Ever since The Blair Witch Project burst onto the scene in 1999 and earned nearly $250 million at the box office, the “found-footage” horror genre has seen a gold rush of producers looking to turn colossal profits on microscopic budgets. And who’s to blame them? Blair Witch and its spiritual successor, Paranormal Activity, occupy the #5 and #1 spots on the list of most profitable films in movie history. Both were shot for next to nothing - $60,000 and $15,000, respectively – and went on to earn staggering amounts of money and cultural repute. The success of these films has made it possible, arguably for the first time, for broke indie filmmakers to have a real shot at a blockbuster. But, as with any gold rush, not everyone strikes it rich.
Director Robert Conway’s newest entry, The Encounter, makes a solid effort to capitalize on the found footage craze, but his film ultimately disappoints because it fails to honor some of the key elements of horror filmmaking. The first, and perhaps most important, is the element of surprise. This is in many ways a creature flick, and one of the guiding principles here is that it’s best to keep glimpses of the monster(s) gradual and discreet. M. Night Shyamalan, in Signs, with little more than a split-second clip on a grainy camcorder, scared the pants off the whole country. Yet Conway reveals his creatures as early as the title sequence. There’s no suspense when we know exactly what’s coming for us.
Clever use of getting everything filmed, from YouTube to car-cams and the trusty handycam
Written & Directed by
Clint James, Owen Conway, Megan Drust
2 June 2015
Josh's Grade: C-
From here, we’re introduced to three sets of protagonists: Collin (Clint James) and his girlfriend Kimberly (Megan Drust), who are preparing for a camping trip with Ryan and Holly (Louie Iaccarino and Paulina Vallin); Duncan and Trevor (Dan Higgins and Owen Conway), a couple of hunting buddies readying for a weekend in the woods; and Alice (Eliza Kiss), a forest ranger who sets out to investigate a report of a fallen meteor. The first two plotlines unfold at a reasonable speed – they allow us to establish a rapport with the characters – but Alice’s story takes a turn for the grotesque almost immediately. This throws off the film’s pacing – because the threads are proceeding at such different tempos, it all feels lopsided. There ought to be a general sense of increasing dread and disquiet; instead, it is uneven and distracting.
That said, as night falls and the remaining characters find themselves beset by elusive and hostile enemies, and in some cases falling victim to psychological aberrations, Conway delivers a handful of real chills. The Encounter thrives on jump scares, taking full advantage of the disorienting thrills afforded by handheld cameras and nightvision. When Collin, Holly, and Kimberly take to their SUV for a desperate escape from the campsite, the piercing beams of the headlights render the action particularly claustrophobic.
Unfortunately, the momentum dissipates when Conway abandons his greatest asset – darkness. The final quarter unfolds in the daylight, and although the events comprise more or less the film’s climax, they are sapped of immediacy and impact – harm is inflicted, but it feels strangely benign. It’s as though the action charges forward while the tension has all but vanished. Later, when the epilogue unveils what ought to be a wrenching revelation, the effect is lost because the story ceased to engage long before.
Though the special effects are impressive given the film’s budget, The Encounter suffers from too many structural defects to stand out among the crowded field of found footage competitors. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity may have been made for pocket change, but their use of atmosphere, tension, and pacing was expert. Conway ought to consider those fundamentals before his next outing.