Dominic Perez’s “Evil Things” is yet another low budget, found footage, indie DV film in which the obsessive urge of five college-age kids to capture every last tedious detail of a weekend holiday trip into the Catskills on a hand-held digital video camcorder, results in something menacing accidently getting caught among the incidental details of their otherwise inane chatter. This ultra-cheapie directorial debut (also written and edited by Perez, and employing the usual found footage genre tactic of having the cast of unknowns shoot the film themselves) actually begins promisingly, with a real documentary sense of place as we follow our group of five twentysomething Manhattanites on their fateful journey from their home in New York City, deep into the surrounding countryside, where they’re off to spend their friend Miriam’s (Elyssa Mersdorf) 21st birthday alone in her aunt’s large holiday home in the mountains.
Street level shots of Manhattan captured from the passenger seat of the protagonists’ car by the owner of the camera, nineteen-year-old Leo (Ryan Maslyn), turn into awesome shots of an icicle-frosted mountain landscape once they pass through the exterior arch of Grand Central Station Terminal, and find themselves caught on a treacherously icy winding road into the mountains during a snowstorm, as darkness begins to gather around them. This looks like the kind of footage someone who had just bought themselves a camera and now insists on filming everything they see really would shoot, although the improvised dialogue of the five actors playing the friends soon begins to grate. The film starts off with another cliché of the genre, the FBI ‘Videotape Evidence’ tag, which identifies the five protagonists as missing and the tape as a piece of evidence that was posted anonymously to FBI headquarters by persons unknown sometime later. Thus we are prepped to watch what would usually be highly tedious home movie footage with a gathering sense of intrigue, dread and foreboding.
The car journey introduces us to the missing five: joining Leo and Miriam are Leo’s girlfriend Cassandra (Laurel Casillo, who looks like the young Heather Graham) and boyfriend and girlfriend Mark (Morgan Hooper) and Tanya (Torrey Weiss). On their journey they’re menaced by a large dark van that overtakes them on a dangerous snow-bound road, stops in front of them and blocks their route, and later reappears and tailgates them while honking its horn. The spooked kids then stop off at a gas station and, as night gathers, take a break at a diner. It is about this time that they start to think that the mysterious van driver is actually stalking them – the same vehicle pulls up again outside the diner and lurks ominously, prompting Mark (who seems more angered than scared by their ordeal) to run outside and thump on the door as it screeches off.
Beautifully shot in a way that captures the changing winter weather and light conditions with a real intimacy that lends some credence to the scenario, “Evil Things” promises much with its “Duel”-like setup, but the tension begins to lag somewhat during a lengthy middle section that spends an age on these rather dull college pals’ getting to their destination, messing about in the dark because the electricity has been accidently turned off by Miriam’s aunt (prompting numerous false scares), and then on their completely rubbish drunken party games in the evening, after first having surprising Miriam with a birthday cake. All of this is captured on video at some length.
The next day, the gang set out on an afternoon trek through snowy woodlands and lo and behold, Perez seems happy to make-do with his own a mini-version of “The Blair Witch Project” to pad out the 80 minute running time, during which the five friends quickly get lost and tempers begin to fray. When night falls and animal tracks appear to be following the group while extremely weird unidentifiable noises start up all around them (a strange mechanical cackling noise that really is odd and hard to pin down), frustration turns into outright fear.
By this stage, the attentive viewer, more than familiar with the captured hand-held footage subgenre of horror film no doubt, will have noted one or two things that might well have begun to try his/her patience somewhat: for a start, how can what purports to be raw home movie footage have eerie music and sound designed effects mixed in with the soundtrack? And why does the action sometimes seem to change perspective to that of a second cameraman? Well, Perez sort of knows what he’s doing, and by the end of the film there will be a justification for this –of sorts – but the question of whether it really works as a concept or not is still much open to debate even as the end credits roll. The last half-hour admittedly steps up a gear and delivers some effective ideas that take their cue from “David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and Michale Haneke’s “Caché”: silent phone calls, loud knocks at the door and the delivery of a carefully wrapped package containing a VHS cassette which has been left anonymously on the porch. The tape is played and reveals that the five pals are the subjects of someone else’s filmmaking activities; when they try to flee the scene, they discover that their car has disappeared while they were earlier lost in the woods.
This film is evidently aiming to be the found footage genre’s equivalent of Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” as we’re made more and more aware of the fact that the tape we are watching is supposed to have been dropped off at FBI headquarters by an unknown person or persons who’s had ample time to mess with it, and that the person responsible for the five friends’ disappearance is clearly as obsessed with filmmaking as is Leo. The one clever idea inherent (but never voiced explicitly) in this is that the group have perhaps only been targeted in the first place because of Leo’s unceasing use of his video camera; thus he’s being enlisted, effectively, as the second cameraman in the killer/abductor’s own self-shot snuff movie! The trouble is that the various genre influences on the film never really seem to gel to produce a conclusion that feels totally satisfying.
It’s fine when there are certain important pieces of information that are never revealed for the sake of a lingering sense of mysteriousness in a film, but the various elements we are left with don’t seem to fully add up: some of the plot leaves us feeling like we’re dealing with an ordinary stalker, some of it with a supernatural threat. Perez elects not to reveal conclusively which of these options is correct, leaving us, well … somewhat up in the air and in need of at least some sort of payoff to avoid the creeping sense of being short-changed because the ending we’re in fact given seems nowhere near adequate.
The acting of the newbie but mostly good-looking cast is adequate, the camerawork feels authentic without inducing motion sickness, and the setting – a large, snowbound house isolated by a wintery woodland landscape – encourages agreeable associations with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. There are some nicely handled moments of menace, particularly when the strange otherworldly sound first heard by the five friends during their night in the woods starts up again … this time inside the house! But in the end, I couldn’t help feeling that the screenplay drops the ball somewhere along the line, and one is left feeling more perplexed than creeped-out by proceedings.
The UK DVD release from Scanbox Entertainment comes with a minor collection of extras which attempt to perpetuate the film’s illusion of reality by including video testimonials and appeals for information from the family and friends of the missing friends; plus there’s a five minute film, again purporting to be evidence dropped off at the FBI’s mailbox, which is supposed to be stalking footage that shows another victim being followed home from work and surreptitiously filmed, presumably by the same person responsible for the fate of the film’s protagonists. There is also a theatrical trailer and a set of trailers for other Scanbox horror titles.