Friday, July 17, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Unaware (2010)

Over the last few years, found-footage horror movies have begun to seriously explore UFO lore. Films such as Dark Mountain (2013), Skinwalker Ranch (2013), Alien Abduction (2014) Extraterrestrial (2014) and Area 51 (2015) have all gazed at facets of popular UFO mythology, from the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina, to Dreamland in Nevada.

Similarly, one of the early examples of the form, Unaware (2010), takes its dramatic cues from the Roswell UFO crash of July 1947. Specifically, the films involves the accidental discovery -- in a rural Texas work shed of all places -- of an alien life form recovered from that incident in the New Mexico desert.

I should be upfront about this. I like Unaware quite a bit, and yet I will be the first to acknowledge that it will prove a divisive film for horror fans.

This is so because, without exaggeration, it look just like your average home movie.

The film revolves around just two characters (Joe and Lisa) and so only one person is on screen for the majority of the film’s running time.  The other is holding the camera. 

Similarly, the framing of many shots -- including an engagement supper at a ranch house’s kitchen bar -- is so bad that you may conclude that Unaware is an amateur production.

But here’s the deal: I don’t believe it’s an amateur production at all.

Rather, I believe that the makers of Unaware have gone to extraordinary lengths to make Unaware fully appear to be a legitimate home movie -- down to fuzzy shots of the ground while characters are running in terror -- and that the bad framing of the principal actors during some crucial scenes is absolutely intentional, and perhaps even inspired.  These moments add immeasurably to the film’s aura of reality.

Indeed, Unaware’s visual approach represents part of the reason I enjoy found footage as a format. This paradigm removes the filter of third-person traditional film style, thus eliminating visual artifice. It simultaneously enhances urgency, immediacy, and terror by mimicking reality.  I can only say that Unaware looks and plays very, very real, save for two unfortunate aspects, which I’ll get to in the body of the review.

The down-side of a committed approach that apes amateurism is that, for long spells during Unaware, some viewers will conclude they are indeed watching the most unprofessional of unprofessional movies.

Two actors.

One camera.

Cinematography that looks like your last summer vacation video. 

In short, if you are unwilling to accept that Unaware attempts to scare its audience by looking and feeling very natural, very real, you aren’t going to enjoy what thrills the film offers.  Instead, you’ll judge the film as a weekend shoot with a very small crew, and few very resources, and write it off as simply a bad movie.

And the two negative aspects of the film -- which I will discuss below -- add considerably to that negative judgment of the film because they puncture the idea that the film has been meticulously-crafted to look like an on-the-fly home video. These elements encourage one to disregard the film’s style as carefully crafted.

Yet outside those two flaws, Unaware works efficiently, just as it is intended to. While watching, you may feel that you have stumbled upon a “real” home video of a patently unreal event. 

In some fashion, that’s the highest aspiration of the found-footage format, to ape down-to-earth, everyday reality to such a degree -- but with a fantastic/horrific twist -- that you start to question if the film is “real” or just a carefully-constructed hoax.

I feel, frankly, that Unaware is the brand of movie that those who despise found-footage movies will also despise.  So I don’t recommend it to these horror movie fans.

But for connoisseurs of this horror subgenre, Unaware hits all the hot-spots with precision and skill. It’s just that all that skill is utilized to a specific end: making the movie look amateurish, and thus genuine. 

If you can work that equation out in your mind, and go with the filmmakers’ approach, Unaware will provide you moments of real entertainment, and real terror too.

A young couple, Joe and Lisa, decides to visit the rural Texas home of his grandfather Roy for the weekend, unannounced. 

When the couple arrives, however, it appears that Roy and his wife Betty are gone for the weekend.

Joe lets himself into the house anyway, and soon begins to hear strange noises from a work shed in the back yard.  While growing up, Joe was never allowed to see what was in that shed, and he feels this would be the perfect opportunity to peek. 

Lisa counsels discretion, but Joe ignores her and enters the shed.

Inside, he finds evidence that ties his grandfather, a veteran, to the Roswell UFO crash of 1947. That evidence includes newspapers, and much more ominously, a shipment invoice for a large crate.

