I love horror movies that are bursting at the seams with original and inventive ideas. Unfortunately such creatures are currently as rare as tap-dancing dodos. For the genre fans out there, try this for size...
A group of young friends – couple Patrick and Kiera, couple-in-the-making Craig and Lynn, and spare wheel Aaron – head off for a holiday in an abandoned hostel located on an isolated island in County Sligo in Ireland. They have to use a small boat to get there, and thanks to their lousy timing have to do so in the dark. When they reach the hostel the electricity's been cut off, so they have to make do with candlelight and a log fire. As they settle in, Patrick reveals that the island's main attraction is a very special cemetery where the very worst criminals – you know, paedophiles and the like, the usual lot – were all buried with rocks stuffed in their mouths and their hands tied behind their backs. Aaron then tells them about a woman who went nuts in this very hostel and killed her family and herself after drawing pentagrams all over the walls. So what do this band of nitwits do to enliven their evening? They hold a séance. And wouldn't you know it, something makes contact, which seriously upsets the sensitive Lynn. She soon gets over it though, and the very next evening is proposing they take a trip out to visit this demonic cemetery. At night. In the dark. And I thought I had short term memory issues. Surprisingly, the visit passes without incident, but once back at the hostel and throwing booze down their throats, Aaron wanders alone into the bar and sees a girl huddled up on the floor, one who a few seconds later appears right beside him and does that 'Waaah!' thing at the camera that malevolent spirits all seem to do in modern horror movies. He rushes back in a panic but no-one believes him, but that's set to change, and how. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that everything we are seeing was shot by the group on multiple camcorders, and that a title card at the start has informed us that the they've since all disappeared and that the footage they left behind has not been doctored in any way.
You can probably hear my weary sigh from halfway round the world.
Okay, before I start griping, let me get three things straight.
As groups of annoying youngsters being lined up for supernatural slaughter go, this lot aren't anywhere near as tiresome as the genre norm. That doesn't mean I'd want to spend an evening in their company, but I felt far less of an urge to punch each of them in the face than I did with those twerps in Paranormal Incident or The Inside.
The cameras (there are three of them) are waggled about, but most of the time they're kept under control and you're able to see what's going on. When they do go ballistic it's as confusing and migraine-inducing as ever, but it doesn't last long.
The scares are actually rather well executed. Yes they stick rigidly to a tried and trusted formula (I'm getting to that), but I actually jumped three times in spite of myself. There's also a nicely handled reveal in the graveyard's underground crypt, when a camera is lowered and just for a fraction of a second catches a glimpse of something creepy before it's switched off. Full marks for that one.
But if you've not already worked it out from that synopsis, there's nothing about Invoked that hasn't been borrowed, recycled or repeated from earlier genre movies, and I do mean nothing. And just to be clear, we're talking about a sub-genre that even ten years ago was drowning under a plethora of tiresome copycat Blair Witch Project wannabes (let's not forget the thousands that were thrown together by witless media students across the globe) and whose structural components have long since become the subject of mocking parody. It doesn't help that the found footage sub-genre has such a rigid set of self-imposed rules, which include the certainty that all of the protagonists will be dead by the end, although this has since been expanded to allow for a seriously damaged survivor or two. And I'm talking as someone who still believes there is some mileage left in this sub-genre, as evidenced by a small handful of surprisingly effective recent takes on the formula like Delivery and Willow Creek. But each of these brought something new to the party, whereas Invoked stacks up the genre clichés so brazenly (including a torch that intermittently cuts out at crucial moments and a death metal rock track over the end credits) that it's almost as if Brazilian co-directors Humberto Rosa and Thairon Mendes were counting on us never having seen a single found footage film before. I suppose there must be someone out there who hasn't, but good luck tracking them down.
Even if you were able to push this aside (and you really can't), there are other issues to contend with. The first is that we're 50 minutes in to a 82 minute movie before the first real encounter with the supernatural takes place (I'm not counting the seance, which is completely tension and scare free). This in itself is not a problem per se, as it theoretically gives us plenty of time to bond with the protagonists before we are asked to be frightened for them. The trouble is, I never did. In what has become a usually self-defeating sub-genre favourite, the young actors here have been asked to improvise – making sure they shoehorn the essential plot points in – in the hope of creating an authentic documentary feel, which would probably be broken by things like smart dialogue or inventive character shaping. And to a degree this is successful, but for this perhaps rather jaded viewer it's once again undermined by the sense that I'm watching the unexciting home movies of people with whom I have no kinship and who are simply not interesting enough for me to care much about. Thus by the time things start to kick off, I still hadn't made an emotional connection with any of them, and to be frank was having trouble even remembering their names.
