Welcome to the fifth and final part of my favorite found footage films series, where I’ll be revealing my pick for the best found footage of all time.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
Yes, all of us horror geeks know the above quote, however, I felt that it was ideal to open the finale of my found footage series. Although, not Lovecraftian in story, style, or theme, the film I will be discussing today is, among other things, an exceptional character study on the way humans respond to the fear of the unknown.
The most effective horror seems to be a delicate balance between revealing enough and holding back the rest. Films like The Haunting, and more recently, The Witch rely on a mounting sense of foreboding that a talented director can create by utilizing all the wonderful mediums that film encapsulates; sound, visuals, theatre, music, lighting, etc. As opposed to just setting up a camera and filming a story playing itself out, the best directors use the camera as an art utensil, like a paint brush, carefully framing every scene, and employ color and sound to represent emotions or accent the characters emotions.
What remains most important is that we see the character’s reaction to whatever unspeakable terrors lay before them, because that is what we as viewers can relate to the most. Lovecraft was a master at conveying the devastating effects such horrors have had on his tortured narrators’ fragile minds.
It’s rare to find a film that does everything right. It’s even more rare to find a found footage film that does everything right. Well, this one manages to top my list as the best of the best, and I’ll be sharing 10 things about this particular film that sets it high above the rest.
So, are you ready to discover a found footage masterpiece crafted by a virtually unknown director? Want to watch it free on You Tube? Well then, found footage fans, allow me the pleasure of introducing to you:
RORSCHACH (Written and Directed by C.A. Smith, 2015)
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. RORSCHACH is an expertly crafted ghost story by C.A. Smith, who displays his prowess not only as a director, but as a writer; using themes that we feel we’ve seen a thousand times before, and making them fresh, engaging and terrifying, I believe I’ve watched it about ten times now, and each time I do, I am equally impressed. I’ve studied it, analyzed it, and compared it to other films — and I decided to break it down into all the different elements that make this film highly superior.
The story, oddly enough, is one we’ve heard a bunch of times; two skeptic, scientific investigators, Ross and Ricky, are called to the residence of a single mother, Jamy, who is convinced that something in her home is causing disturbances and trying to communicate with her young daughter, Ashlynn.
Really? The tired old “There’s something in my house, please help me and record your findings” idea? Yes. But… the incredible thing about C.A. Smith’s script is that he manages to bring well-developed characters and subtly stylized visuals to this seemingly one dimensional storyline.
Rorschach boasts superb performances, a sound plot, and excellent technical choices. There’s no sloppy, lazy story telling or histrionic characters making dumb decisions. The intended effect is achieved through clever, practical tricks that steadily build a sense of dread and create a creepy atmosphere, as opposed to relying on jump scares and special effects.
On a personal level, being a seasoned horror fanatic and hardcore skeptic of the paranormal, it’s hard to find a movie that will literally have me thinking twice about walking into a dark room. Well, Rorschach did, and that hasn’t happened in a long long time.
So let’s take a look at ten things I think set Rorschach apart from other found footage films.
1. THE SOUND DESIGN
I recommend this experience with headphones, or at least some good speakers with surround sound. A lot of the scenes include the character’s reactions to disturbing, yet faint sounds heard throughout the house.
There’s an utterly blood-curdling sequence where Ross and Ricky film the sounds coming from a vent in Jamy’s room . The camera is simply focused on the vent, but the absolutely indescribable moans and screams emanating from the opening make this scene really disturbing.
It also features seamless transitions to Ross and Ricky reviewing their own footage on a computer screen; a tactic rarely achieved to this effect.
2. THE LIGHTING
C.A. Smith lights all his night shots with a warm, inviting tone, creating an out-of-place sense of security for his viewers. We know something is very wrong here, but the atmosphere glows with comforting, dim light. A lot of these scenes are blocked with the characters in the foreground bathed in natural light, while the background is dark and foreboding, prompting a fear that something lurks just beyond in the blackness.
3. THE ACTORS
Ricky Lee Barnes and Ross Compton deliver spectacular performances as the two skeptics trying to put Jamy’s mind at ease. The characters are well developed and grow throughout the film. At one point, Ricky is reviewing footage of what looks like an entity making its way through the kitchen. Ross, still clinging to the logic and reason they both value above all, makes desperate attempts to whistle in the dark, while a frustrated Ricky finds himself not knowing what to think.
Jamy Gillespie plays her role to perfection as the worried single mom, fretting for her daughter’s safety. She’s motherly with Ashlynn, and just seethes a natural maternal protection. She is strong, determined, and very focused on her mission to be a mom and protect her daughter. Jamy’s desperation to find out what is going on inside her home is clear by her genuine reactions and willingness to take Ross and Ricky’s advice.
4. THE SUBTLE IMPLICATIONS OF TERROR
One of the things that made The Haunting so scary was its visual subtlety. The director used sound, close camera shots and claustrophobic angles to create a sense of distortion and unease, without revealing a single on screen entity. Rorschach does this on a much smaller scale. We are not in a huge gothic mansion, but in the small home of a single mother and her daughter. And since this IS after all found footage, the camera angles should not seem deliberate. But after reviewing the film several times, I have concluded that Smith carefully planned every frame and the blocking in it, all while making it seem like it just happened that way. Mad skills.