What dwells inside that crate, however, is the stuff of nightmares.

Unaware features all the tropes of the modern found footage format that are now par for the course. 

We get the extended car-driving scene (the set-up for a road trip, or voyage to a remote location, and a key plot device in the likes of Evil Things [2009], Hollow [2012], Willow Creek [2014], and Exists [2014]), the periodic visual distortion that reminds us that the footage we see is supposed to be real and from a non-professional source (V/H/S [2012]), and even the unexpected wedding engagement surprise (a plot element which also appears in Extraterrestrial, and Safari [2013]).

But Unaware truly thrives on the qualities that make it different from other found footage films, not similar to them. 

For example, the film consists of just two characters for much of its running time, and the actors (who are not identified in the credits, or at the IMDB) do a remarkable job of seeming real, both in their reactions to the unknown, and their reactions to each other. 

This isn’t your typical “documentary film crew” bunch, a worn-out, off-the-shelf character brand, but rather two likable and highly individual youngsters filming a vacation.  Much of the film’s hard-won sense of reality comes from the central performances, and their total naturalness.  There are times, watching Joe and Lisa, that you feel convinced you are observing two real people, not movie characters. They seem so at ease in character, and with one another.

Similarly, the footage itself looks like something that Joe and Lisa could have reasonably filmed. For example, the camera gets set down on a bar during a dinner, for example, and just sits there for a long while, so we can’t even see the top of the characters’ heads.  Back in the 1990s, when I made a lot of home movies, I would do the same thing at holidays: just set the camera down and let it film, only to discover later that not everyone was in the frame all the time. 

Although it really isn’t necessary for the film to note self-reflexive things like “this is some creepy Blair Witch-looking shit,” in general the characters speak, relate, and act in a way that feels true and relatable.  Joe, for instance, keeps pushing boundaries, both with Lisa and with his grandfather’s property.  His recklessness grows ever more apparent, but no specific attention is drawn to it.  Ultimately, he goes too far and Lisa pays the price, but, commendably, this is a leitmotif that becomes apparent while watching, but is never handled in a heavy-handed fashion.

Just two things break the spell in Unaware.  The first is the performance by a supporting actor who appears for one scene as an FBI agent. His line readings are so artificial and theatrical that his whole persona feels at odds with the rest of the picture.  He practically sinks the whole movie in just five short minutes. 

Secondly, the alien, when revealed, does not hold up to viewer scrutiny.  For the vast majority of the time, the found footage approach -- moving cameras, dim light, herky-jerky motion – cloaks’ the costume’s deficiencies.  Once or twice, however, in Unaware, you get a good look at the costume and it just isn’t impressive. Or even adequate, actually.

These two factors undo so much good work in Unaware, and lend credence to the argument that the film is really just a glorified amateur production.  I feel differently, as I’ve noted, but it’s a shame these issues couldn’t have been handled better.

Folks who have never tried to make a film, especially one that could pass for “real” footage, may be “unaware” how hard it is to get right; to capture moments in a way that you or I would recognize as being true, or real.  Unaware achieves the desired impact about eighty percent of the time, which is an astounding figure for a no-budget, indie production.  But when the film fails, whether due to an un-calibrated performance or a bad monster suit, those failures support a negative judgment of the film as a whole. That’s a shame.

One can point to the bad acting in a supporting role, or the lameness of the suit, and weigh in that the movie is unprofessional. But the fact is that Unaware, especially in its conclusion, proves terribly scary.  To see a truly amateur found footage movie, check out Crybaby Bridge (2013) or Bucks County Massacre (2010).  Those (bad) found-footage movies don’t convince, ever, that they are real, or populated by authentic human beings.  They aren’t scary because we are aware, throughout their running time, of their total artifice.

But Unaware absolutely suspends disbelief, and looks like what it means to look like: a video that you and your significant other might have shot on a road trip gone badly wrong.

Again, the viewer will have to judge if that’s enough to merit a recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree with you John, I saw Unaware and found it quite interesting and I liked it alot.