A deceptively quiet, casual, brief picture – 75 minutes – which is a rare instance of actual found footage used in a fictional context. Writer-director Paul Owens makes use of family home movies – in which he and his brothers can be seen as children – and the actual family home as a location, but skews things with a fantastical premise and a many intimations of eeriness, ambiguity and buried secrets. It’s of a piece with such recent essay horrors as we’re all going to the world’s fair and Skinamarink, but some aspects are reminiscent of over-the-radar edgy genre higlights Primer and Lake Mungo.
The viewpoint character is Mason (Mason Owens), the most thoughtful of a trio of brothers (Paul and Seth Owens), who has to spend a few days clearing out the house where he grew up – which his father Jeff (Jeff Owens) oddly arranged to be demolished one year after his death rather than let his sons inherit. He also left a classic car that’s been rusting in the open for ten years and boxes and boxes of videotapes and associated equipment. A visitor, a woman who lived in the house before the Owenses moved in, pays a last call on the place, and alerts Mason to a cupboard he’s never been aware of, in which he finds another stash of stuff. Later, he notices his brother Paul going to surprising lengths to put a vintage video camera in the trash – surely, it’d be worth something on an auction site. Mason retrieves the camera and discovers its strange properties – if the date setting is adjusted, it serves as a window into the past so he can tune it to a Christmas in the 1990s and get a different angle on a slice of his childhood … but he can also tune it to an hour ago and see how come a red video cassette has disappeared while he was out of the room.
It’s elliptical storytelling, with a quite disturbing apparition (a burned-out human figure) and hints of dark things happening in the house (family secrets his brothers share that Mason has been shut out of). It’s the sort of film that works hard to seem unscripted, but not in the gabble-out-panicky-improv-and-swear-a-lot manner of many found footage horrors – people mutter and mumble and half-say things in a way that feels utterly authentic but which kicks some viewers out of the film. Mason Owens carries the whole thing with very little to say, and he’s an awkward, angular presence – scratching at the magic he’s stumbled over (none of that debate about a paraphenomenon found in, say, Incredible But True) but more interested by what he can see using the miracle than the process itself. Of course, no conclusions are forthcoming – just hints and echoes and questions.
Anyone who’s had to clear out a family home will understand exactly the cocktail of emotions it entails – there doesn’t even have to be a terrible secret (for what it’s worth, when I did the same for my parents’ house I found a gun – and a story’s attached to that) for the mix of nostalgia and regret and connection to place and people to be affecting. All houses – all families – are haunted like this, and Paul Owens’ use of footage that is obviously personal to his family connects to universal memories. For something so small, this is likely to be a keeper – it’s a memorable film about memory.