There have been numerous horror films released in the found footage style since The Blair Witch Project came on the scene. They can be relatively cheap to make, and sometimes effective. Evil Things is the latest example in the genre, and it works more than it doesn't, but still has some flaws.
The story follows five friends as they travel to a remote house in rural New York State to celebrate the twenty first birthday of Miriam (Elyssa Mersdorf). Miriam's aunt and uncle own the house, and are letting them spend a long weekend for the party. Aspiring filmmaker Leo (Ryan Maslyn) decides that he is going to try out his newly acquired video camera and film the whole event.
Snow starts falling soon after they leave the city, and they spend several treacherous hours on mountain roads before they reached their destination. On the way, a sinister van with tinted windows seems to turn up over and over, even pulling up to the diner at which they are having dinner. Thinking they have left the van behind, the group arrives at the home and starts the weekend. In the morning, Mark (Morgan Hooper) suggests they go exploring the woods, and like the city kids they are, they promptly get lost. They wander for hours, and are haunted by strange noises in the trees, but eventually make their way back. And that is when things really start to pick up. Hang up phone calls, knocks on the door with no one in sight, and an unmarked videotape left on the porch. I won't go into more detail as far as subsequent events, so as not to spoil anything, but the group is in for a less than pleasant night.
One thing can be said for Evil Things: it certainly delivers the scares. The film is disquieting and tense from almost the first moments, and as the film progresses that tension becomes almost unbearable. But this is the first feature from writer / director Dominic Perez, and at times it shows. The biggest flaws are the long breaks in the action, when the characters talk and josh like normal kids, but the story doesn't seem to move forward at all. During these long intervals, little to nothing is done to build or maintain eeriness or unease, even though many opportunities present themselves. In particular, several shots have curtainless windows and sliding doors that look out into the yard outside, but there is no indication that anything menacing might be lurking there, even on a subtle level. It seems that Perez, who is so adept at manipulating our fears elsewhere, sacrifices dread for verisimilitude.
The whole film is presented as a piece of evidence held by the FBI, a videotape anonymously mailed in. This conceit is undercut by incidental music, admittedly subtle, that plays at moments of high tension. Why was Perez willing to abandon his cinema verite style here, but not willing to either pare down the talky bits or insert some subtle scaremongering?
But this is to focus too much on the negative. Overall, Evil Things is a successful film. The performances are all natural and believable, and the actors (especially Laurel Casillo as Cassy, of whom the most is asked) are all able to reach the emotional levels necessary to make the film work. Since the audience is unable to see much of what frightens the characters, and to my recollection no actual violence or gore is seen directly on camera, much of Evil Things' effectiveness rests on how authentic the actors are. Can we imagine ourselves acting in a similar way? Do they seem like real people? Yes, and yes. What's more, unlike in many horror films, these people are extremely likeable. They are people we'd want over for dinner or to have as our own friends. Sure, they do stupid things from time to time, such as never turning off their flashlights when being stalked by a killer in a dark house, but these are the kinds of mistakes we could imagine ourselves making under high stress.
Evil Things has its flaws, but there is an awful lot to like here. It is unsettling in a way that not many horror films are these days, in no small part because the setup is believable and within the scope of normal life for many of us. Dominic Perez has some space to grow as a writer and director, but he undoubtedly has talent, and hopefully will continue making movies for a long time to come. Recommended.
The video is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks good. Of course, the hand held, found footage nature of the film rules out the grand vistas and rich colors one might expect in a standard movie. The key here is authenticity, and Evil Things definitely looks real.
The audio is Dolby digital 5.1 channel, and like the video is nice, but is not very challenged. The nature of the film as found footage lowers the bar somewhat. However, there are a lot of subtle, creepy sounds, especially in the "lost in the woods" sequence, that are presented quite nicely, and the dialogue is generally easy to understand. No subtitles or alternate language tracks are included.
There are a few extras included. They are:
Friends and Family
This is nearly seven minutes of parents, friends and siblings of the missing kids featured in the film, pleading for their lives, as if they had recorded the appeal after a kidnapping. Not very interesting.
This piece comes in at 5:40, and represents someone following a girl around New York City recording her, much like the killer in the feature does. Mildly interesting, but slight.
The trailer for Evil Things is actually quite inventive and intriguing.
Evil Things is not a perfect movie. The biggest problems are large gaps in the action where the film seems to drag, and the occasional foolish actions of the characters. But this is also a very effectively scary film. When the film works, it works very well, and the silent, never seen killer is all the more disturbing for his anonymity. If this is what Dominic Perez gives us his first time out, things look very bright for his future in films.