Friday, July 25, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

Somewhere along the line, I heard generally good things about a horror film that screened at Sundance Film Festival, called In Fear. It's a taut little 85-minute movie about a fresh couple that gets lost on labyrinthine forest roads in the dead of night, apparently by the design of a mysterious tormentor. Adding to the curiosity factor for me was that one of the leads was played by Iain de Caestecker, now known to us geeks as Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The movie was directed (and ostensibly written -- but I'll come back to that in a moment) by Jeremy Lovering, a man who clearly knows his horror. The films definitely feels like a soup made from a number of familiar ingredients. There's some of the slow, creeping dread of the original Halloween. There's the car-bound claustrophobia of Joyride. There's the unexplainable randomness of it all, as in The Strangers. And although it is not a "found footage" film, I couldn't help but feel a sense of The Blair Witch Project permeating it all.

After watching the movie, when I turned to the DVD's brief "making of" featurette, I understood where that feeling came from: the movie was improvised. The director had a sense of the types of characters he wanted, and the thematic tones he wanted to touch on. There was no script. He did not specifically know the ending he was working toward. The movie was filmed chronologically, and as he worked out the plot beats, the actors would only learn of them as they were playing the scenes for the first time. (Upon retakes, he would sometimes feed them lines of dialogue he wanted spoken.)

Ah... well, now that explains it -- both the things that are good and bad about the movie. The good includes an effective sense of dread throughout the film. The characters are believably on edge as they inch deeper and deeper into their ordeal. There are also a number of situations that are quite unnerving without relying on violence; indeed, the movie's most significant theme is one of pushing someone to the point of violence to see whether they'll take that final step.

What's not so good? The setup takes a lot longer than it should, with more than a third of the running time elapsed before anything really starts to "happen." The character decisions are questionable throughout, starting from the acceptance of a very sketchy situation in the opening minutes. These moments are a likely consequence of having no script. The actors couldn't build an overall logic for their characters, they just had to do what they were asked in a given scene. In particular, the thinking of one of the characters in the final scene of the film, while consistent with the tone of the film, doesn't really seem to make logical sense.

Ultimately, The Blair Witch Project, with its largely improvised style, is probably the barometer you should use to measure whether you should see In Fear. I really liked that film, and so found more to like than dislike here. Others who weren't keen on that past film will probably be bored or put off by this one. I'd give In Fear a B-.

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