That the group carry camcorders wherever they go, no matter what their priorities are, is one of this sub-genre's most commonly cited credibility stretchers, but some justification if provided here by the hostel's lack of electricity, forcing them to use their cameras' LED lights or night vision to see where they're going. But this band of would-be filmmakers seem to forget from an early stage what the purpose of a camcorder actually is. Thus when Aaron is spooked by that girl in the bar and everyone thinks he is arsing around, it occurs to none of them to play back the recording he made of this ghostly encounter. And we know it recorded because we're watching his footage. Indeed, despite having three cameras, not once does anyone in the film play a single second of footage back to authenticate what they have seen. And I know I'm being picky here, but while the graphical display on the police body camera footage that bookends the film includes the date and the audience-friendly news that we're watching a 'Garda Cam', there's no time display, which would likely render much of the footage this handy little device is there to capture next to useless in a court of law.
Let me be clear, I didn't hate Invoked. I didn't even seriously dislike it. I certainly never had the urge to switch off or even fast-forward whilst watching it. I just can't work out why it was made in the first place. It's been sixteen years since The Blair Witch Project, and if you wanted to catalogue the sheer volume of derivative flotsam that followed in its wake then you'd need a whole bank of hard drives and a team of data input operators. If Rosa and Mendes (who as the extra features demonstrate, clearly have talent) were looking to demonstrate their invention and originality as filmmakers then it's hard to fathom why would choose to walk such well trodden ground without bringing anything new to it, and if they were aiming to tell an interesting story then it would have been nice if they'd written one rather than recycling such a tired premise in such formulaic fashion. If, on the other hand, they were hoping to make a quick buck on a low budget project, then I'm wondering who they thought the audience would be, given that a sizeable number of even hardcore horror fans have for some years been loudly complaining about how fed up they are of such films. And with David Robert Mitchell demonstrating just what you can do with a basically simple concept in last year's excellent It Follows, banging out a seriously belated Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity knock-off, however technically competent, is unlikely to cut it with even the more forgiving genre fan.
Shot on HD video and presumably transferred from the digital master, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer here looks fine, with decent contrast and colour. Although at its best in the daylights scenes, the night time sequences are also well rendered, within the restrictions imposed on the equipment by the low light levels. Being a digital transfer (we assume), the image is spotless and free of damage. There are some visible double images on movement on some of the footage, suggesting that not all of the cameras were recording at the same frame rate.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo track is clear as a bell. There's a very slight treble leaning on some of the dialogue, but also an effective use of a subtle bass rumble as an atmospheric underscore in some of the night scenes.
Short Film: City of Hate (14:13)
A 2013 short film made by the duo behind Invoked and featuring two of its lead players. Ciara Rose Burke plays Charlene, a girl driven to the brink of suicide by the abusive nature of her home life, something her new and protective boyfriend Thomas (Patrick Murphy) takes drastic steps to protect her from. A solidly handled slice of social realism, convincingly performed, though the light level on the key confrontation scene is really low.
Short Film: The Picture (O Quadro) (15:11)
A 2011 short film made by Rosa and Mendes in their homeland and in the Portuguese language. A painting of a young girl standing in front of a window is left on the doorstep of a woman named Sarah, to whom it is specifically addressed. She takes a shine to it and hangs it on her wall, but later becomes convinced that since she did so the girl has changed her position. A really well devised and executed horror-tinged mystery that sidesteps cliché (the friend who suggests she needs to drink less and get out more is halted in her tracks when she also notices that the picture has changed) and has a nicely creepy and satisfying conclusion. It even has neatly pitched moment of humour when the neighbourhood women get wind of the phenomenon and turn up at Sarah's door, eager to get a look at "the painting that moves." Loathed though I am to say it, there's more invention and imagination in the 15 minutes here than in the whole of Invoked.
Here's the thing. If you are one of the four or five people out there who've never seen a single found footage horror film you may well enjoy Invoked. The victims are a little easier to warm to than the genre norm and the jump-scares are well enough handled, if a long time coming. But for the rest of us it's a little like watching a compilation of cover versions of previous found footage horror hits. UK distributor Left Films have nonetheless made the DVD attractive through the inclusion of the two Rosa and Mendes short films, both of which are worth seeing.