As a resident of Portland, Oregon, I’m lucky enough to live in a city where I can supplement my regular diet of big budget crap cinema with actual independent fare. The urge to do so is even more acute now after what has to be the most abysmal summer since 2007…maybe even 2003.
We’re big on localism out here in the West, where people still know what nature is. So when I saw “Local shot feature film – open for reviews (Portland)” posted on Craigslist, of course I jumped. That’s how we roll in Stumptown, yo: where Craigslist has become a way of life. Besides, if not me, who? And if not now, when? After the “real” critics sink their claws into this thing? No thank you, sir. This one’s mine.
And I’m pleased to report 15 was exactly what I needed to stave off my own bloody rampage…for the moment. It easily hooked me by opening with a man answering an ad on Craigslist (told you that’s how we roll). This is down-on-his-luck documentary filmmaker Jack Hamilin (Bob Olin) who answers that fateful ad to stave off bankruptcy and avoid asking his father-in-law for money.
The ad says,
“Serious inquires only. Paid position. $10,000 salary. I’m looking for a documentary filmmaker to take a journey with me on an exploration of human violence. We’ll be looking for answers to such questions as ‘What is man’s obsession with violent culture? And as our experience grows and our senses become accustomed to it, what is our limit? When do we look away? How much can we take? At what point do we as witnesses become accomplices in what we’re watching? When do the witnesses to violence become responsible for not intervening?'”
Jack reads this to us, folds the printout into his jacket, and asks, “What documentary filmmaker wouldn’t jump at a chance like this?” One that isn’t the star of a horror movie, Jacky boy. But that’s just how these things roll. Sometimes you’re the documentarian, sometimes you’re the subject. As with most people in Found Footage horror films, our friend Jack’s a walking dead man from frame one.
The introductory crawl says as much, so I don’t count that as a spoiler. With fellow underpaid journalist and Craigslist answer-ee Brenda Hill (Natasha Timpani) as his on-camera interviewer, Jack moves into the residence of one Edward Allen Payne (writer/director Jason Hawkins). Ed’s offered up those ten thousand clams in the hopes that Jack’s filming and Brenda’s questions will help him answer some of his own questions about life and crime. See, Ed – for all his apparent intelligence and charm – claims to be a serial killer. Like many a murderer before him, awareness of what he is and what he likes to do for fun has left his psyche floating on a less than even keel. Initially, Our Documentarians dismiss him either as a rural crank or a garden variety crazy person. Five days and five nights inside Ed’s house work to convince them otherwise thanks to strange noises, half-heard screams and the constant droning of Fur Elise…
Personally, I just assume everyone’s a serial killer. At the very least, you all have viscous ulterior motives that could, at any given time, fuck up my plans for World Domination (they involve shooting a man into space and forcing him to watch Bad Movies until I find the Worst Film Ever Made, harness its power, and conquer the globe). I might at least bring a stun gun along to the self-proclaimed serial killer’s secluded rural property. But, again, if Jack did that, we wouldn’t have a horror film, now would we?
15 is the kind of horror film some of you will probably dismiss out of hand because you’re sick of Found Footage horror movies. I sympathize, even though I’ll still make fun of you behind your back for your anti-intellectualism and knee-jerk, reactionary nature. I’ve only reviewed three of the eight I own because even I have to be in the right mood for them. Ben Cuccio’s Found Footage School Shooter movie, Zero Day, was the last one I honestly liked, even though I gave Cloverfield a pass. (Damnit. What else could I do? We’re in a daikaiju drought! The King is Dead!) Diary of the Dead pretty much killed the whole damn sub-genre for me. To see Romero (of all people) try to hide his lack of creativity with cinema verite tricks depressed me to no end.
Let’s be honest: they are tricks, useless without ideas to hang them on. That’s why they call them “hooks.” 15 hooks by defying expectations. It defies expectations by preemptively diffusing criticisms. Chalk that up to a smart script by a horror fan who obvious shares our horror fan concerns for our beloved genre.
15 seems to know cynical bastards (like me) will ask all the annoying questions we always ask these flicks. “Why the fuck are you filming this?” Because our main character’s a documentary filmmaker, True Crime’s own Michael Moore. Might as well ask why Crusading Reporters follow up on giant monster sightings. “Why the fuck don’t you drop the damn camera and just leave?” Well, we saw Jack’s financial desperation in the first five minutes. “Why aren’t these people acting like people?” A pair of plot twists three-quarters of the way in solves that groovy mystery quite well. “Is this shaky cam going to make me puke?” No. Thankfully, our director took a revolutionary step of actually planning his shots well, immersing us in a claustrophobic, gradually more cloying sense of paranoia without Greengrassing us to death.
The fact that I’m not spoiling the plot twists should tell you exactly how much I wound up liking 15. We both know I only spoil movies that genuinely piss me off. My psychic powers allowed me to guess the twist about fifteen or so minutes in (or maybe I’m lying to throw you off…hmmm?) but I trained under Lance Henriksen as Frank Black in Millennium. Your mileage may vary depending on the source of your Movie Clairvoyance.
The film’s overall aesthetic effect remains intact no matter when you guess the twist thanks to smooth pacing and great performances from a small but well-chosen cast. Timpani’s Brenda comes off as exactly the kind of bubbleheaded blond broadcast journalism schools seem to be cranking out like a Chinese Apple products factory…the kind where they seal up the windows to keep the workers from committing suicide. Olin’s Jack, as our POV character, casts the longest shadow while taking up the least amount of screen time. For the majority of the movie, we’re his Unblinking Eye, and as the creepy shit starts to pile up on Jack’s plate (loosening what few mental moorings Jack possessed at the start) we realize that, no matter who’s on screen, we’re dealing with at least two madmen here, bare minimum.
