There must be an army of like minded horror fans out there who are all too keen to rally around the found footage format and defend it to the hilt. Not for what the genre is though. Sure it's offered some fantastic movies unto the altar of horror (Cloverfield, Rec. and the criminally underseen The Bay spring to mind) and, even delivered the truly seminal The Blair Witch Project. However those warriors of the FFF (Found Footage Format, don’t you know) willingly bear the brunt of so much scorn instead for what we know the format could be. We see so much more potential in the genre than the handful of excellent pieces it's produced so far.
And we know it's capable of delivering the goods at least a few more times because of how close some of its recent efforts have come to greatness. Take The Last Exorcism for example: an absolutely fantastic film that completely fluffs it at the last moment, not quite dropping the beautiful cake it's made but certainly putting a cover deceptively too small for it on for transportation, only to peel an irritatingly small amount of icing off it when it reaches its final destination. So irritatingly small that you almost wish that it had just slid off the table and you’d just accidentally drop kicked the thing out of the window and into the face of the neighbour’s annoying cat. And when I say into, I mean into the face of the cat.
At least you’d have the satisfaction of a completely FUBAR’d situation, there’s almost less comfort in coming so close to success.
And it's in this same camp that sadly Muirhouse must fall.
This is by no means a complete foul up of a movie though, but it doesn’t quite flirt with the greatness that The Last Exorcism does.
The premise is charmingly gimmicky while also having some really interesting elements along for the ride. This Australian film, Muirhouse, is actually filmed within Australia’s most haunted house. The story surrounds paranormal author Philip Muirhouse and his filming of an accompanying documentary for inclusion in his new book, The Dead Country. To be fair this gives more reason for having the footage filmed than most FFF films. Due to Australia’s vastness (a factor that is nicely emphasised early on for audiences, who wouldn’t normally need to take such considerations into account, but never thickly hammered in) he’s due to arrive over an hour earlier than his filming cohorts and is left all alone for that time in the house.
To be fair again, this is pretty much where the story stops. It's a real Blair Witch affair and not in a particularly good way. In fact, people who had issues with the abruptness of that seminal film’s plot will tear their hair out with this film’s finale.
It starts fantastically, with Phillip Muirhouse (Iain P.F. McDonald) staggering out of a field with nothing but his top off and a hammer in his hand, stumbling into the view of a cop car’s dash cam and almost absentmindedly attacking the police officer detaining an already in-view subject. We’re then told the following footage explains how Philip Muirhouse ends up in this state that we first see him in a field.
From there, we get an authentically televisual, low-ish rent and lengthy segment on the art of paranormal research. That lengthiness is no bad thing however, as clearly a lot of research has gone into how actual paranormal investigators work and we’re treated to some eery rules of operation when it comes to encountering the spirit world.
It's during this segment that we learn how the movie is going to work. It's basically one of those paranormal shows on Living TV (if Living TV still existed) but done very well. In fact, it preys upon your knowledge of these shows, wisely realising that a horror fan is familiar with them, especially if that horror fan has been drawn into the film due to the aforementioned setting.
We’re treated to a series of simple and effective images, slowly zooming in, all in spooky places like graveyards, some of which have been clearly tampered with and others which possibly haven't. It's here where the film immediately buys its credibility - these images are fantastically done and greatly resemble real life images that supposedly reveal real spirits. Some don’t appear to have been tampered with but seem to be quite interestingly done light art photography. Either way, it's so well set up that we end up looking for and obviously seeing faces and phantoms in all the images.
Not only are we treated to some lovely images but the light art photography really buys the credibility early on, as anyone with a passing interest in the paranormal will have seen light/orb photography very similar many, many times before. Add to this the fact that ghostly faces are often hidden in places within the photos that you don’t expect them and, before you know it, you’re engrossed in a highly enjoyable game of ‘spot the ghoulie’.
And it's from here the film takes its blueprint and runs with it. Muirhouse enters the Monte Christo homestead and, with this, we’re treated to explanations of the awful happenings that took place at the home. It's a fine piece of paranormal history at points but, if we’re going to slip into docu-fiction, then let's at least be furnished with the full facts instead of leaving some events vague and others are fully reported. Even if it's just for consistency's sake, at least say there’s no other records of a particular atrocity.
Again, it's a case of a lengthy setup that works in its own right. It's one of the best uses of a gimmick I’ve ever seen in a film. Have the protagonist need to spend the evening in the place, have the protagonist talk about the real history and weirdness of the place and therefore have the viewer taken fully into the world. There’s no better example of fiction blurring the lines between reality and this combined with the FFF really shows the genre off at its best. The documentary-like opening stages of our time at Monte Carlo are incredibly creepy.
Are these set dressings or is it how the house was actually left? It's difficult to tell during the film it's so well done. The DVD extras, not to ruin the suspense, do confirm to you that the fixtures and room layouts are the same as they are in reality. In fact, it would be worth watching the extra of the genuine Australian paranormal TV show centre around Monte Christo first, to give yourself an extra scare.
As Muirhouse starts to spend more time in the house, he begins to see weirder and weirder things, and it's really nice to see an FFF indie that’s proud to be a proper old fashioned ghost story. This is a film in which things literally go bump in the night.
As mentioned, we follow the learned template of a film-as-a-game concept from previously as the story progresses. As Muirhouse moves from one room to the next, then back to previous ones, the viewing experience becomes a creepy and hugely enjoyable game of spot the difference. “Was that cupboard closed before?” “Were the chairs on that table?” It's simplistic, yes, but above all a horror fan should be the first to recognise that the simple things are often the finest to savour in life.
Unfortunately at this point the plot, like the titular character, begins to stagger around in the dark looking for a way out of its situation. There are some effective chills and genuine scares that slowly diminish when you realise this isn’t going anywhere. After a certain point it seems like time is just being filled up until the end, which is a real shame in a film that’s shown so much promise and given a fine and heady brew of creeps and shocks so far.
Then comes the final falter, the same thing that hurt The Last Exorcism so badly - the story has no idea how to end, so it simply stops. There is honestly nothing more irritating than a film that’s been doing so well in a genre you’ve loved, despite its critics, suddenly faltering at the final hurdle.
What's worse here is that the ending has already be written, indeed filmed - we already saw the ending at the start. And oddly we never reach that point. The finale is very good but it would have been better if the film had not telegraphed the story’s resolution, leading us to believe something was to follow it. Yes, it's all very scary but Muirhouse signalled early on that we should be expecting the finale when Muirhouse (the character) either gets his top off, grabs a hammer, or does both. And yet he never does. There’s a hanging space, a void between the film’s ending and the actual story’s ending.
For the most part Muirhouse is a very, very good Australian film, one that scratches at the perch of The Last Exorcism and is, in many ways, similar to it. The ending is a resounding “huh?” but for the most part this is a very good found footage format movie. Muirhouse will keep your hopes alive that the genre still has something great to offer up yet.
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