Monday, July 21, 2014

Okaturo: Missed It By That Much

Most of the found-footage movies that get made anymore tend to be of the raw-footage variety - you know, “this terrible thing happened and here’s the recovered footage to tell the story”, that kind of thing. Which makes sense, there’s an immediacy to it that can ramp up the tension and fear just by virtue of not knowing what comes next, like you are experiencing the events just as the protagonists did. That’s the quality that gives The Blair Witch Project its sense of disintegration and madness in the face of an invisible menace and [REC] its careening, oh-shit-things-just-got-worse momentum. But I think there’s also something to be said for the mockumentary, the docudrama in which an investigative team seeks to answer a question and gets far more than they bargained for. It sacrifices some of the immediacy, but also allows for possibly a more complex story to unfold.

Okaruto (Occult) builds its story quietly and deliberately, leading the viewer down weirder and weirder roads until you realize you've ended up someplace batshit insane without quite knowing how you got there.

The film opens on three young women visiting a scenic waterfall. They’re just goofing around, passing the camera back and forth on a bridge that goes over the falls, when suddenly there’s a commotion at one end as people run from an assailant. When all is said and done, two people will be dead and a third scarred by the hand of a knife-wielding assailant. At this point, the film flashes forward several years to a documentary crew trying in retrospect to make sense of the attack, working with a friend of one of the victims. The film moves back and forth between investigations in the present and a Zapruder-like examination of the camcorder footage from that day. Little details take on greater significance, and not everything is exactly as it seems at first.

This is, on its face, pretty much Spooky Found Footage Movie 101. What makes Okaruto interesting is the way in which it hints at the much larger mystery hiding behind the initial one. There’s very little in the way of conventional scares, with everything unfolding primarily through conversation and small moments. Every turn, every reveal, makes the story a little stranger, and it shifts pretty quickly from being about the victims and bystanders of the original stabbings to being about whatever those stabbings set in motion. There are red herrings and false leads, but pretty quickly the focus shifts to Edo, a survivor of the original attack who seems to be something of a drifter, and from there the film becomes more about Edo’s life now and how it has changed since he survived the attack. It functions a lot like a pot of water being brought slowly to a boil - everything seems innocuous enough, or conventionally spooky enough to make you think that you have a decent handle on what’s going on, but by the time you realize that you’ve ended up in another different type of horror altogether. There are no real spikes in drama or tension - things just sort of happen in or out of frame, and there’s an unflappability about everyone involved that disguises exactly how high the stakes are getting until you realize what’s being planned, and then it’s too late. Things have developed their own momentum, and you’re just along for the ride.

As events move closer to their inevitable conclusion, the film gets tenser and tenser, counting down from hours to minutes to mere seconds, and just when you think you've wrapped it up neatly as a folie a deux with a reasonable explanation, the end drops one more twist on you. And herein lies the film’s major problem. This has been a low-budget film all the way through, and generally that’s okay - that’s one of the things that found-footage films do well. They make cheapness a virtue instead of a distraction. And as long as the weird supernatural stuff is kept low-key, the obvious lack of budget isn’t too distracting. But then, in an effort to throw in one more fillip, the filmmakers attempt an end stinger that goes beyond low-budget into the realm of so cheap as to be downright silly. The end result is a big gamble gone wrong, robbing the film of a lot of the power it might have otherwise. It's sort of like ending The Blair Witch Project with cardboard-and-tinfoil outtakes from an old episode of Doctor Who. Which is too bad - if they'd ended it a little sooner or had been a little less direct, carried the quiet, deliberate subtlety of the rest of the movie all the way to the end, it could have been spooky as hell.

IMDB entry

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