There’s a story that film-theory types love to tell, about the time that the Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir went to a movie with Niels Bohr. Casimir was one of Bohr’s grad students in the late ’20s and early ’30s; the movie they’d gone to see was a silent Western starring Tom Mix. As Casimir tells it in his memoir, Haphazard Reality: Half A Century Of Science, upon exiting the theater, Bohr turned to him and said: “That the scoundrel runs off with the beautiful girl is logical; it always happens. That the bridge collapses under their carriage is unlikely, but I am willing to accept it. That the heroine remains suspended in mid-air over a precipice is even more unlikely, but again I accept it. I am even willing to accept that, at that very moment, Tom Mix is coming by on his horse. But that at that very moment there should also be a fellow with a motion-picture camera to film the whole business—that is more than I am willing to believe.”
Found-footage narratives face this sort of incredulity all the time. Viewers will readily accept monsters, but the idea that someone would keep filming while evading said monsters—well, that’s taking it too far.
Faking footage is trickier than the literary first person; unlike a narrator, a camera can only record what’s in front of it at the moment. Things only get more complicated when factoring in the key element that distinguishes found-footage movies from mockumentaries: The idea that the film represents an unedited tape or file, and cuts are the result of someone pressing the “record” button on and off. In found-footage, style and structure are in-character; everything has to be motivated or at least excused.
The best thing that can be said about Sx_Tape—an ineffectual found-footage cheapie helmed by Bernard Rose, director of Candyman, Immortal Beloved, and five middling Tolstoy adaptations—is that it creates a motivation for the camera that’s completely in line with the specific fear it’s trying (unsuccessfully) to invoke. Its point-of-view character, the largely unseen Adam (Ian Duncan), spends most of the movie pointing the camera at his artist girlfriend, Jill (Caitlyn Folley). At first, she plays the sexually insatiable dream girl for Adam, working on watercolor nudes in her studio, blowing him in a changing room, standing naked in front of a floor-to-ceiling window. Then, the two break into an abandoned, haunted women’s hospital, and Adam follows Jill as she investigates the building’s past, unaware that his girlfriend has become possessed by a vengeful ghost. Throughout, the camera’s motivation remains the same: It’s a fascination with the feminine unknown, a male anxiety that views women as psychologically impenetrable and therefore irrational.
For found-footage horror, the movie offers nothing new: All but one of the segments in the found-footage anthology V/H/S revolve around dangerous and unpredictable women, who also figure prominently in both The Last Exorcism and The Devil Inside. The genre apparently lends itself to a certain strain of gynophobia.
And it’s not as though Sx_Tape does gynophobic horror well. It’s a bad movie, the kind that presents itself with countless opportunities to create suspense or dread and wastes them. Jill’s possession, for instance, occurs away from Adam, but in full view of the camera, which he has conveniently left on. Giving the viewer an early advantage over the behind-the-camera character could help create tension—except that the rest of the film is structured as though Jill’s possession were a mystery, dropping hints and ending with the unsurprising revelation that, yes, she in fact was possessed. Adam’s camera sensor goes haywire around supernatural entities, in the manner of Silent Hill’s transistor radio; like Jill’s on-camera possession, this could be a tension-building device in the right hands. In Rose’s hands, however, it simply means that whenever Adam encounters the ghost (Julie Marcus) haunting the abandoned Vergerus Institute, the screen gets covered by blotches of green.
Yet, despite its incompetence, Sx_Tape has enough self-awareness to make the viewer wish that it were a better film. Folley’s profoundly unenthusiastic delivery of lines like “Get over here and put your dick in me” might just be bad acting, but it works as a foreshadowing of things to come. The name “Vergerus” comes from director Ingmar Bergman (a chance for Rose to assert his upper-middlebrow cred), who used it for characters associated with rationalism or repression. Adam accepts blatant signs of possession as mood swings. Just to up the psychosexual ante, two of Jill’s friends arrive, including a macho guy (Chris Coy) who intimidates Adam by waving around a very phallic gun.
Sx_Tape is half-clever in identifying and presenting horror tropes as male insecurities. What it can’t seem to figure out is how to either subvert them or turn them into a source of fear. However self-aware and consistent, a bad found-footage flick is still just a bad found-footage flick.