Video Screams!

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There was a time when “film” only meant something which was filmed, not captured on another moving medium. Despite long-form video productions airing on TV around the globe in the 70s, most countries were slow to accept video as a viable alternative to actual film when it came to feature-length narratives. Shot-on-video (SOV) titles began to crop up in video stores in the mid-80s, and in the early ‘90s companies like Tempe found a niche by turning out cheap SOV genre titles. Still, there didn’t seem to be much respect for video as a story-telling medium.

Things began shifting in the late ’90s, with high definition production reaching a reasonable price point, as well as the formalization of the Dogme95 aesthetic and strong critical plaudits for its early offerings. And of course there was the shoestring Blair Witch Project. A sea change on several fronts, it showed mass audiences video, like film, possessed inherit qualities which could directly affect the impact of a given image if manipulated with skill. Video was no longer a second-class citizen - it had become a viable, often essential storytelling tool.

More than other genres, I think horror has benefited from the cultural growth of video; the ways we’ve been conditioned to interpret images presented through video correlate to thematic staples of the genre: acts of voyeurism, senses of claustrophobia, visual ambiguities. What follows is a list of five horror films I feel use the medium of video to great advantage. They run the gamut from full SOV to mixed media presentations; the only hard and fast rule is that the use of video must enhance the overall experience…

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The Collingswood Story - Writer / director Mike Costanza’s dread-inducing marvel is told from the perspective of two webcam users who happen upon a good deal of dark history in south New Jersey. Almost all the film’s imagery is seen “online” by its two leads and other cam users they encounter; Collingswood rides this visual motif to an amazing sustained effect, using its limited POV to deliver increasingly jarring shocks across its running time.

The webcam concept might seem gimmicky at the outset, but Costanza’s sense of rhythm (and a strong pair of lead actors) sucks you in. For a while, the filmmaker was distributing the picture on DVD himself until Anchor Bay acquired its rights. They’ve released the film in the UK; it’s currently unavailable in the US. Collingswood rates as one of the better indie horror films of the decade, using the video image to both tell a compelling story and amp its scare quota.

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Otogiriso / St. John’s Wort - Jumping from a favorite film to oneI have hefty reservations about, Ten Shimoyama’s St. John’s Wort stands as one of the most aggressively stylized horror films of the digital age and warrants recognition for pushing visual boundaries, regardless of whether its narrative stands up to critique.

A young woman who designs landscapes for video games travels to a house eerily similar to one she already envisioned; once inside, she and a friend are stalked by an unseen presence and discover evidence linking her to house’s dark past blah blah blah. Enough of that. Now behold the psychedelic candy-colored high-def compositions that fill St. John’s every frame! The film offers a wonderfully saturated hyper-reality which could not have been formulated without the malleability of video. Style over substance, sure, but with this much style who cares?

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Prince of Darkness - John Carpenter’s dip into religiously-tinged pseudo-science features some weak performances and an indecipherable plotline about Satan being housed in a church basement inside a goo-filled jar. But it’s Carpenter – he’s massaged creepy tableaus from less, and with Prince he cuts through the haze to deliver an unique and thought-provoking chiller which features Alice Copper leading a marauding pack of killer vagrants. As part of a sub-plot.

Prince gets the nod here because a series of mental projections foretelling Satan’s coming, realized in jittery, low-res video, work as short-form chiaroscuro nightmares: framed at a distance, a humanoid figure shambles from behind a half-closed church door before the image bursts into static. These pieces probably run less than a minute, but add another layer of surreal menace to Prince’s ever-escalating on-screen madness.

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My Little Eye - Marc Evans’ savage faux-snuff experience contained enough hair-raising elements to give yours truly waking nightmares upon first viewing it. Subsequent sessions spent with Eye’s gaggle of wannabe-celebs, who’ve volunteered to live in a remote mansion stuffed with webcams in order to win a hefty cash prize, have shown the film turns on a complex understanding of how visual and aural cues can unnerve.

Like the above Collingswood, Eye presents nearly all its footage from the vantage of webcams, though here the cameras are controlled by unseen patrons who’ve paid to watch the proceedings unfold. Angles shift and motors whir, keeping the film’s landscape off-balance throughout and greatly upping tension at each turn.

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The Blair Witch Project - A loved / hated title if there ever was one, for my money Blair stands as an almost diabolically intelligent attack on how we’ve been condition to understand video as an “immediate” format. A CW-approved starlet being chased through a gorgeously lit, impossibly geometric expanse of woods is one thing; the POV of a stranger high-tailing it through stark barrens, lost and short on food, running from what we can only maybe hear, is something entirely more interesting.

When paired with the excellent faux-doc Curse of the Blair Witch, the concept both pulled the rug out from under what we had learned from years of home movies and episodes of “Cops” and proved just how easy it could be to connect with subjects not native to celluloid.

The above are only a sampling of titles containing video elements from one specific genre which struck me as particularly powerful; there are certainly more out there (the notorious August Underground films, for example, might warrant inclusion but I have yet to see them), and from a variety of genres. Any examples you can think of?

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