The oh-so-hot-right-now found footage subgenre of horror takes a voyeuristic turn with writer/director Randall Cole's 388 Arletta Avenue. A shift in perspective is a key factor in one's appreciation of what Cole and his crew are trying to do here. We've seen plenty of horror movies that feature protagonists who suffer from an inability to put down their video cameras even as terrible things are happening to them and their loved ones. Very rarely (if ever) do we get one where the footage is from the perspective of the antagonist. 388 Arletta Avenue fills that vacuum by tormenting an unassuming couple for the enjoyment of an unseen voyeur (and us of course...we do like to watch...don't we?).
James (Nick Stahl) and his wife Amy (Mia Kirshner) are under surveillance. Someone in a van has been watching them go about their lives, making note of their habits and daily patterns (so that's where they hide their spare key). When the opportunity presents itself, the watcher enters their home and places hidden cameras all over the place (and I do mean all over). Then the games begin. The alarm goes off even though James and Amy don't remember setting it. He finds a mix CD in his car stereo that she denies having made for him. When they can't explain what's going on, they squabble. She slips in a comment about his occasional drunken forgetfulness while he outright mocks what she does for a living. As cracks develop in the veneer of wedded bliss, their relationship seems a little less stable. That's when Amy disappears.
That is merely the setup for the film but to say anymore would be to rob Cole's screenplay of its primary strength: a mounting uncertainty regarding the watcher's intentions. By featuring Nick Stahl in virtually every shot of the film, Cole places us alongside an increasingly frantic James who starts clutching at straws when he suspects that Amy has been snatched. Stahl gives the character real urgency, helping to make the buildup feel measured rather than labored. Keeping him on his toes is the watcher whose aggression escalates from indirect and strange to focused and forceful. Tiptoeing around spoilers, his treatment of the family cat and the situation it places James in would be morbidly funny if it weren't so deeply disturbing.
Unfortunately, for all that Cole gets right with the central conceit of the film; there are a few issues that I just can't look past. To make the hidden camera idea work while giving the proceedings a cinematic structure, Cole turns the watcher into an omniscient being with unlimited time and resources. I'm referring to the fact that the watcher doesn't just place a few cameras around James' house...he turns James' life into a minefield of tiny cameras. There are cameras in the bedroom, in the living room, in the kitchen, in the basement, in a few spots in James' car, in his desk at work...and the list goes on. When you start to notice just how silly it is that there is a camera inside James' boombox, you risk being pulled out of the film rather than being immersed in it. We're expected to buy that the watcher did all of this without being detected and somehow has the time and energy to keep an eye on James at all times (even when he's sleeping) so he can torture him at a moment's notice. I can suspend my disbelief but not by that much.
Then there's the matter of the film's ending. Although Cole resolves the story of James and Amy, he cheats the audience by taking the easy way out with the watcher. The shock value of the climax is used to distract us from the fact that a number of the film's biggest questions remain unanswered. Prickly details and subtext are shoved aside in favor of a generic vision of evil. I don't always need to have things tied up with a nice, neat bow but in this case Cole's solution just feels like a cop out. This doesn't completely deaden the film's overall impact but it does prevent an interesting idea from delivering its intended knockout punch.