Found footage films aren't real. We all know this, and still I'd dare to say the technique has yet to be exhausted. Found footage is an especially popular technique for horror films, and is often low budget, amateur, and terrifyingly real.
Nearly every film in this sub-genre has The Blair Witch Project to thank for setting the stage on what "found footage" should look like—and there's a reason Blair Witch is considered the Godfather of found footage. All inn all it's a great film and Blair Witch, to this day, still feels genuine.
The Blair Witch Project did, however, have time on its side. Until its release, there really hadn't been another film like it (except for maybe Cannibal Holocaust, but Blair Witch was released nearly 20 years later). So while The Blair Witch Project was able to shock and scare as one of the "first" found footage horror films, it remains a good watch to this day. Needless to say, I haven't tired of found footage, and I doubt many would disagree.
But I'm not here to talk about The Blair Witch Project. I'm here to talk about Jed Brian's Unlisted Owner, an indie found footage horror film I was asked to review.
In short, the film follows a group of friends in fictitious Lawford County, Illinois who decide one night to enter an abandoned home where a family was recently murdered. The film is supposedly comprised of footage from five different cameras––footage from the group, from the police, and from the family of victims.
Like most found footage films, the start of Unlisted Owner greets us with a kitschy (though fitting for the genre) message claiming its legitimacy:
The following video recordings are evidence of the horrific events known as the "Owner Killings" that took place in Lawford Country Illinois on the days of October 23rd, 2010 and March 23rd, 2011.
Footage from five separate video cameras, some of which the video was damaged and corrupted have been reconstructed and edited together by the Lawford County Sheriff's Department.
Found footage films perfectly balance reality with the gruesome, out-of-this-world shock horror fans love. Unlisted Owner attains many of the traits good found footage films like The Blair Witch Project possess, but it ultimately lacks the meat and bones needed for it to be a truly fantastic horror flick.
My issues with the film lie solely in the story itself; plot aside, Brian's camerawork is shaky and raw—a good trait in found footage movies. And considering Brian's resources (Unlisted Owner is his directorial debut) the physical settings and ancillary props are pretty good.
But if Brian didn't have a sufficient landscape to shoot, then the film would have weak legs to stand on. The characters don't add much to the actual story aside from being the physical presence the audience follows. It seems that in an attempt to make the characters raw and real, they instead seemed forced.
The male characters entirely adhere to the "bro" trope. They're stereo-typically mean to the women (they seem annoyed by the "neediness" of them), they complain that the guys who are in relationships have bossy girlfriends, and then they sit around and talk about how ugly the "bitches" are that the others hook up with. *Sigh*—it's time to find other traits for male characters to have other than ignorance and misogyny.
All of this seems to be an attempt to create the divide between characters that horror films tend to possess (i.e. the person who wants to do a dangerous thing versus the person who insist it's a bad idea). The characters yell over each other—a lot—so we don't have a chance to establish the various personality roles in the group. They all seem to be the same.
The lack of authenticity in the characters means that some of the scenes last way too long (e.g. the campfire scene & a scene where they're driving around in a truck) because a lot of the dialogue is empty, random, and doesn't help move the plot along. Without any real dialogue or character establishment, it truly is like watching someone's home video. Found footage needs to hit the perfect note between raw and scripted; it should be sloppy enough to make for a believable home video but have enough script to it where the audience knows what's going on. Unfortunately, Unlisted Owner lacks the cohesion it so desperately needs to keep a steady story line throughout the film.
Though the house is the center of the mystery from the start, the characters don't enter it until 45 minutes in (the film itself only being 1 hour 13 minutes in length). And when they do finally get there, there is way too much noise. Not from the house, but from our characters. Everyone is screaming—about being in the house, about the leftover crime scene, and about each other. As horror fans, we know that some of the most terrifying moments happen in the dark and in the silence—we saw this in the Paranormal Activity films with the creepy movements that happen while the characters sleep, or with the quiet and isolated woods in Blair Witch.
But my least favorite aspect of the film is how much the characters complain about the actual filming itself. There are things we, as an audience, choose to ignore and accept when it comes to cinema. In regards to found footage, the audience won't necessarily question why the friend is filming... because without filming, there is no movie. In short: the continued comments of the events being filmed were entirely unnecessary to moving the story along.
We know someone is filming. That's the whole point.
I'll shift gears here, because apart from the weak characters and shaky story, there actually is a lot that Unlisted Owner did well. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the film begins by claiming to be "reconstructed" footage—there are a few points where transparent overlays allow us to see multiple scenes at once. Specifically, there is a scene at the beginning where the group is talking while another shot of bloodied carpet comes in and out of sight. It gives the audience the anxiety of a jump scare, just done better.
There's more to praise Brian for in Unlisted Owner: the footage of the body bag being brought out of the house, the sequences of the panicked family before they are murdered, the bloodstained walls and carpet—even the scene where one of the guys bangs on a piano in the dark and empty house. As cheap as that scare might be, I really liked it.
Unlisted Owner isn't quite Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity status, but I'd say it could at least hold its own in a lineup of other indie horror flicks. Ultimately, there could have more—more story, more action, more scare—but Brian's Unlisted Owner is (at the very least) worth a watch.
Brittany K. King is a Chicago-based writer and founder of Film Daddy. She spends most of her time avoiding saying the word ‘gyro’ out loud.
Follow Brittany on Twitter @brittanykking.