Friday, February 12, 2016

Found Footage Friday: Muirhouse (2012)

Well, first things first: Muirhouse (2012) is a great title, isn’t it? For some reason I can’t totally fathom, it really appeals to me.

Kind of rolls off the tongue, right?

All joking aside, Muirhouse is a clever and often-creepy found-footage horror film set in Junee, South Wales, at “Australia’s Most Haunted House:” the Monte Cristo Estate.

This house is real, and you can even take a tour of it if you wish. It looks as though the house also functions as a bed-and-breakfast, so you may even be able to spend a night or too there.

After watching this movie, you may have the desire to do just that, but not the courage to do so. The fully-decorated Monte Cristo house makes a splendid and creepy location, and the movie shows it off to generally good effect.

However, Muirhouse the film is practically a one-man show, which may be a deal-breaker for some audiences. There’s the inescapable feeling here that the movie had a behind-the-scenes crew numbering approximately two people.

And yet the lead actor, Iain P.F. McDonald, is quite good in the titular role, and the fact that he spends so much of the film alone in Monte Cristo contributes to the sense that he is vulnerable to the dark forces he encounters. At times, when he is inside the lonely house, the distant lights of a nearby town are visible. They might as well be on Mars.

Muirhouse actually features a rather clever construction, and that may be the main reason I enjoyed it so much. The film opens with a number of talking-head interviews wherein the audience learns the serious business of ghost-hunting, as well as the rules governing such ghost hunters.

Then, later, our lead character, Phillip Muirhouse -- who has shared the rules with us -- goes inside the famous haunted house, and proceeds to make a bunch of mistakes; or at least mistakes according to those aforementioned rules.

Some mistakes he is responsible for and others…not so much. But those mistakes are made anyway. And accordingly, Muirhouse finds himself in great and mortal jeopardy.

Muirhouse wears out its welcome in the last ten minutes or so. I won’t deny it. This found-footage film just finally collapses from the incredible strain of featuring but one person on camera for so much of its running time. 

Yet as one reviewer noted of me recently, I have a positive bias in terms of reviews.

Thus I remain staggered that Muirhouse works so well for as long as it does, rather than feeling unduly disturbed that the denouement can’t live up to the build-up.

But considering the ever-growing sweepstakes of one-man-show-type found footage horror films like Optica (2013) and The Woodsman (2012), Muirhouse is the finest of this format. It gets a lot of little things right.

Soon enough, you forget the film’s inherent cheapness, and get pulled into the story of a man alone inside Australia’s most haunted house.

“We are intruding on their space, not vice versa.”

In 2007, police discovered author Phillip Muirhouse (McDonald) wandering the grounds of a famous haunted estate, Monte Cristo, and recorded “actual video evidence of the acts leading to his arrest.”

Some days earlier, Muirhouse was promoting his new book, The Dead Country.And as a promotional effort, he was seeking to create a DVD documentary to accompany his text. Part of the plan involved visiting Monte Cristo and exploring the house to determine if it was really haunted or not.

Although the first rule of paranormal research is to never to go into a haunted house alone, Muirhouse ended up alone in that very frightening house for a night of terror and chills.

“You’ll get yours.”

Muirhouse presents a great deal of information about the “science” (or is pseudo-science?) of ghost-hunting, as well as background information on a real life “haunted house,” Monte Cristo. 

Much of the film’s success stems from its early scenes, wherein Muirhouse and other researchers take pains to describe the paranormal study of haunted terrain as “very scientific,” and eschew the likes of “proton packs” and “exorcisms.

These researchers discuss audio, photographic and video equipment in detail, and even show the audience still photos of “ghosts.” EVP (Eletronic Voice Phenomenon) is also discussed at length, and the whole production takes on a non-sensational tenor that makes it feel more like a documentary than an opportunistic horror show.

But there’s an old saying that wartime battle plans don’t survive their first contact with the ground. The same comparison could be made in Muirhouse, as the second half of the film -- set in the Monte Cristo house -- unravels Muirhouse’s scientific, reserved demeanor. He does his best to hold it together, but is absolutely incapable of doing so, once he stares the darkness in the face.

We have witnessed him reporting that one should never threaten, tease, or dare an entity. And that one should never seek out an entity on his or her own. Most importantly, Muirhouse has warned us that an investigator should always maintain contact with the outer world. In other words, he or she should not be alone in a haunted house for any length of time.

Step by step, moment by moment, the house breaks Muirhouse down, and these rules fall by the wayside. Pretty soon, Muirhouse is yelling at the spirits in the house, attempting contact alone, and failing whatsoever to maintain contact with the outer world in the person of his agent…who should have shown up at the house hours earlier.

Man proposes, and God disposes, right?

The idea underlining Muirhouse is that the entities or entity in the haunted house come to know the vices and flaws of those who enter, and can thus start hammering away at their visitor’s psychological armor, a chink at a time. This approach works nicely, and helps explain the film’s prologue, set after Muirhouse’s bad, bad night inside the Crawley house.

I understand that one common slam against the found footage format is that the (mostly very cheap…) films of this formula are all build-up and no pay-off.  Muirhouse conforms to that cliché. You never see demons, ghosts, or poltergeists on-camera. If that's what you seek from a horror film, you will be disappointed.

Yet much of the build up is quite effective. The movie charts a slow-burn approach that never really gets a true pay-off in visual form but is successful in keeping the viewer on edge. Muirhouse is quiet and creepy, but it doesn’t end with any real bang, or with any revelation about what evil lurks inside the house’s heart.

An immediate experience thus becomes, finally, a cerebral one. 

I don’t mind that outcome, and I suppose I would rather see a movie with a lot of build-up but no pay-off than one that is all effects and “show,” but no real atmosphere.

A one man show of surprising effectiveness, Muirhouse has creepy atmosphere to spare.

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