only really one performance I didn't buy in this film, that of Dennis' brother Frank (Levi Powell). Both brothers are variations on the Southern California surfer dude, though Frank is clearly a caricature while Dennis only somewhat sartorially fits into that descriptor. He's a rather stiff presence, and unfortunately the majority of his scenes are meant to be tearful and dramatic. His performance is more befitting that of an extra in the original Point Break.

Now you have a general idea of the film, and I'm sure by now you've guessed the trajectory the story will take. Young couple in new home begin filming their lives, and unexpectedly find they're filming other unknown presences. Creepy goings on start off small, and then escalate throughout the course of the film. You spend a lot of time staring at static-filled screens where nothing is happening, and suddenly get a quick glimpse of something spooky. Some of it will go unnoticed by the cast, other stuff will be noticed and dismissed. Eventually the activity will reach such a pitch that the main characters are forced to acknowledge it, at which point there will be a discussion of what to to, whether to stay or leave. Some reason will be found for everyone staying put, at which point the dramatic finale will be in motion. The formula is pretty well known, but, as with all horror films, what really matters are the details and small variations within that formula.

So far I've described the basic setup, and given some of my thoughts of the film in general, but I'm about to get very specific about some plot elements. If you've read this far and think you might want to watch the film, I'd advise you to go ahead and do so before reading any further. If you don't mind having the plot spoiled for you, by all means read on.

Part of what I found so charming about this film is the manner in which Dennis and Lily react to the haunting. When they first notice evidence of a ghost on one of the cameras, they're both disbelieving but interested, and begin to investigate the history of the house they have just rented. It's pretty much how I think I would react in this situation; they don't believe, but still think it would be cool to see proof of an actual ghost. To begin with the landlord, Ms. Sporec (Mary Portser) is helpful, as she's been keeping scrapbooks about all of the tenants for decades, but soon becomes less forthcoming when she fears that the cameras and haunted house theories are only a ruse to try and sue her for wrongful death when the boyfriend eventually dies. Yeah, that part didn't really make sense to me, either. But I think it's meant to make us suspicious of what she's trying to hide.

The big question in every haunted house movie is; why don't they just leave? I think for a lot of people in America the answer is pretty self explanatory; not everyone can afford to hightail it to a hotel and give up on their home. But still, it's a valid question within a film, and In Memorium chooses to answer it by heightening the stakes for the characters. When the activity escalates and the presence is clearly not friendly, Dennis and Lily do try to leave. The home was only recently rented under a three month lease, and these kids are clearly well-to-do enough to have options. The problem is, Dennis has been experiencing bizarre symptoms unrelated to his cancer, and every time he tries to leave the property they get worse.

I've said repeatedly that this house was rented, and I keep mentioning it because it's an important detail that I don't fully understand the necessity of. It doesn't quite make sense, that Dennis would learn of his diagnosis, come up with his plan to film his final months, and then also require a rented house that he can fill with cameras. I honestly think the detail only exists to provide a McGuffin, to keep us believing that the house is haunted and to give a reason as to why none of the characters has ever noticed it before. Throughout the film Lily and Dennis repeatedly question why the house appears to be haunted, when none of the recorded tenants have died there, and no one before them had ever seen a ghost. The answer is obvious; the house isn't haunted.

Oh, there is a ghost, and it is malevolent and killing Dennis (faster than his cancer), but it turns out he brought the ghost with him. Dennis and Frank's mother was apparently an abusive wreck, and once Dennis was old enough he struck out on his own, effectively abandoning his younger brother to the care of their horrible mother. She died of her own terrible disease, and Frank was left as the only one to care for her. Now, on the anniversary of her death, she has returned to exact her revenge by killing Dennis with the very symptoms she suffered from. It's an effective twist, and handled well by the movie, and it elevates the film above many in the increasingly crowded field of found footage. It also leads to some interesting dramatic territory as the small group of actors have to deal with some seriously emotional familial baggage. It's a task that not everyone is up to, unfortunately, as Frank in particular seems hard pressed to actually sound sad, as opposed to merely constipated.

All in all the film is probably only a minor success. In Memorium isn't as outright scary as many of its contemporaries, but it also has a little more on its mind. The suspense is handled well, and with no real budget for special effects director Amanda Gusack is able to stage a couple of effective little jolts. I haven't really thought of a scale by which to rate these titles, but I will say the film probably won't appeal to most modern fans of found footage. However, I think the film deserves to be remembered, and would probably be enjoyed by fans of low budget horror and quiet festival films.

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