These days, it seems like you can’t spit without hitting a found-footage horror film. The odds of hitting a good one (or even a truly great one) are much, MUCH slimmer, but because they are cheap to make and they usually rake in the dough, Hollywood (not to mention all those young up and coming horror directors out there who are desperate to make a name for themselves) continues to crank them out one after another. The latest film to take advantage of this seemingly never-ending trend is Area 407 (2012), directed by Dale Fabrigar and Everette Wallin, and recently picked up for distribution by IFC Films. While the film is not terrible, it unfortunately fails to plant itself firmly in that category of good…er, spat-upon found footage films I mentioned earlier (okay, in hindsight, I probably could have picked a better descriptor, but I’m committed now, so this is what we’re left with).
Area 407 begins with two teenage sisters boarding a plane on New Year’s Eve. The younger sister, Trish (Abigail Schrader), is chatty and excitable, and she is determined to film every moment of their trip from New York to Los Angeles. The other sister, Jess (Samantha Lester) is afraid of flying, and just wants it to be over as soon as possible. As the plane sits on the tarmac and waits for clearance, we are introduced to the rest of the nameless fodder, er, I mean, the other passengers. There is Charlie (Brendan Patrick Connor), a belligerent alcoholic who also happens to be fat and bald; Tom (Ken Garcia) and his lovely wife, who never gets a name; Laura (Melanie Lyons), an attractive Aussie lass who at first appears to be totally anonymous, but is obviously hiding something; next to her is Jimmy (James Lyons), a dreamy photographer who seems to enjoy flirting with underage girls; and finally there is Lois (Samantha Sloyan), the put-upon flight attendant who has to slap on a smile and put up with these mostly annoying people for the next few hours. As midnight approaches, Lois passes out party favors to the passengers, so they can celebrate the coming of the new year in style (that style being whatever the flight crew was able to pick up from the local party store right before taking off). But before the party can even get under way, the plane hits some serious turbulence, and almost immediately the engines cut out and the plane plummets out of the sky. It crash lands in the middle of nowhere, and only a handful of passengers (oddly enough, all them being the folks we met earlier in the film) managed to survive. They wait around for help, but after an hour it becomes obvious that none is coming. To make matters worse, there is something lurking in the darkness that surrounds our heroes, and as the terrible night wears on, the survivors soon realize that they are being hunted by a creature or creatures that will not rest until every last one of them is dead.
It’s very difficult to talk about this film without spoiling it, but I’m going to do my best. However, you might want to skip this paragraph, as it gives away a very specific plot point that may or may not hamper your enjoyment of the film (of course, the trailer for the movie pretty much gives it away, so I don’t think it’s all that big of a secret, really). Anyway, this is your last chance to turn away or skip ahead, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Area 407 is best described as Lost meets Paranormal Activity by way of Jurassic Park. It really feels like the filmmakers have gone out of their way to crib from some of the most prevalent and omnipresent pop cultural reference points of the last few years (or decades, in the case of that last one) in order to craft a movie that would appeal to a very wide audience. In many ways, it feels as though the film were made by a committee that was ticking off boxes when they were coming up with the central idea, and it never truly rises above feeling like a prefabricated pop cultural phenomenon that arrived stillborn. The ending of the film really drives home the point that everyone involved wasn’t so much interested in making a film as they were attempting to craft an entirely new franchise they could continue to milk for years to come. It remains to be seen whether or not they were successful, but I will say that I would not be opposed to seeing a second entry in this series, provided it were more polished than the first. Ultimately, while Area 407 falls somewhat short of being a truly good movie, it nevertheless manages to be interesting and absorbing enough on its own to justify giving it a look.
