Monday, August 24, 2015

Why THE MIDNIGHT SWIM Is Found Footage Worth Watching

Note: This post contains what might be considered some minor spoilers throughout.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that although I watch nearly every one that hits the market, I tend to despise found footage horror movies. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but as someone who loved – and still loves – The Blair Witch Project, I’m forever holding out hope that there will be another FF film that engages me as completely as that one did. Nine times out of ten, I am disappointed. And yet I press on!

I was rewarded for my masochism when I finally had the chance to see The Midnight Swim, Sarah Adina Smith’s first feature length film. It’s the story of three sisters (June, Annie, and Isa) who return to their childhood home after their mother goes swimming in the nearby lake and never returns. The three women have to decide what to do with the house, a task that stirs up old memories and long-dormant issues. Littlest sister June handles the emotional upheaval by filming, and possibly warping, her version of reality, and that is the impetus for the enigmatic story.

It’s not a film for the impatient, but for those weary of the formulaic FF horror film, The Midnight Swim provides an entirely new, smarter class of horror. Here’s why.

The characters are realistic.

Unlike other FF movies, that doesn’t mean they are boring, or that they spend the entire movie ad-libbing arguments overstuffed with backstory. Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer LaFleur, and Aleksa Palladino are truly a marvel of chemistry. Everything about them – from knowing looks to shared bits about their mother – makes it difficult to believe the actresses aren’t really related to one another. When the sisters do have disagreements, they are subtle, mired in a silent history to which the audience is only partially privy. This history is never explicitly spelled out, because the filmmaker seems to realize there’s no need for that. We are given information on a need-to-know basis, and bolstered by the strong performances, that only enhances the mystery.

The presence of the camera makes sense.

So many FF movies feature an obnoxious character with increasingly flimsy reasons for continuing to film in dire circumstances: The wannabe documentarian who insists, “The world will need to see this!” even as the monster chases him to his death, or the reporter who continues filming “for the ratings” long after even the most fame-hungry narcissist would have wised up and hit the road. Even after the camera-wielding character is killed off, the lens always seems to land in a perfectly off-center position, showing just enough of the shot to attempt a final scare. The Blair Witch Project invented these tactics, and few filmmakers have bothered to try to move beyond them. At this point, they are tired, played out, and worst of all, distracting – the opposite of what should be a fully immersive viewing experience.

The Midnight Swim’s auteur – June – and her medium – the camera – are neither obnoxious nor distracting. Rather, they become almost a single character, so melded into her mode of expression is June. She relates to her family and the world through her camera, and so it only makes sense that she films. Furthermore, there is more than a little ambiguity surrounding June’s role in the strange happenings at the house, and so her decision to film, and more specifically, what she chooses to show, only adds layers to her character’s mental state.

June relates to the world through her camera and is rarely onscreen.

The use of the camera drives the story forward.

As I said, June and the camera can nearly be considered one character, and turning the camera into an actual character is a brilliant move. Rather than being an unwieldy extra element, the camera is the audience’s seamless window into an intimate story. The footage we see is alternately a home movie, a documentary about local legends, and a music video made by the sisters. As mysterious footage begins showing up in the camera’s memory, we begin to wonder if the camera might even be a gateway to the supernatural. Therein lies the mystery, and the camera is an indispensable element of that mystery.

It’s original.

This is key, and much rarer than you might think. It’s not the same old exorcism or haunted house schtick we’ve seen countless other times in abysmal efforts like The Devil Inside and Apartment 143, or in the downward trajectory of the Paranormal Activity franchise. While the found footage genre was once a way in for innovative new filmmakers, it has devolved into little more than a cash-grab, recycling the same ideas and scares over and over again.

The Midnight Swim differs from these other FF movies in many respects, but one of the most important is its penchant for the eerie over the dramatic. Instead of employing one jump scare after another (a tactic horror fans are basically immune to at this point), it goes for a lingering sense of anxiety and unease, rooted in a "local legend" that is both familiar and entirely new. The Midnight Swim may not be action-packed or bursting with blood and guts, but its brand of horror will haunt you long after your television is turned off. I can’t say that about many found footage films I’ve seen in the last decade.

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