As a Blu-Ray and DVD critic, sometimes you end up with movies you know nothing about. The title and cover artwork for Mr. Jones certainly don't give much of a hint of what the viewer is in for, other than a horror movie. A brief description of the plot doesn't exactly crackle with personality either: a couple heads out to an isolated cabin, and discover something terrifying in the woods. Thus, popping this Blu-Ray into the player was a bit of a rollercoaster ride of conflicting emotions, as director / writer Karl Muller's debut twists and turns in unconventional -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- ways.
The couple consists of Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones), who have come out to the cabin in question to work on their relationship. Scott has become fed up with the pressures of modern living, and has this idea that making a beautiful nature documentary will somehow soothe his tension. Within just a few weeks, however, it's clear to him that he has no idea what he's doing, that he's alienating Penny with his stress, and his big gamble may have been a big mistake. Just as he and Penny are on the verge of really going at one another, a strange drifter steals Scott's bag, and when they enter his home to retrieve it, they discover he's the infamous "Mr. Jones", an enigmatic, anonymous man who delivered a number of bizarre scarecrow sculptures to random people in the 1970s and became a hit in the art world. Penny immediately latches onto the idea of a documentary about Jones, and sends Scott back to the city to interview a number of scholars about his work. One recipient of Jones' scarecrows, however, has a straightforward message for Scott: don't investigate further, and leave Mr. Jones alone.
The first thing that will cause most viewers' hearts to sink -- and which is not mentioned anywhere on the Blu-Ray packaging -- is that Mr. Jones is another entry in the much-maligned "found footage" genre. Many of the usual complaints apply: Muller makes very strange and sometimes illogical choices as to when the characters would pick up or put down the camera, it doesn't add much to the film, and many of the usual tired editing tricks occur (during points of extreme terror, the video cuts out, and there are often little black gaps, especially during the obnoxious finale). Muller has at least one innovation, although it's pretty much a cheat: Scott designs a rig that has two cameras on it, intended for conversations in which the participants are sitting across from each other, which becomes very handy in capturing reaction shots of the person filming.
Muller's conception of "Mr. Jones" himself, on the other hand, is interesting enough to provide a little hope. The film establishes Scott and Penny first, and then there's a passage in the middle of the film where a number of interview subjects (including David Clennon of The Thing and Faran Tahir of Iron Man) talk about his impact on the art world and so on. It's a blatant exposition dump, and the concept of the one guy (Ethan Sawyer) who warns Scott away is pretty predictable (although Sawyer is good), but the unexpectedness of this section buoys the film a little, as does Muller's restraint during this section, while Penny is alone at the cabin. Although the film never approaches the kind of horror structure that is really predictable, like a slasher film, there are plenty of times where one would expect the film to go a certain way, and Muller holds off.
Unfortunately, what he's holding out for is one of the most aggravating finales I've seen in a long time. Without giving too much away, Scott returns to the cabin, and allows Penny to talk him into further investigation, against his better judgment. Technically, there's something to be said for what follows, as Muller makes good use of sound effects and other types of visual creativity that skillfully covers the film's limited resources. Story-wise, however, the home stretch is an agonizing wait for the other shoe to drop, a shoe that the film sets up earlier and becomes increasingly obvious as the movie continues. At a time when Muller should be adding layers to the situation, pulling the viewer fully into a nightmare scenario, he holds back, stretching a very small series of events into what feels like an eternity. By the time the credits finally roll, Mr. Jones has wasted all of its limited goodwill, having transferred the characters' agony to the viewer.
Mr. Jones arrives with the kind of artwork that concerns anyone who likes horror movies: an evocative image with no people in it and a chintzy-looking font that all screams "direct-to-video" and "really low-budget." It's a little baffling that the cover doesn't even have names above the title, considering many of these people seem to be on popular TV shows. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-Ray case and the entire thing slides inside a foil slipcover with identical artwork.
The Video and Audio
Anchor Bay's 1.78:1 1080p AVC presentation is solid. Depth and dimension in the picture are very good and it handles dark scenes very well, although some banding can definitely be spotted from time to time, and there is some sort of weird black density issue in a couple of scenes, possibly due to visual effects work, where bright shining lights will be surrounded by a ring of true black, but the rest of the picture will be a lighter shade of black. Luckily, this only happens once or twice, so it's not much of a distraction.
Since sound design is the film's budget-conscious shortcut around more elaborate visual effects, it only makes sense that the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 included on the disc is pretty spectacular, especially when it comes to directional effects. All sorts of eerie rumbling, creaking, squeaking, howling, and roaring noises surround the viewer and bring them into the environment of the movie. Music is generally pretty minimal, but sounds good when it is used, and dialogue comes through as clearly as it's ever meant to given the intentional distortion one expects from "camera mike" audio. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Mr. Jones is actually above average when it comes to low-budget horror and found footage films, but Muller can't stick the landing, and the last 20 minutes end up being some of the most tedious filmmaking I've seen in a long time. Skip it.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.