Friday, September 05, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Dark Mountain (2014)

[Spoilers Ahead: Swim at your own risk!]

The story of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine is a famous American folktale and one with roots in the real historical record to boot. 

The rich gold mine is believed to be located in the American Southwest, near the Superstition Mountains and Apache Junction.

The mine was discovered by a Dutchnam man named Jacob Waltz (1810 – 1889), but he died before he could tell anyone where it was located. In some retellings of the story, Waltz also had a partner in this momentous discovery, a partner with whom he quarreled…and blood was spilled.

Since 1892, literally hundreds (some say thousands…) of fortune-seekers have gone in search of the mine’s legendary gold treasure, often with tragic results.  For instance, a man named Adolph Ruth died looking for the mine in 1931. He was shot in the head twice, and bullets were recovered from his skull.  A prospector named James Cravey was reputedly found beheaded in the same mountains, on the trail of the mine, in the mid-1940s.

As recently as 2009 and 2011, hikers have gone into the Superstition Mountains looking for the mine, and they disappeared there…or died.

The mysterious location, gold treasure, and strange deaths surrounding it make the Lost Dutchman’s Mine the ideal subject for a found-footage horror movie, and writer/director Tara Anaïse obliges with Dark Mountain (2014), an ambitious if flawed effort that pulls in every paranormal theory possible -- from UFOs to time-warps to alternate dimensions -- in an attempt to explain the mine’s bizarre history.

Although Dark Mountain is buttressed by some nice location photography, good performances, and a legitimate scare or two, the film ultimately fails to live up to its intriguing premise for one glaring reason.  

The film apes, almost ritualistically, the structure and narrative details of The Blair Witch Project (1999). The story involves three filmmakers who get lost in the mountains, encounter something supernatural or paranormal, and are never heard from again.

To one degree or another, many found-footage efforts have cribbed from The Blair Witch Project’s playbook, but up until this point, the vast majority of the imitators have distinguished themselves in one significant way or another. 

For The Devil’s Pass (2013), originality came into the picture in terms of the frozen setting, and the gonzo last act, which incorporated aspects of the (infamous) Philadelphia Experiment. 

Willow Creek (2014), which I reviewed not long ago, adds sardonic humor and an inverted scare tactic -- a lengthy sequence consisting of one steady shot rather than many frenetic, hand-held shots -- to the equation.

Dark Mountain is competently made, but positioned as it is in the late summer of 2014, boasts almost no sense of distinction whatsoever. It’s not that it is badly made just that -- at this juncture -- it is over-familiar and therefore the narrative twists and turns no longer surprise or thrill.

And worst of all, the sequence most blatantly derivative of The Blair Witch Project arrives first in the film’s narrative, casting a kind of pall over the rest of the proceedings that is difficult to shake, especially if you have any familiarity with the sub-genre.

“This is a land of mystery.”

Three intrepid young filmmakers, Kate (Sage Howard), Paul (Andrew Simpson), and Ross (Shelby Stehlin) venture into the Superstition Mountains in search of the notorious Lost Dutchman’s Mine.

As they hike into the wilderness, a stranger on a distant ridge seems to shadow their every move. Along the journey, they also find a cave, and Paul removes a gold and white rock from it, much to Ross’s dismay. He asks Paul to return it to its spot, but Paul refuses.

After a few days in the wild, the trio finds an abandoned camp site, and diary from the mid-1970s. Kate confesses to Ross a secret about what she saw in the cave, and Ross shares a story about the Lost Dutchman’s mine from his own family history.

As the days pass, Paul begins to exhibit strange, paranoid behavior, especially when the trio can’t find their way out of the mountains.  He returns the rock to the cave, but it is harder to get rid of than he could have ever imagined.

One night, Paul disappears into the woods, and Kate, the team leader and film director, follows with Ross, only to come face-to-face with a dark force.

“If there’s no drama, then I’m going to have to create some.”

Dark Mountain opens with a shot of Kate, our team leader, in agonized close-up. She is crying in dismay over her situation. She is lost in the mountains, hunted and besieged by a malevolent supernatural/paranormal entity.  She apologizes to her mother and father, says she wishes to go home, and expresses regret about her decisions leading up to this juncture. 

Sound familiar?

This moment is thematically, visually and structurally derivative of The Blair Witch Project’s most famous sequence.  I know you remember it: Heather looks right into the camera, nose dripping, reality-series confessional style, and recites her sins and goodbyes to this mortal coil.

Confessing Sins and Fear: The Blair Witch Project

Confessing Sins and Fear: Dark Mountain

It’s one thing to be inspired by The Blair Witch Project, as I noted above, it’s another thing entirely to appropriate the film’s most famous moment, and right out the gate as well.

Dark Mountain attempts to inoculate itself against the criticism that it repeats much of The Blair Witch Project’s creative alchemy lock, stock, and barrel by actually mentioning the film by name in the body of the work. 

There’s no witch, and we’re in the desert,” one character notes. 

Those differences are valid, for certain, and yet there points of many similarities too.  In fact, the similarities outweigh the differences by a significant margin.

