Given its reliance on effect to keep its audience satisfied, the genre that probably has the most in common with reality TV is horror.
As early in cinema history as Conrad Veidt staring-down the viewer in Dr. Caligari, scary movies have never had a problem with taking a brain-flecked sledgehammer to the fourth wall. At the same time, the horror film’s exploitation of its audience’s latent voyeurism means that it’s always going to occupy a ghetto roughly adjacent to its hidden camera cousin. Invariably, fans of both want it cheap, they want it anonymous—relatively well-known faces but no stars—and above all they want it messy.
This is something that both film and TV producers cottoned on to quickly, and in the last decade or so we’ve seen any number of crossovers, from Halloween: Resurrection to Ghost Hunters. To be fair, none of these have exactly set the world on fire, presenting as they do the very image of form over content. However, very few can have been as bad as Reality Kills (aka The Burningmoore Incident).
Taking the form of a faux true crime documentary, the film centres around James Parrish, a family man who, five years before the ‘show’ in question, murdered his wife and children before seemingly disappearing into the aether. Via a series of interviews, we learn of his apparent lack of motive other than an obsession with Greek mythology—something that, prior to the killings, had found its most obvious expression in the word Moros tattooed on the back of his head.
With the background exposition safely out of the way, the action moves to the property in Queens, where the original murders took place. It’s been standing derelict for five years, giving a TV company the opportunity to move in and film an episode of their home makeover show Gettin’ Hammered. This, rather inevitably, turns out to be a mistake. James is still sniffing around—and as a local creepy homeless guy says, it’s never stopped being his house.
There are two of massive and linked flaws in Reality Kills. The most apparent problem is that beyond a vague god complex, we never learn enough about James Parrish to make him interesting as a villain.
Director Jonathan Williams has said that when it comes to horror, what fascinates him is when ‘real people’ do bad things out of the blue, which is fair enough. The x-factor that makes his obviously-favourite films so compelling though is the way they poke around in their monsters’ respective psyches. In Reality Kills, Parrish stands in direct contrast to Hannibal Lecter and John Doe—characters of such psychological depth the audience actually struggles not to empathise with them. (It doesn’t help that Parrish—inexplicably played by Geoff Tate out of Queensryche—is generally shown via camera shots so long or grainy you can barely even tell that it’s him).
The lack of meaningful context in relation to the murderer is reflected elsewhere. The pre-credit warning to the audience is clearly a nod to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the next scene—a couple murdered while about to go at it in the abandoned house—a less than deft pastiche of Friday the 13th. By the massacre at the end meanwhile, you’re looking at an awkward cross between The Toolbox Murders and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In other words, rather than building a convincing narrative, the movie attempts to fly held together with little more than a string of arbitrary references.
The dangers of this approach are obvious. Parrish notwithstanding, it’s difficult to feel much for any of the characters, given that none of the victims are any less of a cipher than he is. This in turn inevitably has a knock-on effect on its success as a horror film, because if you don’t care about the people on screen at all, it’s difficult to feel that much dread at the prospect of their not-nearly-bloody-enough demise.
Reality Kills is pretty much terrible, which, given how interesting it could have been is rather a pity. With a bit more imagination, the reference to doom deity Moros could easily have been something through which to look at, say, Nietzschean self-determination in a godless universe. This is no Manhunter or Natural Born Killers though, and here it’s merely a convenient device, deployed for want of a proper back-story.
There’s also a missed opportunity in the way it could have explored narrative. The ‘found footage’ conceit has worked particularly well in helping to explore different ways of looking at genre, most recently in End of Watch. In Reality Kills’ attempt to collapse horror into lifestyle TV, maybe we could have seen the house itself pushing back against attempts to give it a makeover. That, if nothing else, would have been fun.
Ultimately, the greatest shame is probably that such obvious enthusiasm for the genre has gone into making something of so little value. A quick look on IMDB suggests that there are no plans to make a follow-up, with Jonathan Williams now seemingly sticking to the TV work where he made his name. Viewers of Reality Kills will probably react with a mixture of mild relief alongside a complete lack of surprise. Purchasers of this disc meanwhile—not to be confused with the 2002 slasher movie of the same name—will be dismayed that there are no special features at all.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article