If there is one important lesson to be learned from The Bucks County Massacre, it’s that the film marketplace is a random, capricious beast. For the film is a found-footage horror movie, like so many others, and I really do mean, like so many others. It’s neither tremendously great nor tremendously poor within the context of a subgenre that already suffers from a particularly same-ness; but it’s certainly miles better than the worst offal of this kind. I’m staring at you The Devil Inside.
And yet, more than two years after its local premiere, the film has only managed to eke out a DTV release, despite being exactly the kind of movie that gets snapped up and tossed into theaters because it cannot possibly lose a distributor money. The world is just weird, sometimes.
So yes, anyway, found footage: in this case, footage of the 25th birthday party of a certain Will (Zackary Kresser), who along with several of his very dearest friends was found brutally murdered at the remote cabin in Bucks County, PA, owned by the family of his girlfriend, Kelly (Nikki Bell). Title cards at the opening inform us the the local police have, after great hesitation, given the footage to documentarian Jason Sherman (the film’s actual director, and one of its several writers), in the hopes that his completed film will provide a form for possible witnesses to come forward, America’s Most Wanted-like. Which is not the most plausible explanation for a found footage movie ever offered, but at least it owns up to the fact that The Bucks County Massacre is a film and we are its audience, forestalling the question of “who put this footage together and how did they get it?” that is one of the more niggling conceptual flaws of the whole subgenre.
The movie is short – 84 minutes – but it does not use its time well: there’s an extraordinarily long opening act that consists almost solely of footage of many twentysomethings partying and getting increasingly drunk, with a couple of them trying to film a testimonial video for Will’s present, and for a good stretch, there’s an appealing naturalism to this. The characters, at any rate, feel exactly like real people, and just wandering around spending time with them proves to be a legitimately fun, high-spirited start for the movie. But we know from the opening title that Something Bad is waiting in the wings, and the long that Something fails to show up, the more the movie feels like it’s desperately spinning its wheels; even a single gesture, somewhere in the first half hour, that the partygoers are being watched would give us some sense of growing tension or danger, but there’s not a hint that anything is even slightly out of the ordinary until one girl goes missing, largely after the party has already broken up (consider Paranormal Activity, still the genre’s high water mark, which sets up the scares of the back half by including several random, inexplicable gestures in the first half). Once things actually get going, and the remaining people are menaced by barely-glimpsed but genuinely unnerving mutant-things, The Bucks County Massacre becomes a pretty snazzy horror picture; but by that point, it’s used up a lot of goodwill on establishing characters who aren’t that interesting to begin with. And while, taken in isolation, the final third of the movie is awfully good suspense filmmaking, the movie that houses that suspense tends to neuter it.
A final thought: the film is for the most part never worse than barely adequate, and frequently better, except in one regard: the after-the-fact interviews with the families of the victims, interspersed throughout the whole feature in what I take to be an attempt to make us feel more for the characters. The writing is unnaturally expository, and the acting far worse than the more free-flowing hang-out vibe of the actual party. Every time one of these cutaways shows up, it sends the movie screaming out of its orbit, and it is the one truly awful element of a movie that otherwise never even stoops to being particularly bad.
Suffering, oddly, from almost exactly the same problem is a very, very different sort of movie, Dick Night, by Tucson, Arizona-based writer-director Andy Viner. It, too begins as a character study that begins promisingly and becomes increasingly stretched-out and thin as it goes on, ultimately making a swerve into horror near the end that rejuvenates it quite a bit, though Dick Night – a title that, however grabby and provocative, actually fits the content of the film fairly well – differs from Bucks County Massacre in the the shift to horror is both better premeditated and, yet, not as fluid or welcome when it shows up: the tone of the film shifts unrecognisably, and not to its credit.
Also, instead of a study of a whole bunch of friends in repose, it is a study of one young woman in crisis: Rachel (Jennifer June Ross), who was stood up on the day of her wedding, and has spent the interceding two months stuck in a nihilistic funk, virtually never leaving her house and surviving on a diet of delivery pizza. It is in this miserable state that we meet her, as she is being thrown out of the house and into a pool by her family in an intervention that falls a little bit on the wrong side of over-worked wacky style, but this tendency quickly gives way to a far more pleasant, even insightful psychological comedy, as Rachel, having been goaded into it by her uncomfortably frank parents, decides that what she really needs more than anything else to get out of this bad mood is a good lay, and to this end, she sets her sights on Dr. Lewis (Benjamin Huber), a young colleague of her dad, inviting him over ostensibly to look at renting the room she has to let (also at the cheerfully insistent urging of her folks, who know she needs the money), though both of them know what’s actually up. When Lewis fails to materialise, Rachel has a heart-to-heart with her newest pizza guy, Paul (Michael Uribes), that very nearly turns sexual, but then Lewis shows, and then Kyle (Boomie Aglietti), Rachel’s married childhood friend with a raging hard-on for her also shows, and then Rachel’s ex-fiancé Mark (James Wortham ) comes, right ahead of Cassie (Michaela Gutierrez), a young woman who just wanted to see the room, and from there…
If nothing else, Dick Night wins points for itself – lots of them – for a scenario and protagonist that point out that female sexuality is a thing that exists, and is totally not weird or unpleasant or ridiculous. Rachel is an utterly normal person with extremely familiar problems that she wants to deal with in a straightforward way, with a totally healthy sex drive, and because she does all these things without having a penis, Dick Night manages to feel somehow transgressive and bold all out of proportion to the story it’s actually telling, and it’s too bad we live in that world, but still, all kudos to Viner for writing this character, and to Ross for playing her; for Rachel is a pretty great protagonist, easy to like, easy to understand, and a necessary grounding force in the midst of so many ditsy boys (for not only is the film pro-female-libido, it’s also pointedly anti-male-privilege, reducing its male characters, other than Paul, to morons and clowns, and the title Dick Night might just as easily refer to “the night where everybody is being a dick” as to anything else).
The movie is great when it’s just about her, and increasingly less so the further it goes into farce – or rather, the further it goes into the mode of the late-middle, when all of the jokes consist increasingly of people saying filthy things at a fast pace. And then when it makes it sudden late lurch into horror – straight-up horror, with virtually none of the lightly sarcastic humor of the preceding hour – it goes pretty much off the rails altogether, though Viner’s handling of the horror is strong enough that I think the problem is more that of proportion: if the film hadn’t burned through a solid three-quarters of its running time before that twist, it almost certainly would have held up to it better, for it wouldn’t seem like such an out-of-place feint at the end. As it turns out, Ross’s performance of a strong part is enough to keep Dick Night on a steady course throughout, but there’s a better comedy and a better horror-comedy lying in this scenario, and I hope that the clearly-talented Viner manages to tonally balance his next project a little bit better.