Friday, July 25, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Conspiracy (2014)

[The following review contains spoilers, so proceed accordingly.]

We live in an age of conspiracy theories run amok, and thus the new found footage horror film, The Conspiracy (2014) has arrived at just the right time in terms of the Zeitgeist.

I suppose one could argue that wild conspiracy theories thrive today because of the Internet, and the ease of instantaneously transmitting information, but there’s a psychological reason underlining their existence and popularity too.

I submit that the wildest conspiracy theories are simultaneously ego-boosting and blame-deflecting. 

First: only *you* are smart enough to see how the puzzle pieces fit together and understand the larger picture.

The most powerful people in the world are aligned against you and your continued freedom, but clever you and a few others with the same viewpoint see through these byzantine schemes nonetheless. Thus conspiracy theories are in a way, very flattering, even self-affirming. You’re an important member in an exclusive club!

And secondly, the reason *you* aren’t succeeding (at work, politically, at home, even) is because a sinister cabal is running things, transforming us all into slaves.

In other words, someone is keeping *you* down for some dark purpose. Therefore, you are absolved of all guilt or culpability for your own situation and success, or lack thereof. 

How can you succeed with Big Brother putting his socialist/corporate heel to your throat at every turn?

The Conspiracy deals with such ideas in an exceedingly intelligent fashion.

Actually, in terms of found-footage horror films, The Conspiracy reminded me strongly of The Bay (2012), another horror film of the same genre that had environmental concerns vying for supremacy with the horror scenes. 

That’s also how The Conspiracy plays. The horror aspects only really arrive in force during the tense last act, and it is the observations about the conspiracy mind-set that take center stage instead.  The film is a strong paranoia trip, and a psychological thriller that only descends into effective terror during one harrowing set-piece.

The result of all the pent-up paranoia -- and the catharsis of the final horror sequence -- is a smart, well-made film and one that will make you think seriously about the reasons why so many people cling to wild conspiracy theories even in the face of contradictory information. 

What I really appreciate about the film is that it creates -- during its last moments -- a new conspiracy-theory, and then allows the viewer to make up his or her mind about the “truth” of the particular situation. In short, it’s a perfect microcosm for conspiracy-style thinking, and it crystallizes all of The Conspiracy’s themes in one shining moment.

“If you stare at it long enough, you are going to see what you want to see.”

Two documentary filmmakers, Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) decide to make a film about Terrance G., a conspiracy theorist who seeks to connect every world event from the sinking of the Lusitania to 9/11 to a sinister cabal.  He believes that we are all being prepared for one world government…and slavery.

After spending several days with Terrance G., Aaron and Jim come to respect him, if not all of his views. 
But then, suddenly…he disappears without a trace. 

Jim and Aaron begin to research Terrance G.s work, and learn that all the terrible events of the world, including the JFK assassination, tie back to a mysterious organization known as The Tarsus Club.

The filmmakers track down a reporter, Mark Tucker, who once wrote an article about The Tarsus Club for Time Magazine, but then went into perpetual hiding, for fear of his life. Tucker reports that The Tarsus Group worships an ancient deity called Mithras, and that he can get the two men into a Tarsus Club initiation, which will involve the hunting of a bull.

Jim is reluctant to go any further because he has a family to protect, but Aaron -- who dreams of living off the grid in a commune -- feels that they must proceed, if only to discover what happened to Terrance G.

The two men make arrangements for a rendezvous if they are separated, and then infiltrate a Tarsus Club meeting…

“I wish we had never listened to a thing he said.”

First things first: I’ve waded into the waters of wild conspiracy theories, myself.

I did so while I was researching Horror Films of the 1990s (2011), because many films of the 1990s (Blade, Eyes Wide Shut, The X-Files: Fight the Future, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation) traded on conspiracies as a key aspect of the genre.

At some point during my brief flirtation with fringe conspiracy theories -- perhaps at the point that I learned George W. Bush and President Obama were actually child-molesting Satanists -- I realized the sad fact that there’s always another theory, another rabbit-hole, and another time-suck conspiracy to delve into…yet mysteriously no evil plans for world domination ever seem to come to fruition. The world just doesn’t change in a meaningful way.

Bill Clinton didn’t stay in office by declaring Martial Law after Y2K, as Pat Robertson warned us he would.

President Bush didn’t incarcerate democrats for exercising free speech during the Iraq War,

And President Obama has not incarcerated or re-educated our precious young in FEMA prison camps, while also handing over U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. and taking all our guns away.  

