It’s been 15 years since a trio of student filmmakers went looking for trouble and found it in The Blair Witch Project, and the found-footage horror genre is here to stay. Way back in 1999, the idea of a making a horror movie look as realistic as possible was novel, not to mention predictive of the self(ie)–reflexivity of so much 21st century image-making. Viewed now, the scariest thing about The Blair Witch Project is the size of the cameras Heather and the gang are lugging around the backwoods of Maryland – the movie was a game changer, but the technology it showcases is a relic.
The increased capabilities and agility of consumer-grade camcorders get a workout in Afflicted, a new Canadian feature that is the latest (and far from the greatest) Blair Witch descendant, although an equally apt point of reference would be John Landis’s 1981 late-night classic An American Werewolf in London. In that film, two Yankee pals travel to Europe for some primo male bonding only to see their trip marred by a sudden, inexplicable act of violence that leaves one of them irrevocably (and supernaturally) altered. In updating this tale for their debut feature, co-writers-directors-stars Derek Lee and Clif Prowse have shifted the scene from England to Spain and switched out lycanthropy for a trendier form of monstrosity.
It’s not really a spoiler alert to say that a bloody run-in between Derek (Lee, ostensibly playing himself) and the beautiful young woman he meets in Barcelona proves transformational in a way that most one-night stands don’t. Diagnosed with a potentially devastating illness before the beginning of his trip, Derek unexpectedly finds himself feeling in the pink in the days after his encounter. And then some: playing happily to his pal Clif’s (Prowse) video camera, Derek assumes the role of human guinea pig for a series of highly physical experiments that hint at enhanced strength and speed. It’s exciting – but it’s also ominous.
Afflicted is superbly shot in the sense that its camera perspectives always seem to be authentically first-person, and it also does some clever things to combat the problem inherent to so many found-footage thrillers: namely, why the characters keep filming events long after they’ve turned definitively freaky. But it also runs smack into a number of generic clichés, from the back-and-forth bickering about how to deal with the situation to a lazy underlying misogyny (the girl who infects Derek is the only female character of any significance).
It also gradually becomes clear that Prowse and Lee have conceived the movie as a showcase for their technical talent more than anything else, and, just as Derek keeps changing in grotesque ways, so too does Afflicted mutate from a mere movie to a series of self-consciously virtuosic set pieces, as if the directors are auditioning for a bigger-budget production. The gradual ramping up of both the camera calisthenics and the gore quotient suggests a movie that’s been very deliberately paced, but that doesn’t mean that Afflicted really gets anywhere, except back to the very basics its state-of-the-art presentation is supposed to transcend.