Written and Directed by: Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates
Starring: Mark Andrews, Michael Bartlett, and Criselda Cabitac
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"The process of gazing into the abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination..."
One has to wonder if horror fans thirty years from now will look back on our current rash of found footage movies the same way we regard the crop of 80s slashers. In many ways, it feels like weíve mythologized the latter to the point of ignoring (or just willfully forgetting) how much junk that genre managed to spit out. Living through a similar onslaught with found footage movies makes it easy to empathize with the folks who werenít all that enthused by the endless slasher horde. Indeed, this shit can be exhausting, so let this review double as a time capsule (assuming we havenít been overrun by highly sentient alligator overlords three decades from now): the sheer quantity of these found footage films does not reflect their overall quality.
With that preamble behind us, letís turn our attention to The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill, which is a found footage movie. Holy shit is it ever a found footage movie, complete with most of the genreís hallmarks and only a modicum of innovation. A group of gung-ho paranormal enthusiasts investigating some urban legend? Check. Locals serving as talking heads to lionize the lore? Yep. A bunch of people poking around dark spaces to catch a glimpse of some bizarre phenomena? Letís just say The Paranormal Diaries is the sort of film thatís helped crystalize this genre in the eyes of the general public.
And yet, it didnít have to be so rote considering its setup: like many movies in this genre, it purports to be a documentary, and its subject is grounded in complete reality. Ever since its construction in the 14th century, St. Maryís Church in Clophill has been the site of bad mojo, as multiple accounts peg it as the site for everything from regular old hauntings to straight-up Satanic rituals. You discover this because the various interview subjects talk endlessly about these supposed events and encounters, so the film doesnít do much to disavow folks of the notion that this genre tends to be gabby and frontloaded with setup.
To be fair, these movies often are like that, but the most effective ones at least feel like theyíre gradually building towards something. Clophill rarely achieves this feeling, even when its protagonists actually strike out to do their own investigation, which naturally includes fantastic gizmos and Ouija boards. Each night features its own share of rather vague set of supernatural encounters, many of which are actually recounted by the participants later that evening. The result is a tedious film with a strange effect: at times, The Paranormal Diaries is so totally committed to its mockumentary style that it actually achieves that level of realism, at least in the sense that it feels a lot like a reality TV show.
The problem is that it does so at the expense of scares and plot developments, as co-directors Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates opt for the slowest of burns and choose to wallow in ambiguity. Again, itís like every found footage film imaginable in this sense, only these two embrace the tenants to an almost unbearable degree. Their attempt at instilling a creeping terror by blurring the line between fiction and reality would be admirable if they would just let the film breathe a little bit, but the almost constant commentary by the participants stifles the proceedings. Whereas compelling found footage films often thrive on engulfing viewers with a purely cinematic experience, this one talks them to death even during its supposedly horrifying sequences. Itís like listening to a rambling campfire story that never quite reaches a climax.
Even those few moments that are allowed to flourish are pretty mundane, though the film eventually meanders its way into some pretty interesting territory. The Paranormal Diaries is a very British film and its co-directors pay reverence to their homelandís golden age of horror by skirting around the stuff of Hammer horror and other similarly occult-themed films. It doesnít quite add up to much sinceólike almost every significant development in the filmóitís undercut by the filmmakersí ruthless insistence on ambiguity and mystery. Itís a film where stuff ostensibly happens without it ever feeling so, sort of like (again) any given episode of a paranormal reality show, many of which always end with the possibility that somethingís still out there, waiting to be discovered.
Considering that Gatesís next project is a Paranormal Diaries entry that will cover the Mothman, I feel pretty justified in comparing this film to the likes of Ghost Hunters and its ilk. Apparently, the plan is to turn this into an anthology series to investigate various lore from across the globe, an approach that intrigues me so long as this crew can bring a unique flavor to it. Clophill might have the kernel of an interesting notion in its blurring the lines between fiction and reality, but it does precious little with itóultimately, it feels like the type of film destined to be lost to the seemingly endless throng of found footage movies.
Despite having been available in its homeland since last year, itís only now making its way across the pond courtesy of Image Entertainment, whose DVD is perfectly fine: like most found footage films, itís not an aesthetic powerhouse, though the sound design is richly rendered by the 5.1 soundtrack to help immerse viewers in the proceedings. For supplements, Image has included two commentaries: one with Gates flying solo, and another where heís joined by cast members Craig Stovin and Criselda Cabitac. 22 minutes worth of deleted scenes were also rescued from the cutting room floor to round out a perfectly serviceable disc for a rather serviceable film. Maybe Iíll be proven wrong in thirty years, but, at the moment, Paranormal Diaries is just another found footage flick, albeit one thatís steeped in some fascinating real-life mythology. Rent it!
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