Film Review: REEL

The rise of user-created content on sites such as YouTube and Vimeo has created new paradigms for aspiring filmmakers and content creators.  The film REEL takes some of these to heart, and while problematic in spots, actually makes them work for the film in others.  It creates an experience that, while suffering from a lack of direction, shows promise in what the filmmaker can produce in the future.

The victim of our tale...
The victim of our tale…

Directed and written by Chris Goodwin, the conceit of the movie is the killer, known as slashervictim666, is making a film detailing the life and story of one of their victims, Todd Smith (played by Mike Estes).  Todd is a horror movie fan whose story is told by clips from his vlogs posted on YouTube.  He is a vlogger of the first generation from that site:  His entries are unedited and full of personal details further content creators are loath to bring up about themselves.  The primary subjects of his entries are twofold.  He focuses mainly on the strained relationship between him and his family, especially his brother.  There is also an aside about his attempt and failure to create an indie horror film known as Cannibal Kitchen.  A short amount of time is taken for the narrator to describe his family, a twisted family of killers who film their victims.  Their strange tale of incest and murder is put in almost as an aside, as if the entire entry should be prefaced with an “oh, by the way…”  Todd is on a crusade to prove the infidelity of his brother’s wife, which draws him into the trap for the gruesome finale.

The film seems mostly improvised, and this largely works in the film’s favor.  Todd is not a well-spoken protagonist.  He falls over his words occasionally, and is prone to throwing out insults that make no sense or are as mean to himself as the person he’s insulting.  His acting in his film-within-a-film is off the wall.  However, it lends an air of believability to his character you don’t often see in these films.  He comes off as one of any number of actual vloggers on countless sites.  It was a rare time I saw a twenty something guy in a film that actually resembles the twenty something guys I knew when I was younger.  I applaud for Mr. Estes for his authenticity.

Scenes consist of Todd’s and the killer’s recordings.

Where this improvisational style breaks down is the big finish.  The film culminates in an intense, long (about 15 min by my count) torture/murder scene by the killer documentarian and his friends.  It is this scene where the improvisational nature is most obvious.  The killers taunt and make jokes throughout the process, and the effect is jarring.  Maybe it’s prejudices built up by years of watching genre films, but the killers did not seem like the serial murderers I was led to expect.  It felt like the worst fraternity hazing prank devised.  I was half expecting the police to raid the scene, only to be met with cries of “It was just a prank, bro!”  The entire scene was advertised to me as possibly too intense, and it certainly was a masterpiece of practical effects, but the dialog pulled me out of any fear I might have experienced.  Next time, keep it simple and quiet, boys.

My only other issue is with a little fat in the script that should be cut.  For people looking for a little blood and guts or to see the spectacle advertised, you’re going to have to wait.  You are going to wait a good while.  Some of what you see is important to explain the character and the trap he falls into.  The conflict with his brother is what really drives the story, and Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Estes do a fine job of conveying even subtle details of that relationship.  However, the Cannibal Kitchen thread goes nowhere.  It seems to serve no purpose to the story, other than to reaffirm Todd Smith’s love of the horror genre, or perhaps show his ironic need to be famous.  However, it’s not necessary to the story being told.  Todd’s obsessive desire to share every detail of his life is proof enough of his desire to become famous.  On the other hand, the story of Slashervictim666’s family is told mostly through text on screen.  I wanted more of what is happening with them.  I wanted to know why the killer picked Todd specifically.  What was up with the footage at the beginning of the film?  The Director’s eye should shift focus a little away from Todd, and to this mysterious killer.

All in all, it is an innovative attempt at doing something fresh with the genre, a sort of Tony and Tina’s Wedding for the horror crowd.  The improv work just plays better with the character who’s supposed to be an ordinary guy.  That’s not to say that there isn’t promise in this work, as Mr. Goodwin does some interesting things with the found footage narrative, and some of the problems are more his inexperience with the format than any flaw in his style.  As it stands, you shouldn’t regret giving it a look, just don’t feel like you’re missing anything vital if you get up in the middle to grab a snack or use the restroom.

*** /*****

Film can be streamed for free at the Hidden Horizons site.