So much terror can be suggested through character reactions, and the fear of the unknown. Rorschach presents us with just enough information, yet holds back on details that are better left to our imaginations anyway.
5. THE LACK OF NEEDLESS EXPOSITION
C.A. Smith manages to do with a found footage what a lot of directors can’t seem to pull off at all. The history surrounding Jamy’s house is not entirely known, but she does reveal that some things were left behind by the previous owners, including a doll (we will get to that in a moment). She tells Ricky and Ross that she and her mother bought the home together, but shortly after moving in, Jamy’s mother passed away. She thinks perhaps it might be her mother in the house, but it soon becomes clear there is something much more sinister going on.
Nothing is revealed that doesn’t pertain directly to the current situation, and our minds fill in the blanks on the rest. In fact, it isn’t even divulged how Jamy found Ross and Ricky in the first place. The film simply opens with them arguing about directions in the car on their way to Jamy’s residence, and the dialogue does the rest.
6. THE DIALOGUE
The dialogue sounds natural, speech patterns are realistic and often broken. Tying into the lack of needless exposition, there’s just a perfect scene near the end of the film that opens with Jamy, Ross, and Ricky sitting on the couch, talking, late at night. Ricky looks at Jamy, saying; “Snakes, catheters, my inevitable demise in a potentially godless universe…” Though we’ve entered the scene mid-conversation, it is clear by the ensuing dialogue that Jamy has just asked the question, “So what are YOU afraid of?” But by cutting that part of the exchange, it elevates the scene by eliminating the cliche sounding small-talk. Ricky is obviously naming the things that scare him most, and since they ARE recovering from the most recent disturbing experience, the content of their conversation is easily assumed.
Ross continues, “Well, on that note, Mr. Sunshine over here… I guess I’ve always been afraid of the same things that interest me; you know the things that are unknown, the things you can’t know… I guess it’s kind of a form of xenophobia in a way. The fear of the other.” Ricky adds, “Most organisms are neophobic, which means they are afraid of things that are new and different, and usually it’s because it is in their best interest to be that way.”
So, a found footage film just described the core of humanity’s problem; our primal, protective instincts clashing with our current knowledge that we need not fear what is different. Wow.
7. THE PACING
Deliberate, steady pacing, like a slowly increasing heartbeat, builds tension and creates unease. Nothing is shown that does not contribute directly to the plot, and the scares come in rhythmic doses of ghastly sound and alarming insinuations.
8. THE UNDERSTATED USE OF A “HAUNTED OBJECT”
Haunted objects, especially dolls, have become another one of those things we’ve seen done so many times that it’s hard to be scared by it anymore. However, C.A. Smith manages to utilize a creepy doll just enough in his story to amp up the terror, yet not set his plot to completely revolve around it. The doll, named “Patrick,” also has pretty limited screen time, which makes it so much scarier when the doll is actually featured. Patrick is undoubtedly creepy, with Jamy stating that she found him in the garage when they moved in, and Ashlynn refused to let her throw it in the trash.
I swear to you, they used one of those big Samantha dolls from the American Girl series, chopped the hair off, and put it in boy’s clothes, and the effect is some serious creepiness. It’s implied that “Patrick” is being used as a device by whatever entity resides in the house to communicate with Ashlynn, and to showcase its powers. And yeah, fuck that doll.
9. THE SIMPLE, STARTLING SCORE
A score is heard exactly three times throughout the film. Once in the beginning title cards, once about three quarters of the way through the film, and once at the end.
Usually, a score is not appropriate in a found footage film, except in the case of faux documentaries where the footage is presented in an edited format. Since this footage IS presented in an edited format as made clear in the film’s opening title cards, it’s not technically breaking any rules. But in keeping with the film’s cunning style, its sudden, ominous chords of dissonance are used sparingly and cleverly.
10. THE ENDING SEQUENCE AND CHILLING FINAL FRAME
A film’s final frames will determine how long the viewer spends pondering what they just saw, and should ideally be some sort of imagery that leaves a lasting impression.
Rorschach wraps things up in a different way than what usually plays out in these types of films. There’s no twist, but SPOILER ALERT: Not one person dies. Crazy for a horror film, right? Yet somehow, it all works and succeeds in delivering on some ghastly final moments.
Get ready to pee yourself at around the one hour and ten minute mark, followed up by a scene where Ross and Ricky are reviewing some footage taken by Ashlynn. It is here that we are presented with a stark visual representation, alluding to the film’s enigmatic title, and we understand the aim of the entire film. What do YOU see? How do YOU perceive the events that have transpired in the footage? Is it science we still cannot understand? OR something much more ominous and menacing?
In conclusion, Rorschach is a spectacular piece, with calculated direction from a director who seriously understands the nature of fear and how different people react to it. I sincerely hope to see much more of C. A. Smith in the horror industry, and look forward to experiencing more of his incredible work.
Be sure not to miss Rorschach — and always support independent directors! You can watch the film for free right here. Thanks so much for joining me on this journey through some of the best in the found footage sub genre. If you missed any of the previous four parts of this series, you can find links to those articles below. Now go grab some popcorn and get your scare on.