If you were most famous for being one of the filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project, would you really open your film with a woman delivering a terrified speech, in close-up, into a handheld camera she is operating? Would you include a scene where the same character grabs the video camera and runs into the woods? This is precisely what Eduardo Sánchez, writer-director of Lovely Molly, has done here. Sánchez exploded onto the scene in 1999 when he and Daniel Myrick co-wrote and directed “Blair Witch,” which became a cultural phenomenon and a box office smash (it cost a little over $20,000 to shoot, and took nearly $250 million, and essentially invented the modern trend of viral marketing).
The problem with “Blair Witch,” which I enjoyed, is that it’s not necessarily a repeatable phenomenon; although it influenced several later ‘found footage’ films, the studios probably learnt more from its marketing than its content. Since then Sánchez and Myrtle have put out the occasionally low-key, low-budget horror but they seem doomed to be remembered forever as the Blair Witch guys.
After opening the film by quoting his own most famous scene, Sánchez lets us think, briefly, that this may be another found footage movie, with excerpts of home videos playing over the opening titles. This tradition extends far beyond Blair Witch; the unsettling, voyeuristic potential of home video is explored in Michael Mann’s Manhunter and before that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (albeit film rather than video). Having grown tired of found footage, I was at first relieved by the more traditional storytelling approach, but here I’m afraid ‘traditional’ means ‘completely unoriginal.’
Young couple Hannah and Tim (Alexandra Holden and Johnny Lewis) move into an old house, as young couples in horror movies are wont to do. This house, however, holds some dark memories for Hannah; she grew up there, and is haunted by her past. We learn that she has had something of a troubled life and her husband reacts furiously when he finds out she smoked a joint with her sister on her birthday. This may seem like an overreaction but the movie quickly validates it; before you know it she’s jacked up on heroin and doing that alternate laughing-and-crying thing people only do in movies.
That the film suffers from a derivative plot is hardly fatal, but the structure and plotting left me completely detached from the characters. If you don’t care about Hannah in this movie, there’s no reason to be scared, and despite the best efforts of Holden, the film lets her down. It doesn’t just let her down, in fact; she has to go through so much physically in the movie that I occasionally winced at what the actress had to do for a cheap effect. Holden throws herself into the role, but the script and plotting keep undermining her best efforts, and the transitions her character goes through come across as forced.
“Blair Witch,” despite its influence, was a one-off; its effect created a verisimilitude that unsettled people because it somehow felt more ‘real’ than a standard horror. Here the attempts at that sort of realism are undercut by the artificial dialogue and fairly cliché plotting. It takes itself too seriously to be trashy fun, but it’s too trashy at heart to be scary either. Its ‘Boo!’ moments seem to be designed by the same sound studio that haunted the house in Paranormal Activities.
Of all the films it reminded me of, the one that it made me think of most was Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, a 1971 film about a woman with a troubled background in a house with dark secrets. In “Jessica,” one of the most lyrical and subtle films about the supernatural I’ve seen, you really care about her plight; there’s a sense of steady disintegration. No matter how hard the actors try, in Lovely Molly the characters are only ever what the script and plot requires them to be until the next ‘Boo!’
Lovely Molly is released in the UK on June 29th.