This season has been great for opening sequences. Tonight’s is a killer: Sam and Dean stumble into a house whose walls are decorated in contemporary American splatter. There are the remains of a couple of bodies on the floor, Milo Greene’s morosely dreamy “What’s The Matter” is hanging in the air, and there’s a laptop with a message attached: “PLAY ME.” Dean switches it on, and the epitaph, “This should have never ended this way” flashes on the screen. And then the homemade video images on the laptop fill the TV screen, and with them comes the realization, accompanied by a sinking feeling, that this is the Supernatural found-footage episode.
The show has been this way before, in a way, with the third-season episode “Ghostfacers.” In that one, Sam and Dean stumble into the story, and camera shot, of some idiots who are trying to make a no-budget version of a Ghost Hunters-like TV series. That episode had some freshness to it, but only some, since it basically lifted its gimmick from “X-Cops,” a classic episode of The X-Files in which Mulder and Scully crossed paths with a camera crew shooting Fox’s other big ‘90s law-enforcement hit. But it was still fun seeing Sam and Dean reacting to these cretins who had invaded their turf, and it made the joke a bit richer that the cretins thought they were the ones whose turf was being invaded, and were proving it by dictating the camera’s point of view.
Here, Sam and Dean are literally on the periphery of the action for most of the episode. In the foreground, there’s a sort of college-age triangle: Brian, the intelligent, geeky kid who’s more comfortable filming his life than living it; his buddy, Michael, the more socially adept, charming dude; and Kate, a cute blonde whom Michael picks up in a café. Kate and Michael hit it off immediately, and are so deeply into each other that neither registers that Brian is giving them hurt, resentful looks, of the kind that telegraph that he’s in love with her himself. Fake found-footage is a tricky form to pull off, partly because there’s information that, for the sake of the plot, needs to be imparted visually, and it has to seem to be attracting the camera’s interest naturally and effortlessly if the illusion is to be maintained. Brian is not the most self-aware of guys, so I don’t guess it wrecks anything that he would repeatedly film himself with an emotion he wants to keep secret written all over his face. It’s a different story when he’s in a classroom filming his teacher—who, for the purposes of symbolism, is lecturing on Lord Of The Flies—and the camera zooms in on the pin the man is wearing, in a way that loudly signals that this will be important later.
When the found-footage gimmick was fresh, it could give filmmakers a way to deliver maximum scares with a minimum of means. (Remember Heather Donahue running through the woods, looking off-camera and screaming, “What is that? What the fuck is that!?”) Low-budget hucksters have been insisting for decades that what you don’t see is so much scarier than anything they could show you with fancy-shmancy special effects, but I could count on the fingers of one mangled hand how many movies since Val Lewton’s day have convincingly made good on that claim, and The Blair Witch Project is one of them. Thirteen years later, though, a found-footage horror story really needs both fresh content and a reason that it has be told this way. For most of its running time, the current omnibus horror movie V/H/S fails to come up with that, and so did The River. The story in “Bitten” is about Michael becoming a werewolf and Brian becoming jealous of his new physical strength, in addition to his girlfriend, and deciding to get superpowers himself, so they can hash it out on a level playing field. (Cornering the werewolf and demanding to be bitten, he yells, “I’m sick of being Piggy! I want to be Ralph!”) It’s a serviceable enough plot idea. But it's also a lot like the story of last winter’s Chronicle, one of the better found-footage movies of recent vintage.
With the whiff of something secondhand so strong in the room, the brief glimpses of Sam and Dean feel more important than ever, and the show has some fun by allowing us to see them through the students’ eyes. “Is it just me,” says Michael, as he and Brian are observing the brothers in FBI-agent mode, “or are you getting a workplace romance vibe between those two?” (Later, Kate deduces that the Winchesters are imposters, because “I’m pretty sure FBI agents don’t say ‘awesome’ that much.”) But mostly, this episode is an inadvertent tribute to how important Sam and Dean are to this show, and how badly missed they are when they disappear from the center ring for any length of time. At the end, there’s a moment when the two of them are taking in what they’ve just seen; it’s obvious that the conclusion to the laptop video is meant to be terribly moving, and it’s sort of embarrassing, because the feeling just isn’t there. But then Jensen Ackles says “Mmm-hmm” in a way that conveys some mysterious depth of emotion that he’s too reticent to want to convey, and then he does it again. His reaction counts for more than any of what he’s reacting to.
- Dean, tucking into a couple of hamburgers: "Clear eyes, clogged arteries: Can't lose!"