The film’s biggest problem is that the premise is better suited to a 20 or 30 minute short film. At that running time, it would have been a tight, engrossing, and propulsive little thriller that would have managed to suck the viewer in, and leave them breathless and wanting more by the time the credits rolled. Stretched out to 90 minutes, however, the film quickly becomes tedious, and the seams really begin to show. This is really too bad, because the premise is quite strong and somewhat interesting, and the actors are all quite capable of delivering solid performances. Unfortunately, they were all saddled with the task of stretching the film out to a feature-length running time, and were not able to actually propel the premise along. Remove about an hour from this film, you’ve got something special on your hands, a 25 minute film that races along at a breathless pace, and leaves the viewer feeling exhilarated and excited for whatever the duo responsible has in store next. As it stands, we’re stuck with a rather middling full length feature that plods along, and only occasionally allows a fresh and exciting moment to shine through.
The film is helmed by a pair of first timers, and according to IMDb, the film was shot in five days and entirely ad-libbed by the actors. It really shows. There are long stretches where nothing happens, and the viewer is subjected to a lot of arguing and yelling, none of which really helps us know these characters any better. It would help if the directors were able to build any sort of tension, but they don’t, so these scenes just sort of drag on and on until boredom eventually sets in. It doesn’t help that we spend the bulk of the running time on the plane, where nothing truly interesting happens. I understand this is when we’re supposed to be getting to know these characters and develop some sort of attachment to them, so that their eventual deaths have some meaning, but since we never really get a sense of any of them (with the possible exception of Jimmy) it just ends up feeling like a lot of wasted time. There is a lot of stuff that feels like it should have been left on the cutting room floor, but was left in just so they could stretch the movie out to a 90 minute feature. That’s a shame, because as I said, there is a killer short film hiding somewhere in all that unnecessary padding.
The other problem is that the directors don’t really seem to know how to properly use the found footage technique. I know the gimmick is really overused these days, and a lot of people are tired of it, but when done right, found footage horror films can be really effective and scary. It adds a sort of naturalistic tone to the proceedings, because while the audience knows it is just a gimmick, it still manages to put us right into the film along with the protagonists. This has the effect of generating a more oppressive tone, which in turn leads to more effective scares. Again, there aren’t a lot of films that are able to actually achieve this, but every now and then, a film comes along that is able to justify the found footage aesthetic. Unfortunately, Area 407 is not one of those films. It just sort of limps along, and it never really feels natural or effective precisely because of the way the directors use the found footage technique. Rather than making it feel like the camera is being used for a plausible reason within the world of the film, they instead make it feel like an intrusion, and the artificiality of the whole conceit becomes obvious throughout. They keep the camera focused on the actors at nearly all times, even when they are searching for something that made a noise in the darkness. This only serves to break the illusion, since any normal person would be shining the camera’s light into the darkness in order to aid in their search, and illuminate whatever it is that is they are looking for. Obviously, they are trying to hide the fact that there is nothing out there, at least nothing that they had the budget to create, but in doing so, they only served to undermine the entire film. Again, it’s a shame, because there is some good stuff here, and it would have been better if only the directors had been adept at using the very technique they were trying to exploit.
If it were about an hour shorter, or if the folks behind the camera were more competent at employing found footage techniques, Area 407 could have brought a fresh new spin to what is quickly becoming a very tired subgenre. Instead, it just sort of shines a light on the problems of the found footage aesthetic as a whole (which is sort of funny, since the film itself keeps the light shined on the actors nearly all of the time), and leaves the viewer bored and simultaneously wanting more. It will be interesting to see if IFC Films can spin this into some sort of franchise, but I would hope that whoever oversees the second entry would do their best not to make the same mistakes as those made by the people responsible for the first.
Final Rating: 4.5/10
CBR Break Down:
How it was viewed: Screener DVD
Running time: 90 mins
Starring: Abigail Schrader as Trish, Samantha Lester as Jessie, James Lyons as Jimmy, Melanie Lyons as Laura Hawkins, Brendan Patrick Connor as Charlie, Ken Garcia as Tom, Samantha Sloyan as Lois
Directed by: Dale Fabrigar and Everette Wallin
Recommend viewing: Netflix instant
Why you should see it: Because you’re bored and you really love found footage horror films, and you can’t be bothered to check out any of the other myriad films that are available through Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Red Box
Why you shouldn’t see it: Because it’s a bit of a slog that overstays its welcome, and it doesn’t really do anything new or interesting with the found footage conceit.