Frankly, if we are being run by some secret cabal for the purposes of “New World Order” and “One World Government,” it is doing a “heckuva” job, at least by Michael Brown standards. 

My biggest question is: What on Earth is taking the illuminati so damn long? Why such slow and incremental change?

If the cabal is so powerful and so connected, and in such firm control of the population through surveillance and intimidation, why does it suck so hard at getting anything meaningful accomplished?

The conspirators have had a century for their mastermind social engineering and yet we still have nationalistic borders, sovereignty, and elections.  What gives?

And in a way, that’s The Conspiracy’s point.

At various junctures, the film suggests that there really is no need for a dark conspiracy in today’s globalized, over-corporate world. Big Banks, social media gurus, and media conglomerates are pretty open and up front about their intentions for financial domination. They are conspiring to take our money, our votes and our Internet, yes…but they are doing so in plain sight.

It’s only a secret conspiracy if you aren’t paying attention.

At the end of the film, a representative from Tarsus speaks directly to the camera and tells us, in no uncertain terms, that his group has plans. The leaders have an agenda. They meet to discuss strategy. They meet to execute initiatives.

If that is a conspiracy, he says then he pleads guilty.

Secondly, the film makes what in my estimation is a pretty bullet-proof argument about real life. If the cabal is so powerful and has been in power so long -- for over a hundred years -- then we have lived, essentially, under conspiratorial rule for a century, as Jim points out.

And you know what?

We’re just fine. 

*They* have been in power, *they* are in power, and *they* will be in power, and yet we still have our families, our home, and our freedoms. If it has always been this way -- longer than you or I have been breathing air on this Earth -- and we’ve just come through the triumphant American Century too, what’s the problem again?

Jim points this out to Aaron, but by that point, Aaron is too far gone to stop, and is not hearing reason.

The Conspiracy deals with that issue too.

It details quite ably how a conspiracy-minded person becomes trapped in self-fulfilling beliefs, lodged inside a bubble that allows no light, no reason, and no contradictory facts to penetrate it.  As Jim notes: “if you stare at it” (conspiracy theory) “long enough you are going to see what you want to see.”

I believe that The Conspiracy’s greatest moment arises in its very satisfying, if incredibly ambiguous climax. 

We are confronted with a scene of terrible violence against Aaron, and then an interview which denies the violence occurred…even though we “saw it” with our own eyes.  

Aaron is nowhere to be seen now.  But it was all a trick -- a joke -- to keep conspiracy theorists away, a PR man for Tarsus explains. He isn’t really dead.

If that’s the case, where is he?  Why isn’t he seen on-camera again?

Now here is the test for you as a viewer, which The Conspiracy presents well. 

Is Aaron dead and gone, a fact that explains his absence, while the conspiracy continues? 

Earlier in the film, Mark Tucker explained to the filmmakers that it behooves the Tarsus Club to go public occasionally, so it doesn’t look too mysterious. But that it will only put out the information it wants public during these rare PR jaunts.

So is the representative’s appearance at the end, alongside Jim -- and the explanation about Aaron’s fate -- that “harmless” appearance that Tucker predicted the group would make?

Or contrarily, as Jim and the Tarsus Group flak explain, has Aaron simply gone off the grid to his commune, as we saw him planning to do early in the film, perhaps out of embarrassment for the humiliation at the bull hunt?

If you believe in deadly conspiracies, you will no doubt believe that Aaron has been executed by Tarsus, and Jim co-opted (because his family is in danger).

If you don’t believe in conspiracies, you will see the point of all those scenes early in the film with Aaron contemplating a future in the commune, far away from a society he fears.  At least twice, we see him gazing at the commune’s web page, promising freedom from the technological surveillance state. 

What is the truth? 

The fact is, we can only speculate, and not draw any factual conclusions, because we don’t have all the information.

All we can do is speculate, I wrote above and yet here’s the rub. By speculating we insert our own psychologies into a mystery that, frankly, doesn’t involve our psychologies. We therefore shade the answers with our temperament, our predilections, and our deepest fears. 

Do conspiracy theories thrive, therefore, because human beings must -- for peace of mind -- have answers to the big questions, answers that make sense and allow them to continue with their lives? 

Few of us were lucky enough to know JFK, but he was beloved as President, and killed in his prime. 

How do you get past that horror, except to attempt to impose some kind of order on the tragic event? 

Is it worse to believe his death was the result of some random madman, or the result of a plot against him? 