15 hearkens back to a pre-Scream world when Slashers were half past dead and the major studios barely dared touch a real horror movie (unless someone like Oliver Stone backed it). Might turn all our precious Children into serial killers, don’tchaknow? And while the Big Names were off getting all the money, press and money, quite a number of quietly excellent horror movies scooted through the production process. 15’s thematic material reminded me of those, specifically 1991’s America’s Deadliest Home Videos, which you should all check out (if you can find it…and that’s a big if)
My esteemed webmaster, Nathan Shumate, reviewed that puppy years ago. Version 2.0 of that review appears in his book, The Golden Age of Crap, which you should all have on your selves by now. Like that long-lost, tragic tale of Danny Bonaduce, 15 weaves its central conceit (that we’re watching the dearly departed Jack Hamilin’s Last Tapes) into the narrative well, despite resorting to That Damned Scene you’ll find in nearly all Found Footage movies this side of The Blair Witch Project. (Damnit! Managed to go twelve hundred words without mentioning that…thing.)
You know what I’m talking about: it’s that scene where the main character attempts to talk themselves down from a psychotic break by speaking directly into a night-vision enabled camera. More often than not they only succeed in apologizing to distant loved ones for being protagonists in a horror movie, working themselves up into that much more of a frenzy.
Unlike so many movies of this type (including America’s Deadliest and my beloved Zero Day) 15 never cheats us by suddenly cutting to some mysterious third-party’s footage. You’d think this would be common sense, but common sense is never as “common” as we suppose. Avoiding the temptation apparently takes one hell of an editor, an ironclad commitment to proper planning, and the creative discipline to follow through.
Our writer/director has the latter in spades. We can see this in his economic use of shots and his habit of cutting away just soon enough to leave you haunted by vague impressions of whatever the camera captured last (whether a bit of floor or Our Killer’s grinning face). The only bits that feel unnatural are (no surprise) the opening expository dumps. These are always the clunkiest, unwieldiest bits of any story, but at least 15 gets them out of the way early.
As to the former, 15 credits its editor as…huh…Edward Allen Payne…which is only natural, I suppose. (The Blair Witch really should’ve gotten her own editing credit, too…and shit. That’s twice I’ve mentioned that film. Now I know Ed’s marked me for death.) As the centerpiece of all this, Hawkins does well by his own flick with a creepy-good performance. His Ed, like all those who’re less-than-stable among us, can turn from manic to depressive on a dime. And while tableaus of dead bodies will always shock the Normals, we horror fans will get more out of (and applaud) the little nuances of his performance. His halting, easy-going, socially inept cadence in the early scenes. The sly grins he gives Jack’s camera whenever the subject of violence comes up. He may look like some long-lost relative of James Rolfe the Angry Video Game Nerd but his mannerisms remind me of an unmedicated Edmund Kemper. A well-constructed, perfectly human monster who services the film by supporting his story, instead of distracting from it. What a twist in itself.
Because let’s face it boys, girls, and others: no one really wants a genuine “exploration of human violence.” That’s what the really-real documentaries are for and all they do is depress, supporting our own slothful non-action by pummeling us into submission with “the horror…the horror…” A third of the way through, Brenda and Jack go into town to catch some actual documentary footage: man-on-the-street vox pop interviews that give the usual range of answers to the usual dumb questions (while showing off all the relevant Portland landmarks).
Why are people so fascinated with watching violence on television? Do you mean, like, the nightly news? Because no one in the under-50 demographics really watches that anymore. Corporate censorship and media monopoly consolidation’s effectively removed its teeth. The massacres from our current wars certainly won’t be showing up on the evening news any time soon. (Mores the pity.)
No, Brenda, you mean fake violence, like the kind we see in movies. And that’s such a low hanging fruit, skate punks on the street can reach right up and pull the answer down out of the either. Duh, M’gann: because our lives are boring, stupid and pointless. Sure we’re gonna get off on vicarious Schadenfreude.
These brief stand-up interviews are the first, last and only time 15 attempts to discuss any meaningful issues. Instead of answering questions, 15 exploits its audience’s simple human curiosity about those questions to lure us into its trap. We go in wondering what answers it will eventually offer up (ready, at least in my case, to skewer them to walls with sharp stakes). By the time we realize that’s the last thing on this movie’s mind, we’re too deep in. Like Jack and Brenda, we’re “embedded” with a blue collar American Psycho. The best and worst part? Like Jack, we stumbled into this willingly, driven by our own hubris and our all-too-human greed. We are Jack’s first, last and only audience. This film is Jack’s (actually Ed’s, but accuracy would only fuck up my Fight Club reference) smirking revenge. Like most real world killers, he plays the sick man for our benefit, adding empathy and pity to his stock of weapons. Far as he’s concerned, we’re the sick ones. After all, here we are, watching him work.
So if you’re a fan indy horror, or movies in general provided they use what they have to its full effect, 15‘s a flick for you. Its website mentions an upcoming DVD release in November, 2011 and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on that. Because I urge you to check this out. It might just be the horror film you’ve waited around for all damn year.
Personal addendum (yeah, like the rest of this was so objective – I know): I have to mention that seeing my city through Jack Hamilin’s camera was the best surreal experience I’ve had at a movie all year. Haven’t lived through one like it since Zero Effect immortalized my adopted home…and that was way the hell back in 1998, the last time Godzilla died. You can see Portland play other cities in film and television if you know what to look for (the buses are usually a dead giveaway) and that’s nice and all. But a small part of me can’t help but go, Damnit! We used to be known for our serial killers, too. Civic pride is a funny thing, but so is regional identity. Sometimes truly loving where you live means recognizing the many flaws bubbling up under it surface.