Before starting the review, I must be honest – I have had a love-hate relationship with found footage movies over the years. There have been some I have found to be creatively successful – [Rec], Noroi, and The Tunnel all come to mind. By comparison, the more financially successful movies utlizing this method- The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield- really didn't do that much for me. One of the big problems for me, even the films I like (though they do well enough otherwise for me to overlook it), is that the stories being presented often tend to use the found footage style to give their story an element of authenticity. Unfortunately, at least for me, marrying this style to the overtly supernatural, rather than give the latter a more realistic feel, works in the opposite. I can still find the films enjoyable as entertainment, but not particularly scary in most cases. In fact, the one film to date besides this which I could have believably bought as genuine found footage is Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. This may seem like an odd thing to be hung up on, but I feel that if the faux-realism is being undermined, it defeats any sort of purpose to making it found footage to begin with (barring certain cases like V/H/S, The Last Broadcast, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes where it's employed as a framing device.) In many cases, I look at the found footage style and feel it's being employed more as a gimmick to save on filming. I realize that's an overly cynical approach, but again, it's just putting my grievances with the genre in context.
It's with that mindset that I went into viewing Justin Cole's The Upper Footage. This is a movie I had heard almost nothing about and subsequently went in blind, beyond knowing it was a found footage movie. The resulting film is, in my opinion, probably one of the best concentrated displays of what found footage can be capable of doing- both good and bad.
You know you're doing your marketing well when you don't have to fake a clip like this because they actually buy it.
The story we're presented with begins with a short clip being posted on YouTube under the title 'NYC Socialite Overdose.' The clip in question, with the participants faces censored, is actually part of the movie's prologue that, in further blurring the reality line, chronicles this movie's own bizarre path to release. Much of what is recounted in this prologue was a genuine media stunt the filmmakers assembled over the course of two years, building the clips up as possible blackmail of actual celebrities and even alleging that Quentin Tarantino wished to buy the rights to the footage and make a movie of it himself, only for the project to have then folded when people protested what was believed to be filmed footage of a person dying. The fact they got several media outlets to bite on the story works to their advantage here as the prologue features actual news footage of people discussing the clips that they had uploaded. From there, it segues into the movie's original story (Cole has since come forward about the fact the footage is all staged) – the footage in question resurfaces care of an anonymous party who initially seeks to use it to blackmail the families of the parties featured in the movie. After a successful payment, the families hesitate to pay a second time, which leads into the movie's main approach – 90 minutes of footage compiled from the 393 minutes that was shot on the fateful night in question.
I don't see why...nothing remotely blackmail-worthy here...
The footage itself, without giving too much away, concerns a group of upper class New York socialites getting ready for a night of drinking, drugs, and all-around debauchery. This is all chronicled by one member of the group, Will, who carries the camera around more as a novelty for his own amusement at first. The night takes a turn when Devin, one of the members of the party, picks up a girl named Jackie (the only member of the group whose identity remains censored in the finished film.) Clearly in over her head, Jackie is taken in by the drinking and drugs, and as the promotion suggests, eventually overdoses. What follows are the actions of the group as they desperately try to dispose of the body in such a way as to not incriminate themselves.
This is part of why I have a hard time categorizing this as a found footage horror, at least in the same sense as the label is usually applied. The story presented here is one that's less about scares, and more about the suspense involved in the interactions in this group as tensions run high and they begin turning on one another. This approach does make for some good work from the actors, who manage to make for some genuinely uncomfortable interactions as they begin to argue amongst one another over how involved each of them may be or who's accountable to what extent. The one consistently horrifying element within this could be said to be how self-concerned the group are. After the initial shock of Jackie's death, there is almost no acknowledgment of her as a person by the group – her corpse is a liability that they must dispose of for their own sakes. One well done touch with this being in the film's final act as the group, with the corpse, drives out of state to find a place to dispose of her. Blake and Devin, the two in the front, are entirely focused on not getting caught and seem completely uncaring to the fact a person has died. In the backseat, Blake's girlfriend Taylor and Will are each much more shaken by the incident, and the fact they can even smell the body while Blake and Devin remain unphased is a nice little touch showing the divide between how each group is feeling about what they've done.
Capping off this horror is an epilogue that makes this alarmingly plausible tale even more sadly believable. The whole thing, while fictionalized, is a story that would feel right at home in a local news report.
There are a few drawbacks to the film, mostly consequences of the nature of found footage. Given the film is from the perspective of a group of hedonistic 20-somethings, the camera work is often all over the place to the point of annoyance. There is one area where it actually works well: in the infamous overdose scene. Upon finding Jackie dead, Will puts down the camera and the scene plays out with the camera on the floor and the panic taking place out of shot. The result is a mixed bag – visually, the held shot isn't particularly interesting and that can get tedious. At the same time, it's logical within the setting for Will to put the camera down, and the fact the panic ensues off camera leaves one wondering at the full extent of things. The latter is prevalent in many later parts of the movie, as Will leaves the camera running while feigning that it's turned off. This leads to many scenes that are visually a mixed bag, though the off-screen arguments are still quite effective, and not seeing the fighting sometimes adds to the impact.
Well, there IS Will's bid for creative camera work here...but that's about it.
In all, The Upper Footage is a demonstration of some of the best and worst that found footage has to offer. In the latter case, it's the scattershot camera work that can be infuriating to watch at times for periods where the camera is shooting nothing, though the fact it would be doing so is logical within the narrative confines of the setting. In the former, it's a movie that feels like it has earned its use of the found footage thanks to its premise. It's a case where what the movie's suggesting, itself something that can and does actually happen, is framed in a way that makes it more believable that this could have actually happened. To that end, as a nice break from horror – in the traditional sense, anyway – this film has me now intrigued by the potential for found footage in the vein of more suspense thrillers like this. It's definitely not a movie I'd recommend to just anybody, but in terms of seeing found footage try something different – and in this case kind of disturbing – it's worth the ninety minutes of time it asks of you. As someone who went in pretty well burned out on the found footage style, this movie convinced me the tires still have some tread left on them.
Now if more people would just flex their creativity with it like this, I'd be a bit less of a crotchety old man.
Still, one step at a time.
As for the site, October's coming and it's time to clear the docket in preparation for my favorite time of year.
You've been warned.
Till next time.