There were no credits. The movie cut hard to black leaving my sixteen year old mind to quickly calculate the implications of that final image– the camera hitting the floor and finding the man standing in the corner, apparently of his own will. Once the suggestion took effect, I was chilled to a paralyzing degree. Twenty seconds later, I realized my friend was holding tightly to my leg. “Holy shit!” he shouted to an impressively packed theater whose only post-movie noises had been a few scattered unsatisfied scoffs. Contextualized and measured by the immediate instant, this was the scariest movie-going moment of my entire life. I had never been so frightened by a movie.
I had fallen for The Blair Witch Project‘s viral marketing strategy. I was left frozen to my chair because I believed what I’d just watched was real footage. Did that make me dumb? Yes, probably. But as a movie fanatic, I’ll never apologize for the naivete built of my over-willingness to suspend disbelief. And considering that the film collected over 250 million at the Worldwide Box Office, I can at least find comfort in knowing I probably wasn’t the only one who made the mistake. Certainly, the film’s marketing had earned the misconception, with its trailer presenting the film as fact and with a recent television release of a fake documentary recounting the chilling history of Burkittsville and the Blair Witch.
That stretch of careful audience misdirection, in the short term, manifested in debates about authenticity between those who refuted the film’s nonfiction posture and those who believed it, or at least wanted to. Later, it would all be put to rest as the stars of the movie danced onto the stage at an MTV Award Show; a celebratory punctuation to a marketing effort built on irrefutable brilliance. But what stays with me the most is that cold knife of an ending to the viewership experience. That was the pinnacle of the success of the film and the marketing, a moment that was one-of-a-kind and inimitable. That doesn’t mean others haven’t tried…
A few months ago, both my personal Twitter account and this site’s Twitter account (@WeTalkMovies, go follow, friends) were followed by an account advertising a film called The Upper Footage. The Twitter account of The Upper Footage is quick to boast several excerpted reactions from obscure to mid-level movie publications (not unlike this one). At the same time, a little bit of research revealed that the film was also attempting to present itself as The Blair Witch Project had: a collection of actual footage. An ambition so distinct that The Upper Footage and its fans embraced the comparison.
— The Upper Footage (@TheUpperFootage) August 25, 2014
I reached out to some of my more horror savvy friends to inquire about their knowledge of the film. They knew next to nothing.
The Wikipedia page of the film detailed its content and history. The film collects the footage taken by four young and affluent New York citizens (one a famous blogger, the other presented as a Disney television star) who spend a night on the town drinking and doing cocaine. One of the partiers picks up a companion and brings her back to a lavish, top floor apartment overlooking New York City. Shortly thereafter, the late addition to their group overdoses and dies. The camera catches the discovery of her body and then the overnight rush to discard it.
According to the Wikipedia page and a chain of self-referential reviews, the footage was reported to be real by “some media outlets” but pursuing these sources lead me to discover an unbroken chain of film reviews discussing how somewhere on the internet, the footage was reported to be real. The same (seemingly non-existent) “sources,” according to the movie reviews discussing them, reported that pieces of the footage had initially been posted on YouTube and then tied up in blackmail schemes and a strange incident in which Quentin Tarrantino purchased and attempted to release the footage.
Given the inaccessibility of even fake source material, my interest in learning of the project waned quickly, until last week when I was once again followed by The Upper Footage on Twitter, and this time the advertisements informed me that the movie was available for rent on Vimeo. Not the most promising medium, but what the hell…
As a Film
On its own, divorced from its homemade marketing campaign, The Upper Footage accomplishes a few respectable things. It’s not completely void of value, but it is not cutting edge in a horror or found footage measure.
The opening sequence uses real recognizable news outlets to rehash the information I already knew from reviews and Wikipedia and Twitter. This might seem an obvious place to start, but it also accounts for one of the film’s most functional stretches, as it skims the surface of a possible investigation of our culture’s obsession with the underbelly of affluence, the ruined veins running through pop culture toward which we all feign oblivion.
