Friday, April 17, 2015
Found Footage Friday: Final Prayer (2015)
Final Prayer (2015) -- formerly The Borderlands -- is hands-down the scariest found-footage movie I’ve screened recently.
Every time I begin to worry that the format is played out (see: The Houses that October Built ), a new film emerges that renews my faith in the sub-genre’s durability and potential.
And “faith,” oddly enough, is an appropriate starting point for a discussion of this particular film.
Final Prayer is a movie, in some ways, about misplaced faith, or misplaced belief. The characters in the film believe a certain set of principles, both rational (scientific) and irrational (religious), and find both sets wanting.
In fact, every bit of “learning” accomplished by these characters -- and by the human race in the last thousand years, at least -- is left in question by the time of the film’s terrifying climax.
The big critical slam against found footage horror movies is typically that characters are but shadows of real people, ciphers who do little but around like chickens with their heads cut off, only with a camera attached to their hips.
Final Prayer seems to recognize this problem or cliché and has one character derisively state upon getting a camera that he has been “promoted to tripod.”
But that character, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) is ever so much more than that description entails, and his spiritual (or perhaps, existential) journey is a crucial aspect of the film
One of the real joys in Final Prayer is watching this character -- A Vatican investigator searching for a hoax -- interact with the technical guru of his team, Gray (Rubin Hill). The relationship they share makes the movie more than a run-around, and grants the audience the opportunity to invest in the film’s horrific denouement, which is telegraphed, appropriately enough, by another line of dialogue from early in the film: “That’s nature for you. Big stuff eating little stuff.”
Final Prayer is set in mostly three locations: a cabin, away from the action, a creepy old hill-top church built in 1260 AD, and the rocky, nightmarish catacombs underneath the church. Demonstrating patience, restraint, and judicious use of jump scares, director Elliot Goldner keeps mining these locations for increasing tension and anxiety, and to escalate a vibe of throat-tightening, amorphous dread.
By the time you reach the film’s final, harrowing final sequence, you’ll feel positively unraveled. Now, I’m an old hand at movies like this, but the film’s final dive into the twin terrors of Claustrophobia and Phagophobia (the fear of being eaten alive or swallowed) may take you a while to fully process. I always state that a horror movie has really worked on me when, later in the night, memories of it trouble my slumber.
Final Prayer troubled my slumber.
In short, the film features appealing characters facing the truth that reality is not as they believed or imagined it, and ends with the expert mining of more than one commonly-held human fear.
The result, I believe, is one of the found-footage format’s brightest lights, and a film that legitimately earns comparisons to greats like The Blair Witch Project (1999), and REC (2007).
“Some people think they are doing the Church a favor, when in fact they are just sending us back to the dark ages.”
A Vatican investigative team, consisting of Deacon (Kennedy), tech wiz Gray (Hill), and Mark (Aidan McArdle) visits an old, rural church in remote, pastoral England. There, young Father Crellick (Luke Neal) believes that he has observed God’s miracles. He even videotaped one -- during a baptism -- that resulted in object moving on the altar, apparently of its own volition.
Deacon’s job is to prove that Father Crellick is orchestrating a hoax, or, alternatively, find evidence of his veracity. As Deacon delves into the history of the Church, he learns that it has been closed since 1880, and that the last priest to live there opened up an orphanage nearby, claiming that he had found a different “master” than the Christian God.
Father Crellick appears to commit suicide after Deacon assesses his miracle a fraud, but later Deacon begins to find evidence that there is a dark power working in the Church. The Christianity of the place is, actually, merely a “painted façade,” a place housing a much older, much darker spirit or being.
Soon, Deacon finds a hidden staircase leading deep into the Earth -- and into the hill – and he summons an elderly priest, Calvino (Patrick Godfrey) to exorcise the Church.
But during the exorcism, Mark vanishes -- presumably down the staircase -- and Deacon and Gray make a terrifying descent into the underworld.
“I may have a new master now.”
In the course of Final Prayer, Deacon tells Gray a story about Vatican investigators, including a Cardinal, who traveled to Brazil and were tasked with discovering the truth about a supposed miracle in a Church there.
What the team witnessed in Brazil, he says, might have been “the Face of God.” Regardless of what exactly the team saw, the members died afterwards, and one man cut his own eyes out with a knife because he couldn’t live with what he saw…what he learned.
Final Prayer very much concerns Deacon’s similar reckoning; his awakening. There’s a strong Lovecraftian aspect to the film as Deacon and Gray explore the history of the Church and the region, and learn that long before the Church existed, pagan rituals occurred there, pagan rituals involving a dark, malevolent God, and the sacrifice of human babies.
Without giving anything else away, Final Prayer concerns the idea that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of by man’s philosophy, science, or religion. Gray, a non-believer who nonetheless desires an answer to the “Great What If” of human existence, relies on scientific tools to chart “the three-dimensional” space inside the church, seeking clues.
Deacon meanwhile, wants to punch holes in Crellick’s miracle, so that his faith, in essence, can be re-affirmed. God would not create a miracle in this place, for this rookie priest, he believes. He is a cynic, having seen -- far too many times -- how hoaxes harm people.
But the point is that both characters must reckon with an order outside their belief systems, a much older order than the ones to which they subscribe. There’s a great scene here, in a pub, in which Deacon and Gray debate, in broad strokes, the history of religion and worship. They discuss how, long ago, believers worshiped things they could see, like the Sun, whereas modern religions rely on a belief in something not physically present, something invisible. Which is the more powerful God?
The thing that you have no evidence of and imagine? Or the thing that is actually present, staring you in the face?
This conversation is of significance, given the comment (by the church’s last priest) that he has a new master.
It’s more apt to say he has discovered a very, very old one. It’s clear that this priest converted from Christianity when he met a deity -- or a devil -- in the flesh.
Final Prayer succeeds as a horror film because it follows so carefully and so intelligently Deacon and Gray as they discuss the mystery, their world views, and their experiences. When they relate to one another, they do so with wit, humor and cleverness. The repartee is so intriguing, cerebral and attention-holding that the jump scares -- particularly one involving a dog -- carry real impact. Like every other aspect of the film, these periodic jump scares are superbly rendered and wholly unexpected.
But the third act of Final Prayer is in a class by itself in terms of suspense and horror, as revelations come hot and heavy, one atop another, in the catacombs of that creepy church. Only a fool -- or perhaps a person determined to know the truth -- would head down there, into those dark, increasingly cramped tunnels. I am bothered a lot by claustrophobia, and Final Prayer pushes that button further than any film I’ve seen since The Descent (2006), and even further than the great As Above, So Below (2014).
There comes a point, here, where you want to turn away and not see anymore, especially as the final reckoning unfolds in the most disgusting and grim way imaginable.
You may not like (or frankly, enjoy) how the movie ends, especially if you have become invested in the characters and their journeys of discovery. But as I told my son when I recounted the events of this movie (he loves to be told scary stories), the great thing about found footage movies is that nothing but the footage itself needs to endure the experience. The only survivor we, as an audience, requires, is the storage medium: the film, the disc, the videotape, what-have-you.
Final Prayer remembers that aspect of the format, and grants Deacon’s spiritual and existential journey the kind of grim, uncompromising punctuation that will leave audiences reeling.
Say your prayers...your slumber shall be troubled.