To Jennifer takes a slightly different approach to the found footage genre of horror that is all the rage these days. Rather than being shown something that was discovered after the fact, we get to witness the movie's protagonist film himself during a journey that only he knows the destination to. Director James Cullen Bressack capably sets up the film's central conflict in the first few minutes and caps off the whole affair with a suitably tense climax. Unfortunately, that's only about 15 minutes out of a 75 minute film. The hour in the middle just feels like padding…repetitive, annoying padding.
As I mentioned, the film's conflict is simplicity itself. Joey (Chuck Pappas) thinks his girlfriend of two years, Jennifer (Jessica Cameron), is cheating on him but he wants to catch her in the act. He ropes in his cousin, Steven (Bressack himself), to accompany him on the cross-country trip to her place and play camera man for the ultimate shaming and everything leading up to it. When their attempt at flying to her ends with Joey in the hospital (and on a no-fly list) after a nervous breakdown, they enlist flaky pal Martin (Jody Barton) to drive them. If anybody thinks that this road trip has a happy ending, let me remind them: this is a horror movie.
This film's marketing partially revolves around the fact that it was the first movie to be shot, edited and distributed on the iPhone 5. While that is certainly impressive from a technical standpoint, the real achievement here is that Bressack figured out a way to make the found footage aspect of the whole enterprise feel both essential and natural. Joey's decision to bust Jennifer is shown to be of the spur-of-the-moment variety. In a situation like that, it makes sense that he'd use the only video camera that everyone has on their person at any given moment: his phone. By putting Steven in charge of the filming process, we are also guaranteed to catch every little moment no matter how embarrassing or damaging they are to Joey. The climax is still problematic since I argue nobody would keep filming under the circumstances presented but it's the sort of quibble that only bothered me after everything was said and done.
Given that the film successfully cracks the found footage conceit that often trips up more mainstream productions, it is tragic to see it stumble by having nothing of substance to hang on its clever hook. Almost immediately after giving Joey and Steven a sense of purpose, the film has them stuck in the mud and spinning their wheels. After Joey's in-flight freak-out (partially brought on by Steven's prickish behavior) leaves them grounded, they just hang out with Martin. They attend boring parties, try to pick up women and shoot the breeze. This is likely Bressack's attempt at naturalism but it is at odds with Joey's burning to desire to see Jennifer which he communicates pretty much every time he opens his mouth.
If you can get past the film's sluggish mid-section, you'll arrive at the climax which almost makes the whole thing worth your while. It is creepy and unsettling in ways that the buildup hints at but never reveals. Performances that felt too intense and over the top are suddenly right at home in truly disturbing fashion. This unnerving vibe carries through to the end credits which are worth sitting through just for the twisted little tune that plays over them. As I mentioned earlier, a quick setup followed by the devastating payoff of the final scenes would have made for a killer short film. By choosing to fill in the blanks, Bressack and his small crew of co-conspirators have actually worked to undo a great deal of the film's effectiveness. What could have been a quick jolt of OhNoTheyDidn't! turns into a muted ireallywishtheyhadn't.
As is touted in the marketing materials, the entire film was shot with an iPhone 5. Trust me, the image perfectly supports that claim. It is far from pretty but that's sort of the point. Bressack and crew are going for a you are there feel and certainly achieve it with all the grainy, blurry glory that only a handheld smartphone camera can muster. Objectively speaking, this is not a visually appealing film (especially when viewed on a large screen) but as far as directorial intent is concerned, I believe you are seeing things exactly as Bressack meant for them to be seen.
Everything I said about the video quality applies to the audio as well. Dialogue is often clear but sometimes voices are recorded too low. Other than that occasional issue, background noise is present but not overwhelming. The creepy little song that plays over the end credits also comes through with clarity.
Besides a Trailer for the film, the only other extra is a Commentary by Director James Cullen Bressack and actors Chuck Pappas and Jody Barton. The core trio of Bressack, Pappas and Barton are friends off-screen so it's only natural that the commentary track has a very jovial and playful tone. They don't take themselves too seriously which allows them to go off on funny tangents about the worrying lack of beard continuity in the film (going from clean-shaven in one shot to a few days growth in the next, shaving nicks that magically disappear from scene to scene…that sort of thing). They are also brutally honest about how the film sort of happened by mistake, springing from boredom as they tried to make another film and slowly evolving into a feature length project over a few months. This explains how some of the stolen shots on board an airplane were filmed and why so many of the scenes feel improvised. In all honesty, the commentary is engaging in a way that suggests the making of this film may have been more interesting than the final product itself.
With some aggressive editing, To Jennifer could have been a really memorable and creepy short film. As it stands, the bloated midsection takes the whole enterprise off course just when the tension should be getting ramped up. Director James Cullen Bressack certainly has a strong handle on where the film needs to end up (witness the haunting finale) but tarries too long in getting there. Rent It.