But the introduction breaks into the found footage format quickly and the viewer is tasked with spending time with shitty people, witnessing their unending shittiness. The effort to illustrate their immoral fabric is forced, as spoken lines of blatant racism, homophobia, and sexism are inserted as if to fill a quota. Given the film’s immediate confession of its own outcome, spending this much time with these people while nothing of consequence happens is an unfair favor to ask of the viewer.
However, the introduction of the eventual victim changes the tone. Here, there are moments of near brilliance in the way the spoiled drug addicts treat this outside party. They speak down to her, question her sincerity, her personality, even the way she sits, as if their position in society licenses the judgment. She is colored expendable long before she is expended. The victim’s face is the only one pixelated through the entire film, a gesture presented as identity protection that works to heighten discomfort as it becomes another way that she is presented as “less.”
When the victim is found dead, the four original shitty characters permit their respective actors a chance to put forth some impressive acting. The balance of despair, confusion, self-interest, and fear is expertly held by all four performers. The tearing seams between the characters are are just subtle enough until the climactic ending (which isn’t as shocking as it hopes to be).
Again, there are things to commend about The Upper Footage, and it would be measurably easier to celebrate them were it not for the film’s lazy, confused marketing campaign.
The Death of the Viral Hoax?
There’s nothing wrong with a viral campaign that accepts the fiction of its source material. Those sorts of campaigns have worked to great effect and provided an enhanced viewing experience for The Dark Knight, Inception, Super 8, District 9, Cloverfield, etc. But the construct of the The Upper Footage‘s viral ambition necessitates that the film make every effort to preserve the illusion of reality (again, this standard is not something I’m imposing; it’s a ruler with which the film’s marketing has asked the film to be measured). The concept, the presentation, and the narrative fall apart if the non-fiction illusion breaks. And it breaks over and over.
Here’s a list of failures:
1.) For this story to feel real, the movie can’t desperately advertise itself. A film capturing a real tragedy wouldn’t be in a hurry to be seen. Seventeen of my film friends have now been followed by this movie’s Twitter account.
2.) The aforementioned lack of informational sources regarding the alleged incident.
3.) It’s unlikely that reported realism will be believable if the advertisement openly compares it to a movie famous for pulling the same trick.
4.) The film opens with viewing instructions (like a Wes Anderson or Terrence Malick movie), with textual suggestion on which platform works best and a suggestion for the use of headphones. This outside recommendation immediately bursts the non-fiction bubble.
5.) The narrative includes a famous blogger and a TV star, neither of which is recognizable. The plot’s use of famous individuals who aren’t really famous also immediately forfeits authenticity.
6.) Just before she dies, two of the male characters coerce the victim into taking off clothes to liven the party up. She does. Then the camera cuts away and text is placed on the screen to proclaim that the subsequent events were left out in respect to the victim’s family. A bullshit claim given that cutting four seconds earlier would have prevented the victim’s/actress’ bare breasts from being exposed on the screen, a moment which adds an element of sleaziness assignable not to the characters, but to Writer/Director Justin Cole, a filmmaker who seems to have solid ideas and things to say, but an incomplete grasp of the film language necessary to communicate these things.
Ultimately, the most troublesome death captured in The Upper Footage isn’t that of a character, but it is the death of the small hope that the hoax of The Blair Witch Project might someday be successfully imitated. Cole doesn’t kill the hope for a successful and effective found footage hoax, but he may have captured its death on camera. Perhaps it’s a stupid hope to hold to anyway, in the age of internet detectives and endless film forums. Given that a celebrity can’t even take her top off in private without weird internet users posting the evidence for public consumption (seriously, gross guys), it seems implausible that even an unknown amateur filmmaker could pull off such an elaborate trick on audiences. But, if it’s ever going to happen again, it’s going to require more effort, inventiveness, and thought than what was offered by Justin Cole and The Upper Footage.