Friday, 16 March 2012

Skew

Certificate: Unrated
Running time: 83 mins
Director: Sevé Schelenz
Starring: Rob Scattergood, Amber Lewis, Richard Olak
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Country: USA

We all have our favourite horror antagonist, someone who scares the living daylights out of us but what scares them?  A lot of people would speculate what scares them is the Horror sub genre of the “found footage” film.  1999’s The Blair Witch Project saw directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez perform an Orson Welles and deliver their greatest piece of cinematic craftsmanship straight out of the starting blocks.  Such was the critical and financial reward of the film that it received the wholly unnecessary sequel but also gave rise to a flood of found footage films good, bad and indifferent like The Last Broadcast, Cloverfield and most recently Chronicle.

Sevé Schelenz’s supernatural road trip found footage film Skew comes with no less than 40 major festival screenings and awards setting it’s stall out somewhere between The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense.  Three friends take to the road to see all the sites that the U.S of A have to offer, documenting the trip all the way through the lens of Rich’s (Richard Olak) camera.  The trip takes on a sinister feel when they discover that people they have been encountering on the way across country have mysteriously died or have been murdered leading them to wonder what’s doing this and when will it come for them?

One of the biggest challenges with the found footage film is that of the conveyance of the message.  The conventional films format has many devices deeply embedded into his tradition that helps the director clarify ambiguity.  The flashback, the narrator, the promiscuous camera are all tried and tested techniques that are prominent in classical narrative cinema and are all off limits for the found footage director.  Once set out as a found footage film there are rather strict expectations and restrictions, which I will touch on shortly, with the onus on the director arguably more than ever.  Schelenz’s vision of the story, which he also wrote, is for the most part as clear as can be.  He’s obviously storyboarded and walked through the shots that will comprise each scene, each chapter, and each arc until the film is complete and has given direction in a way that encourages a naturalistic representation on screen that immediately puts the audience at ease with the actors who have become characters who become “real” once again with the on-looking audience.  What’s as important, with the found footage film, as what’s on screen is what’s not.  There needs to be moments were time elapses were the characters are ahead of the audience in regards to knowledge.  This creates the mystery, it allows for the audience to project their fears and worries on to the gaps in the narrative.  Crucially there are very few moments when the audiences knowledge can be accepted as greater than that of the protagonists on screen (other than the fact that the footage has been found so we have an idea of their fate) as we are watching in real time what played out for them in real time (this too will be covered shortly). 

The marriage between road movie and horror is one that works well, both genres contain central characters that seemingly don’t fit completely into society thus sending them out on to the plains or killing spree depending on the genre.  They also have clearly defined expectations that can, at times, work against each others sympathies.  On this occasion they don’t as the use of visual effects is wonderfully stylish and sparing; the murky rippling manifestations in camera are genuinely unsettling and sit so naturally in the film that it doesn’t clash with the natural aesthetic of the film.  It’s a skilful mesh of two contradictory styles as you’re likely to see, think Hideo Nakata's Ring.

The three central characters are all first class, there’s a danger in the found footage film for a level of theatricality to set into the performances around the same time that you start to wonder “why are you still filming this just stop it and run” or whatever the survival narrative calls for but this rarely happens in Skew.  This is partly due to the fact that Schelenz has worked it into the narrative that the camera is faulty and therefore you can’t always tell when it’s recording, which is as interesting as it is eerie but is also thanks to the actors’ delivery of the dialogue and their naturalistic interactions with one another.  Rob Scattergood (as Simon) is perfectly cast; he carries a lot of the narrative and drives the film in the Alpha position that’s required when it’s a film about “what happened”.  His relationship with Lewis (Eva) demonstrates a measured and assured performance while his interactions with Rich point to a recently strained friendship and is a strong offering.  Amber Lewis carries the emotional core of the film and does so extremely well; her conflict is never overly exposed through the dialogue but is evident in her gestures and moments of stillness that is very satisfying to watch.  Richard Olak spends most of the time behind the camera and is very much the voice and the direction of the film.  He has the thankless task of driving the narrative, most of the exposition and unless done right will go largely unnoticed.  It’s a real triumph that throughout the course of the film there’s no moments that make you wonder why…why not just stop.

For all the good things about Skew and there are many there are some issues that are critical to the film and throughout the course of the review have been sign posted for discussion.  The biggest problem is the films betrayal of it’s own conventions within the genre.  The found footage have one of two directions they can take.  It’s either a straight up found footage that “look what we just found by the side of the road, let’s watch” ala The Blair Witch Project in which it’s presented as found and therefore unedited or it’s a pseudo documentary that’s been built around the bones of found footage like The Last BroadcastSkew sets its stall out as the former only to break the codes and conventions of the unedited found footage film whenever it needs to convey a message or cover some exposition.  Without giving too much away there are a handful of occurrences were the tape is stopped and rewound for a second look.  In the unedited found footage film this would be moments of lost time which we discover, if at all, through conversation but in Skew we see them.  Now they are affective and help the narrative greatly but they are the equivalent of the General Custer’s biopic featuring the Cavalry phoning for help on their iPhones.  These moments need to be conveyed in non visual ways in the unedited found footage film, similarly there’s a moment when the footage cuts from Rich’s camera to a surveillance camera in a Police station.  Again this does help further the narrative but is a breach of the conventions of this particular type of found footage film and separates the audience from the film as it jars with our understanding of the films reality.  It's particularly annoying as there are other ways in which these moments can be relayed to the audience.  Both these occurrences would be find in the ‘presentational’ world of the documentary found footage film but this is not that and unfortunately it hinders the film more than it could ever assist the narrative.

Skew is an accomplished and atmospheric piece of film making, it’s a indicator that Sevé Schelenz has a future in features and what’s important now is to build on the successes that Skew has to offer.  What it does well in the film it does incredibly well but the use of in-camera flashbacks (rewinding) and promiscuous cinematography (the Police surveillance footage) hints at ambiguity in the narrative that could be clarified without betraying the genre which it firmly sets out to be but for some reason has gone the other way.  It's a shame as it stops the film from being better than it could be.
















Skew is available on Netflix in the United States and on DVD in Germany from May 2012.  It will also premiere on the Horror Channel in the UK in the middle of 2012 and in Russia in late 2012.

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