Found-footage horror movies have simultaneously been completely overexposed while also never reaching their full potential. Most of these horror movies settle for shaking a camera and screaming incoherently in order to cover cheap budgets, but now-and-again a refreshing new entry in the subgenre arrives. Available now on VOD, The Lost Footage of Leah Sullivan definitely falls into the latter, bringing something all too missed in these types of films: personality.
Plot: A young journalism student decides to return to her hometown to investigate a brutal murder that took place 30 years prior. Without much hope of finding any real answers, she interviews a series of local characters, all of whom leave their own bewildering take on the legendary Mulcahy Murders in her student film. As the facts unravel, she begins to realize that this cold case murder may not be so cold after all. Along with the help of the handsome deputy police officer, Patrick Rooke, she begins to uncover the horrifying truth of what really happened that night thirty years ago. As she gets closer to discovering the truth, she edges even closer to her own demise. Will her blind ambition overtake her desire to survive?
Director: Burt Grinstead
Writer(s): Burt Grinstead, Anna Stromberg and Rob Runyeon
Runtime: 83 minutes of found-footage frights
Cast: Anna Stromberg (Leah Sullivan), Burt Grinstead (Patrick Rooke), David Nash (The Creature), Maureen Keiller (Margaret Stromberg), Denise Walker (Alice Sullivan), Jimmy Driscoll (Harold Noel) and Matthew Pelieci (Ryan)
Character First, Shaky-Cam Never
Pressing play on a found-footage flick is always a scary prospect in of itself, as for every Cloverfield there’s an Always Watching. Now, while Lost Footage doesn’t necessarily wow you with an incredibly unique story or fancy new gimmick to go along with its documentary-styled proceedings, it does something only flicks like the aforementioned Cloverfield or As Above, So Below managed to do, which was remember horror movies need characters and not just a filming style. Almost immediately, your attention is grabbed with a likable protagonist in Leah and the endearing townsfolk she meets along her investigative journey.
It’s the small touches that go a long way in the film, with Leah poking fun at herself and showing ambition while clearly having little clue as to how a documentary is made, which really feels authentic to an unedited student film. The fact it’s unedited allows you to view banter during interviews, flubs or very human awkwardness. It’s candid, pushing the mystery as secondary to the interactions, which reminiscent of Willow Creek in that respect.
Her relationship with the love-smitten rookie cop Patrick allows for personalities to drive the plot forward instead of the other way around, as often happens with these pictures, adding plausibility to the events. Instead of making random decisions that seem unbelievable for the sake of tension, they actually discuss and come to logical conclusions. When Leah wants to go exploring a spooky cabin where a family was brutally murdered, it never comes across as a stupid horror movie decision, but one that makes perfect sense in context, as we the audience are allowed to ‘get’ why she’s doing it.
The Art of Editing Without Editing
Outside of the characters, the found-footage aspect is impeccably crafted. Impressively, when the opening text declares this to be unedited footage, that’s not just a throwaway descriptor. Like a puzzle, the movie is edited into a whole meant to appear as unedited fragments, with pauses left in, strange little awkward bits between people, tripods falling over, audio tests and the like.
Such an idea could easily become gimmicky or needless, dragging the film down more than anything else. But somehow, this style actually adds to the overall tone and flow, making it feel more unique and purposeful, once again pushing the personalities of the characters forward. There’s a craftsmanship to editing a picture in a way to appear raw that should be commended here.
Like so many found-footage horror movies, it could be argued the gimmick isn’t needed for the story being told, but the way in which it’s handled and built so precisely via the filming and “editing” style, the DNA of presentation and story is intertwined. The film would lose a lot of itself without it.
Respect the Dead…or Else
True crime nerds (such as this here horror writer) should get a kick out of this little flick, as well. The investigative nature of the pacing unfolds in a way that keeps your attention, as information is trickled out as if you the viewer are getting to interview witnesses and read from files. Hearing conflicting stories and understanding why this murder mystery became something of a legend in a sleepy little town and a ghost story to tell kids is actually part of the fun.
There’s also something that may or may not have been purposeful, but regardless, adds extra substance to the concept behind Leah making her film within a film. There’s a very flippant attitude from various characters toward the murders that are being discussed—we’re talking dead children, here. Each character seems to be disrespectful of the reality or seriousness in one way or another, as many of us interested in such macabre subjects can be.
In a way, it can be viewed that this attitude is what dooms the characters who enter that cabin never to be seen again, and what ultimately dooms Leah herself. Horror movies are often morality tales with the victims bringing it upon themselves one way or another. Intentional or not, this film fits nicely into that category, seemingly punishing those for their apathy or ego. Be it some teens in a bit of backstory who decide to party at the cabin or Leah joking that she should steal some of a dead girl’s clothes to wear herself.
The Lost Footage of Leah Sullivan may not convert non-lovers of found-footage horror movies, but it does have some entertaining and fun stuff to offer those who already do. Great characters and performances along with an unfolding mystery that leaves you wondering what will happen next, Lost Footage makes for cozy late-night viewing. Watch it on VOD and keep an eye open for any more horror movies this creative duo may cook up.