The plot against him suggests a kind of order to the world, at least: Kennedy was killed because of his beliefs, his dislike of the CIA, his pursuit of the mob, or his bungling of Cuba.  Each of those “answers” suggests order in a way that a random killing simply does not.

A conspiracy thus fills in a psychological gap, and makes us feel that we have control in our lives, and that events happen for reasons that we can understand and process. This may be a more sympathetic explanation of conspiracy theories than the one I enumerated at the start of the review, noting the self-affirming and blame-deflecting aspect of them. Perhaps, in some way, we concoct conspiracy theories because they are necessary to our continued peace of mind.

The Conspiracy is a clever and even-handed horror film because it contemplates -- and makes the viewer contemplate -- both sides of the conspiracy equation.

The film blends real-life footage of the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 with its fictional narrative, and is so paranoia-provoking that it makes a mere hand-shake look positively menacing.  There’s also a clip of Ronald Reagan saying “we’re going to turn the bull loose,” to tie the government into the (malevolent) Mithras Cult…and you’ll be convinced the Gipper was in on the conspiracy too.

There’s even some under-cover humor here. All the conspirators are -- naturally -- old white men…the very group in danger of losing generations-long privilege in an ever more diverse America.

I’ve written before that I believe it is the greatest responsibility of the horror film -- as an outsider’s genre -- to tell us something meaningful about the times that we live in. The Conspiracy passes that test, and will unsettle you in the process.


  1. Anti-conspiracy propaganda is based on one thing: assassinate the character of any suspicious person as a delusional paranoiac. Because the "official" answer must ALWAYS be right! And if you disagree--well, it can't be because the "official" facts and conclusions are faulty. NO! If you question, YOU are flawed!!!

    The biggest conspiracy of all is the conspiracy to discredit all conspiracies out of hand. Why do this? Well, it makes it almost impossible to catch clever criminals!

    HINT: Conspiracies thrive because GOVERNMENTS LIE. From the Assyrians to the Americans, officials have always lied to protect themselves (from either individual or group blame).

    It is true that some individuals and groups believe or disbelieve in a conspiracy based on their own political or psychological needs. But this has no bearing on the TRUTH. I guess Bobby Kennedy was a looney because he believed in the conspiracy of the mob despite the authorities (F.B.I.) said there was no mafia. It MUST be that RFK was deranged--he continued to see what he was told NOT to see. No REASONABLE person would ever second guess the FIRST explanation he is given.

    There is no "roll eyes" emoticon big enough to do this anti-conspiracy tripe justice.

    For the love of God and peace and justice, if you believe there are no conspiracies--DO NOT EVER BECOME A POLICE OFFICER, A LAWYER, OR A JUDGE. You will NEVER catch any criminals. You will only serve to let the worst and most damaging criminals go free...laughing at the foolishness (and helpfulness) of anti-conspiracy propaganda.

  2. Also, you cannot disprove conspiracies in general by caging the discussion into ridiculously tight parameters. The movie and blog discuss what is essentially a theater of the absurd in the underground media. What I mean is, these "illuminati" type conspiracies are almost entirely speculation and possess almost no meaningful facts at all.

    For example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was clearly a conspiracy by the Bush Administration to start a war against Iraq on false pretenses (wmds). This is based not on speculation but the most obvious facts. Rumsfeld lied about where the WMDs were in Iraq (Takrit, he said). Rice lied through ambiguous responses (conflating terrorism against Israel with 9/11 terrorism) and scare tactics ("we can't afford to wait for a mushroom cloud")--trying to implant in listeners' minds that Saddam has nukes and intends to use them against the U.S.--which was absurd. Bush willfully rejected any and all evidence and expert advice saying Saddam played no role in 9/11. The evidence is clear that the Bush administration was working together to create a false story about Saddam to justify an invasion. THAT is a very real conspiracy (it was a war crime).

    Just because a handful of people take those facts and push them deep into the realm of unprovable speculation (Skull and Bones takeover) does not, in any way, invalidate what really happened. Nor does it discredit those who challenged the Bush Administration on its very flawed interpretation of the events before, during and after 9/11.

  3. The debacle surrounding JFK is that the Warren Commission came up with an utter fantasy of an explanation (including the "magic bullet theory" created by senator Arlen Spector) that requires massive contorted logic and argumentation but was later completely obliterated by the Zapruder film. But since the "official" story was all wrapped up nice and neat with a "single shooter" theory, many Americans accepted the official explanation at face value. [By the way, there is no "SINGLE shooter theory." Because there are at least TWO shooters in this narrative. Ruby must be accounted for, and the official story of his love for Jackie Kennedy is beyond absurd.]