In Search of Myth: The Blair Witch Project

In Search of Myth: Dark Mountain

For instance, Kate is very much like Heather, the protagonist of BWP.  She is a female director obsessed with making her film, and leading two men (Ross and Paul, not Josh and Mike) in search of a local legend. She boldly establishes that “we’re going to make the film my way,” and that’s a message and sentiment in keeping with Heather’s character too.

Then, Dark Mountain follows Heather and the other two filmmakers as they interview a series of locals about the Lost Mine.

Again, you may remember that in The Blair Witch Project, Heather and her team conducted a number of interviews before heading into the woods themselves.

Local Color and Interviews: The Blair Witch Project

Local Color and Interviews: Dark Mountain

Then, of course, there’s the matter of getting lost out in the wild, and traveling inadvertently in a circle. This idea is established in The Blair Witch Project, and repeated note-for-note in Dark Mountain

Similarly, you will remember how Heather’s camp was ransacked in the earlier film. That happens here too.

There was even the idea in The Blair Witch Project that by disturbing the Witch’s rock cairns in the forest, Heather had earned the supernatural creature’s wrath, or at least attention.  Here, Paul’s act of taking a gold rock from a spirit’s cave is very much along the same lines.

Then, the film’s ending is piped right in from The Blair Witch Project. Filling the Josh role, Paul disappears.  Ross and Kate run after him, calling out his name repeatedly.  Next, Ross disappears, leaving Kate by herself.  This is also what happened with Heather and Mike, right?

And lastly -- and this is what passes for invention in the film -- instead of ripping off the final shot of BWP, Dark Mountain appropriates the final (by now familiar) image of REC [2007] instead.

An unseen force drags Kate out of camera range, while it keeps filming. The ending is so poorly edited that you recognize the exact set-up at once, and have time to realize that, yes -- unbelievably -- this clichéd and oft repeated shot is going to get another work-out.

Dragged Away: [REC}

Dragged Away: Dark Mountain
Watching Dark Mountain, I felt for a time that I was taking a tour of not just The Blair Witch Project, but of all the recent found-footage movies.  Like Skinwalker Ranch (2013) and Alien Abduction (2014), Dark Mountain gives us UFOs.  Like The Devil’s Pass, it gives us the mysterious hatch in the wilderness.

I would happily chalk-up all these instances of familiar moments to acts of spontaneous creation if I felt that they were handled here in a unique way, or that they contributed something meaningful to the film. But Dark Mountain is so loosely, diffusely organized that no important connections between phenomena are made. After watching the film, I can’t tell you if cave spirits, UFOs, time-warps or some unholy combination of all three are responsible for the strange events we see playing out.

Also, Dark Mountain seems padded with long moments of “nature” footage provided by camera-phone recordings.  These shots are poor in quality, and so don’t capture the location in picturesque or memorable terms.  It seems they are included to grant the film a sense of visual distinction, and extend the running time to feature length.  The film is 82 minutes long, so it barely skates by, even with the padding.

All this established, I found some sequences in Dark Mountain very well-staged.  The scene set inside a dark, apparently never-ending cave is  chilling indeed, with a visual-effect punctuation that works brilliantly. And the moment of the UFO reveal, though it goes nowhere, is powerfully-rendered.

I often write on the blog about pastiche and homage, the act of synthesizing a new work out of the building-blocks of an old one. In terms of Dark Mountain, however, there is no level of irony, or knowledge, or established ideas fused with new ones. Instead, it's all played straight, as if we're supposed to be seeing this story, these characters, and this structure for the first time.  

Plainly that's not the case, and so much of the film simply isn't scary. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it doesn't breed discomfort, or a feeling of terror.  When I look at the invention of found footage efforts such as The Bay (2012), Lucky Bastard (2014), The Sacrament (2014) or Delivery: The Beast Within (2014), the canned and rote familiarity of Dark Mountain is all the more disappointing. 

At one point in Dark Mountain, Kate reports that she doesn’t want to leave the mountains until her film has an “ending.” 

Well, Dark Mountain is bracketed by an extremely derivative beginning and ending, and this fact means that the film must reckon with some “bad energy” of its own. And the film’s valedictory line, a recitation of Kate’s earlier comment that “this film is going to launch my career” feels like a bit too on the nose as well.

Look Hollywood: I made my own Blair Witch Project!


  1. Anonymous7:55 PM

    it's badass curse right there

  2. Anonymous6:52 PM

    I really liked DM, but then I also liked BWP enough not to mind seeing a copy. You're right, of course, that DM has many similarities, especially in terms of plot and staging, but I think there were differences enough that it stands apart and is entertaining on its own.

    First of all, the settings are so completely different to one another that I actually didn't think much about BW after the first few minutes. The Sonoran desert looks nothing like the Maryland woods, and DM uses the desert as part of the film's atmosphere just as BW uses the autumnal Eastern forest to create a specific ambiance.

    Another example - Paul is not Josh. In BW, Heather is clearly in charge. She's the boss, and the others sort of tag along. In DM, while Kate is the documentarian, it's pretty clear that Paul is the leader. Whether it's deliberate or simply the result of the actor's own personality, he is much more the alpha male than either of the male characters in BW.

    Anyway, sorry for running on. There's so little publicity about this film, and it's one of my favorite low-budget horror films of recent, that I'm delighted to find someone else who even watched it ... never mind whether they liked it!