“AFFLICTED” (Mike’s Movie Review)
AFFLICTED is proof positive that the scary possibilities of found footage have not yet been exhausted. Making its New York premiere as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies series tonight and hitting theaters early next year from CBS Films, it mixes up elements from past handheld genre movies into something fresh and frightening.
Those turned off by the grainy, rough look of many vérité horrors will appreciate that, from the beginning, the images of this mock documentary are Travel Channel sharp and colorful. The comparison extends to the storytelling, as instead of an abandoned asylum or some other decrepit confined location, AFFLICTED whisks us through picturesque settings across Europe. First-time feature writer/directors Derek Lee and Clif Prowse also star as variations on themselves, an IT guy and filmmaker respectively who are first seen preparing to leave on a year-long jaunt around the world. The fact that these two are longtime friends in real life means their onscreen chemistry is immediate, though presumably the subplot involving a lingering aneurysm lurking in Derek’s brain, which threatens to disrupt their travels at any time, is not based on fact.
All is party-hearty fun for the first 15 minutes or so, as Derek and Clif first stop in Barcelona, meet up with some musician friends and then follow them to a gig in Paris. It is here where Derek, who has apparently not had much luck with the ladies, is encouraged to try his hand at picking up one of the French cuties attending the concert. This does not end well, and Derek is soon suffering from some kind of strange sickness that results in a truly disgusting moment after the duo have moved on to Italy. Is it a result of that aneurysm? Derek doesn’t want to interrupt the trip for a hospital visit to find out, and besides, he insists, in between his painful/gross symptoms, that he feels fine—better than he ever has, in fact. Viewers familiar with horror tropes will recognize what’s ailing Derek, and it’s not long before he and Clif catch on as well; the next question is, what are they going to do about it?
As the action is captured on Clif’s assorted cameras (the familiar “We’ve gotta document this” for better and worse believably motivates the guys’ shooting everything), AFFLICTED carries echoes of past movies from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to CHRONICLE, yet establishes its own identity as a gruesome vacation-gone-terribly-wrong story. The found-footage approach doesn’t play as an easy gimmick; glimpses of the friends’ blog posts and the reactions to them, Skype conversations etc. situate the story in the modern world where social media has taken over our interactions, communication and means of personal expression. As Derek and Clif’s situation becomes increasingly dire, the question of why they keep filming doesn’t really become an issue; in fact, the greater mystery is how their cameras manage to survive all the action and mayhem in AFFLICTED’s second half.
Lee and Prowse keep their story twisting and turning, with a couple of major unexpected developments, and skillfully navigate a mid-film switch in point of view that ratchets up the urgency of the situation. Once their plight has reached the point of no return, the pacing never lets up, and there are a number of moments guaranteed to have you gasping and jumping out of your seat. Just as impressive are a handful of remarkably sustained long takes, including a pursuit through the streets of an Italian town at night that plays like a horrific variation on one of those great foot chases in the BOURNE films. Staging the gore and assorted physical traumas in this visual context couldn’t have been easy, but throughout, the special makeup by Tamar Ouziel and visual FX by assorted houses is absolutely first-rate, seamlessly combining to make us believe the ghastly sights really are happening before our eyes.
As ambitious as indie found-footage gets, AFFLICTED is graced with effectively varied cinematography by Norm Li (who also shot BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW and IN THEIR SKIN, among others) and razor-sharp editing by Greg Ng, which nimbly avoid the disorientation and eyestrain that sometimes comes with the form. The movie holds you in a tight grip till almost the very end; perhaps inevitably, it settles into the conventional when the time comes to finally tie up the narrative threads. (There’s also a coda that runs amidst the end credits whose punchline is easy to see coming.) There’s no denying the creepy/pulse-racing power of the bulk of AFFLICTED, however, or the fact that Lee and Prowse have put together one hell of a confident, brash and sometimes nerve-wracking debut feature.