    We instead need a film that addresses why so many people accept the FIRST story they hear and insist that any subsequent reevaluation must be lunacy.

    Watch the pattern. When officials (gov't or otherwise) really want to know exactly what happened, we don't get an explanation for months or years later. They do extensive research before drawing any conclusions (Discovery shuttle, exploding planes over Scotland, etc).

    But when officials jump out immediately with answers, without doing any real investigation, THAT is where the conspiracies tend to grow. The JFK story was in the papers in less than a day. The 9/11 attack's official story was pretty much created that evening. And these quickie explanations are always chock full of holes in logic and evidence.

    There is a logical fallacy at play here. The one where party A exaggerates an example to the furthest extreme (where it looks the most ridiculous) and then argues against that extreme. This is what this movie is doing. Show the most absurd and pretend that all conspiracy theories fall into that grouping.

    Also, it doesn't make sense to say suggest that all conspirators are old white men because they fear losing "privilege." How in the world would an old white man benefit from TWO guys shooting Kennedy? Or any of the other conspiracies? Wouldn't it be THEY who benefit from discrediting conspiracies? Believing Oswald acted alone only HELPS keep the old white men in power. Seriously, that argument just doesn't make any sense. Discrediting the "old white man" governments can't possibly increase "old white man" control of society or government. The only logical result would be to take that privilege away--that old white men cannot be trusted.

    If anything is "unsettling" me, it's how Muir got drawn in hook, line, and sinker into this movie's anti-conspiracy character assassination techniques designed to prevent rational thought and criticism. Dismissing every critic's doubt as lunacy is its own brand of lunacy. And perpetuating this warped view is just plain irresponsible.

    1. Mr. Preece,

      I want to address some of what you wrote here more fully.

      First I never said that the official answer is *always* right.

      That is the conclusion you drew from the review.

      You are responsible for your own conclusions.

      However, please do try telling Buzz Aldrin that the official story of the moon landing isn't true.

      Similarly, there are some other conspiracy theories that we now know are wrong, but for which there has been no apology.

      Clinton holding onto control after Y2K and not relinquishing the Presidency, for example.

      We know for a fact that didn't happen, and yet there has been no apology or explanation for the theory.

      And look also at Sandy Hook. There are people who still believe it was a false-flag operation, despite clear evidence of corpses.

      In these cases, conspiracy theories are used to discredit political enemies. They are not carriers of truth.

      You accuse me of irresponsibility, yet what of the irresponsibility in these cases?

      Or of the anti-Vaxxers?

      Real deaths have occurred because of the crazy conspiracy theory involving the government and its use of vaccines.

      My point: the wildest conspiracy theories shred the social contract, and can do real life harm.

      I could submit that you are irresponsible for suggesting otherwise, but I don't want to be you were rude in your personal attacks on me.

      Finally, criminal collusion is quite different from what is discussed in the review, and I am at a loss why you do not seem to understand that, or why you have knowingly conflated it with the conspiracies that are CLEARLY the subject of this review.

      Criminals conspire all the time, of course.

      No one is denying that.

      You did what you accused me of, there: creating a straw man.

      And your example of the Bush Administration is addressed obliquely in my review.

      I write: "at various junctures, the film suggests that there really is no need for a dark conspiracy in today’s globalized, over-corporate world. Big Banks, social media gurus, and media conglomerates are pretty open and up front about their intentions for financial domination. They are conspiring to take our money, our votes and our Internet, yes…but they are doing so in plain sight It’s only a secret conspiracy if you aren’t paying attention."

      The same is absolutely true of the Iraq War. The plan wasn't exactly a secret. That was not a conspiracy. That was a "leader" executing his agenda in plain sight. Sadly, he found support for it among large swaths of the American populace. Did he lie to make his case? I believe so.

      Again, not the subject of the review. You define conspiracies so broadly - public government policy and criminal collusion -- that you, as I said before, erect a straw man.

      Finally, before you comment again, please check out some of my other reviews. I recommend Cloud Atlas, The Purge, and Soylent Green, for starters.

      You are obviously smart and well-spoken, but your comments are presumptuous and rude. For you to "Drive by"" comment here and assume some agenda and belief on my part, without knowing more about me is, well, not the right way to start a conversation, on or off the net.

      Warmest regards,